In an age of great change, there was world-transforming power in the early Quaker movement; in our day the need for God’s in-breaking is at least as great. People all over the planet now have been waking up to the inward presence of God, of Christ, of the Light, and becoming aware of God’s desire to work through us and our communities.
Many readers of previous posts about the first three elements of the Quaker spiritual journey (Longing, Seeking, and Turning Within) wrote that they felt a resonance with the story of the first Quakers and could identify some of these elements in their own journey. Several readers, however, explained that their sense of awakening was different. A few have been aware since childhood of the Light, or God, within. For example, Alicia wrote, “I was born knowing I came from a realm I called Home: one of Light and Love.”
Michael’s early spiritual experience differed from that I’ve described for early Friends not only because of his awareness since childhood but also because his relationship with God was nurtured by the church he attended: “Even when I was four and five years old I remember being consciously in relationship with God, and it was, in part, the established church that fed and nurtured that relationship. True, some of the church’s teachings and practices have been at odds with my experience at nearly every stage of my life, but I was somehow able to know–I don’t know how, it was a gift–that those teachings and practices were not the point, not the content of my faith, but human expressions of faith. The Life down deep, the living sap, was the point. And I believe I always knew it was flowing in me.” Some of the essays, poems, sermons, and music of the seventeenth century convince him that at least some people in the time of early Quakers must have, like him, found true spiritual nurture in the churches of their day.
Other readers’ experience differed from early Friends for the opposite reason: they felt no sense of God and therefore no longing to know God more intimately. Nonetheless, strong feelings led them to seek for “something more.” Lola wrote, “I have not necessarily had a longing. It was more like a ‘dark night of the soul’ when despair, tragedy, and trauma had dropped me to my knees. I did not necessarily see at the time that I was longing to seek a spiritual relationship with the Divine, rather I was looking to alleviate the pain I felt inside. Thinking that there must be something more than the pain and suffering I was feeling, I turned to God with a “what could it hurt?” attitude. So for me it was not so much of a longing, but more of ‘looking for an alternative’.”
“I was raised agnostic by design,” wrote Paula, “and taught to sneer at religion. But when I was in my 20s, I began to experience a sense of doom, that what we strive for in this material world wasn’t enough to satisfy me. But what else was there, other than what I was taught? You might say I experienced longing for meaning beyond the limits that I had learned. Because religion was not acceptable for me, and God was to be despised, my spiritual journey began with fear. I had no language to describe my feelings, and this `longing for meaning’ manifested itself as a feeling that someone/thing was chasing me. Only little by little did I find mention and understanding of things spiritual (`but not religious’), and this gave me a little leap of joy–a sense of Truth. This unfolding took a long time, and it required much sharing with others, both for affirmation of my experiences and for acceptance of my spiritual unfolding. I was very frightened that my husband and friends would find me unacceptable.
“Only much, much later,” Paula added, “far on the other side of my journey through seeking and turning within, did I come to understand that feeling of being chased. I was being pursued by the Hound of Heaven. I also learned the concept of the “double” search, of us seeking God while God seeks us, and that makes a lot of sense to me.”
The word longing was apt for many readers. Francis wrote, “I think my first longing for God as an adult came with a desire for altered consciousness…. Early on a desire for inner peace, community, and acceptance moved me.” Rhonda wrote, “Looking back, I believe I have always been longing for God but only became conscious of it as such after becoming Quaker. My Anabaptist tradition did not prepare me so much for an internal life but for work in the world. It was perhaps my husband’s longing that led us to find Quakers.”
Forrest shared a Christmas poem that describes a powerful longing.
Isn’t it time for
Haven’t we had enough
of being too wise to trust?
I can take disappointment; I cannot
endure another year’s prudence.
Roll back the sky, shatter
my face with a terror of angels
but make me yours, God!
Several testified that even after the discovery of the divine indwelling, longing continues. “I do long for the power to overcome the things that keep me from opening up fully,” Paulette wrote. Pat has found a sustaining connection with God, and her heart yearns for the sake of the world: “There is great joy and peace in my walk with God, but there is also a deep longing for all things to be as they should be, and are promised to be.”
While appreciating knowing about the spiritual journey of early Friends, some readers remarked on the important differences between our time and theirs. “The sciences of psychology and physics (for starters) have completely altered our modern understanding of the forces at play in our inner and outer worlds,” Paulette wrote. “But if we take to heart the notion of “continuing revelation,” we can look back to what we may have forgotten from early Friends, while also incorporating what we’ve learned since that time.”
“It is a different time, with new awareness of the complexity of our identities and our connections with the greater Life,” commented Alicia. “Also, spiritual exploration and experimentation is not forbidden in our time. We are unlikely to face persecution because of our spiritual orientations–at least in the U.S. or in Europe. Near death experiences (NDE’s), past-life memories, evidence of parallel worlds, knowledge that time as we experience it in our deeper identities is not linear–all these new discoveries call for a wider scope in our spiritual searching and life expressions. How often are these new discoveries mentioned in our Quaker Meetings? What is their relevance to our search to be God-focused and Light-infused?”
Readers shared several practices that help them to turn within. Rhonda wrote that she began seeking after listening to homilies given by a Quaker pastor. “That seeking led me to turn inward fairly quickly, as it led to my having an experience of the Inner Teacher that prompted me to do Centering Prayer. At the beginning of this spiritual practice, I still had a long way to go toward perceiving the reality of God and making that central in my life, but it was the start of consciously discovering the path that is still unfolding for me.”
Linda described her experience this way: "Historically I have been quite comfortable with seeking outward via books, groups of like-minded people, travel, etc. Turning inward to hear that small still voice, not so much. However, I have just begun a daily meditation practice (in its infancy at two months old!). This practice has required much of me (discipline, patience, focus, structure). What I have noticed is a subtle yet palpable change. What sometimes presents as uncomfortable or unfamiliar is often what is needed at the time.”
Francis wrote that the Spiritual Formation Program of his yearly meeting “has really helped my practices, in particular spending much time praying without ceasing.” Experiment with Light was helpful for Susannah, especially when this practice was shared with a small group from her meeting. “We are together finding a deep community, and support in encountering the challenging elements of a faithful life,” she wrote.
Several readers lifted up the importance of the whole meeting community looking within and engaging in spiritual practice, something they feel needs to happen more often. Paulette wrote, “I’m grateful for the in-reach opportunities that our meeting is conducting, as a result of the Quaker Quest introduction we had. We are taking time to undertake spiritual practice together.”
“The open form of unprogrammed Meetings holds a potential to be an incubator for these deep experiences,” Alicia wrote. “Inner transformation and spiritual growth became [for early Friends] their primary sources of strength and life direction. How much time and focus is given in this direction in our current unprogrammed Meetings? Without this united focus, our efforts to establish spiritual community can’t succeed.”
Carole reminded us of the “necessity for transformation as a Society with our collective spiritual practices that prepare the way for the Lord. There is so much emphasis on individual transformation that we can forget that each of us is a part of the body of Christ.”
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I am grateful for Friends who shared their experiences in replies to earlier posts, in many cases more fully than I have quoted here. Their responses can be found by reading the comments after previous blog entries. A few Friends also wrote me in private communications; I deeply appreciate their willingness to allow some pieces of that to be included publicly in this blog.
This was Part Five in a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. Future posts will include readers’ experiences of other elements of the journey. Some may also be included in a book I am writing on the subject. I would be grateful to receive accounts of your experiences of Openings, the Refiner’s Fire, Being Gathered into Community, Leadings of the Spirit, Living in the Cross, Living in Divine Love and Power, and Perfection (in one’s measure).
(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin