Part Six in a series about The Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.
Human beings have five senses that enable us to be aware of the physical world. We are also endowed with spiritual senses. Although children are born with their spiritual senses open, most of us learn to close them down; then it becomes difficult to consciously perceive spiritual realities. When we turn our attention inward and wait in stillness, however, our spiritual senses begin to open again, and then we recognize the divine presence which has always been there. If we can keep returning our attention to that inward Presence, a whole new life opens up, a life directly guided by God.
Early Quaker Isaac Penington wrote about how God softens the human heart and conscience which have been hardened by earthly “wisdom” and self-centered reasoning. God makes them, he said, “Gentle and tender, fit to receive the impressions of his Spirit. By the influence and power of his Spirit on the conscience, he openeth the ear to hearken to his voice, and prepareth the heart to follow him in his leadings” (“Concerning the Worship of the Living God,” 253). In a letter of spiritual counsel, Penington advised someone new to the spiritual journey to wait for, “the opening of the eye of God in thee, and for the sight of things therewith, as they are from him” (to Bridget Atley). When the inner eye opens, one sees spiritual realities. Through the opening of the inner ear, one hears the guiding voice of Christ. The opened heart allows experiences of divine love, including the “motion of love” that leads one into ministry and service. Into the open mind come flashes of direct knowing, revelations of God’s truth.
For many who became the first Quakers, these revelations often took the form of “openings in Scripture,” experiences in which the meaning of a particular Bible passage was revealed by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes words of scripture were heard inwardly, with authority, and were experienced as the voice of God speaking directly to the hearer. These openings gave a fresh understanding that involved the heart as well as the mind, and spoke to each person’s particular life situation and experience.
One of the first of such openings among those who became Quakers was experienced by Yorkshire seeker William Dewsbury. After finishing his apprenticeship as a weaver, he had joined Parliament’s Army, eager to fight for God’s kingdom to be established in England, and willing to give his life for it, if necessary. As a soldier, wearing his sword belted to his side, he walked to Scotland to visit Presbyterians who had a reputation for being zealous. Nowhere in England or Scotland, however, did he find people who could tell him how God had freed them from sin. Finally, he began to seek God within and had a powerful opening in the form of words from Matthew 26:52-53.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, after Peter sliced off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Jesus admonished his disciple, saying, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve Legions of angels?” In the 1640s, Dewsbury heard these same words with piercing power. He had read them many times in his Bible, but hearing them spoken inwardly to him had a transforming effect: “Which word enlightened my heart, and discovered the mystery of iniquity; it showed the kingdom of Christ to be within, and that its enemies being within and spiritual, my weapons against them should be spiritual,–the power of God” (Smith, 30). Obeying Christ’s command, Dewsbury got rid of his sword and quit the Army. Eventually he learned that God wanted him to fight as bravely as any soldier to bring the divine kingdom to earth–using the spiritual weapons truth, love, forgiveness, and long-suffering–without violence.
Other whole-hearted seekers all over England experienced openings that transformed their understanding. Not all of them came in the words of scripture. After years of futile search for a church in which his spiritual hunger could be met, young Yorkshireman Richard Farnsworth finally heard the inward voice of Christ say: “I will teach thee freely myself, and all the children of the Lord shall be taught of the Lord, and in righteousness shall they be established.” Farnsworth learned about George Fox, who had been imprisoned in the town of Darby for his religious claims, and began corresponding. Upon release from prison, Fox went to meet the younger man. In Yorkshire, Fox also met several other seekers who had received similar openings. Some, including Farnsworth and Dewsbury, soon began traveling with him to share the good news.
Openings are not always experienced in the form of words, instruction, or mental understanding. Some come in the form of images or visions. While traveling in Yorkshire with Richard Farnsworth, Fox felt moved to climb to the top of Pendle Hill, where he had a panoramic view of the countryside. On that windy hill, he also had a vision seen with his spiritual eyes: “And the Lord let me see a-top of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.” While spending that night in a nearby inn, Fox had a further vision of this “great people.” He saw them wearing white, “by a river’s side coming to the Lord.” (Journal 104). A week later, on Pentecost Sunday–a day when people traditionally wore white–Fox preached powerfully to a large group of Separatists at a meeting in the home of Justice Gervase Benson. He was encouraged to speak the following Sunday at Firbank Fell, where a thousand heard his message. In these parts of northern England, near where the Rawthey and Lune rivers meet, numerous groups of Seekers were “opened” to the Truth in Fox’s message. A “great people” was quickly gathered into the new movement, the radical form of Christianity that was eventually called Quakerism.
Openings come in many forms. Sometimes the illumination of the Light provides a profound experience of divine love or presence, or gives inward power to overcome wrong behaviors, bad habits, and temptations. Openings are sometimes accompanied by courageous strength to speak or act in faithful and prophetic ways. Those who are discouraged are opened to hope. For many people, experiences of openings are unmistakable. For others, subtle openings are part of a quietly growing conviction about how God wants one to believe, speak, and act, along with a growing ability to live a righteous, faithful, and holy life.
The first openings of most early Friends involved an understanding that God’s ways are different from the ways of the world. In particular, the first Quakers sensed Christ asking them to change how they spoke, dressed, and participated in the flattering mores of society, all of which maintained a class system of gross inequity and denied the inherent spiritual equality of everyone. This was not as difficult for poor rural people who already lived a simple life as it was for the wealthy and well-established. Lady Mary Penington was scornful of the first Quakers she met, common country people from the north of England, less educated and less refined than herself. Nonetheless, since childhood she had been seeking to know God’s ways, and she heard the Quakers say some things that made her wonder if these rough people might be speaking the truth. In her journal she wrote, “Immediately it arose in my mind, that if I would know whether that was truth they had spoken or not, I must do what I knew to be the Lord’s will. What was contrary to it was now set before me, as to be removed; and I must come into a state of entire obedience, before I could be in a capacity to perceive or discover what it was which they laid down for their principles” (“Some Account,” 221). She was seeking intellectual understanding, but it was revealed to her that what God desired first of all was a change in her way of life.
Not every thought, image, or line of scripture that comes into one’s mind is fresh guidance from God, of course. In the process of opening to divine instruction, each person gradually learns to distinguish the inward “voice of the true shepherd” from other kinds of inner “voices,” including the voices of temptations and desire, or remembered advice and admonishment given by other people. Growth in the spiritual life involves an increasingly refined ability to discern the source of the thoughts, ideas, and impulses that come into one’s mind and heart, to know which come from God and Christ, and which do not. The discernment of the community is a helpful and sometimes necessary aid, a topic which will be discussed in a later post.
* * * * * This was Part Five in a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. A future post will describe the openings of some Friends today. Please share your experiences!
Openings: In what ways have you received revelations, visions, guidance, or insight from God that related to your own life? Have there been any “openings in scripture” that shifted how you understood what God wants of you?
(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin
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