I’ve experienced the revealing and purifying aspects of the Light in many ways. Sometimes I feel a subtle sense of discomfort after saying or doing something, different from embarrassment about perceived or actual acts of social awkwardness. When I pay attention to this uncomfortable sensation, I may see how my words or actions have sprung from fear, hurt, or a desire to control. I see that my behavior may have caused harm or impeded a group process. If I keep looking, I may be also be shown that I need to apologize or make amends. Over time, I have become more aware of habitual patterns of mind and thought that it would be better to change, and become better able to stay out of the ruts of those patterns and choose a more loving and truthful way to be.
Sometimes, the discomfort is more acute. The metaphor of fire–in particular the Refiner’s Fire–seems apt to describe some of my experiences when the Light has revealed what is out of God’s order in myself and/or my participation in my culture. While on the verge of making a big decision, I have sometimes experienced a burning sensation inside, an inner heat and brightness. Images, memories, and words or phrases show me that something is out of kilter in what I’m thinking or doing, or in the direction towards which I’m headed. On a couple of occasions, when I’ve been bent on a certain direction and didn’t want to see that it wasn’t God’s path for me, I’ve been woken night after night with this bright heat and vivid seeing, until I accept the truth of what I’m being shown.
Experiences of the Refiner’s Fire have sometimes caused me to make large and difficult changes in my lifestyle. However, some of the most searing experiences have come after giving vocal ministry that was not entirely faithful. I confess that more than once, when I received a message that I felt would be hard to deliver, I have tried to soften the sharpness of it by wrapping a story or various ideas around it. One time, worried how one particular Friend would react, I prefaced a message with some comments and a story about the importance of discernment. Afterwards that Friend, along with others, came up and told they valued the reminder about the need for discernment. Soon I was feeling an acutely painful sense of having been cowardly and unfaithful. The words and story about discernment had been from me, not from the Spirit. The seed contained in the message I’d been given had been packaged by me and had not germinated. Not using proper discernment when speaking, I had misused the sacred responsibility one undertakes when breaking the silence to deliver a message.
In her 1975 Pendle Hill pamphlet, “Born Remembering,” Quaker sociologist and author Elise Boulding, known for her peace studies, describes a revealing inward experience of Jesus that had a similar effect. She wrote, “I…was engaged in one of those verbal harangues on spiritual matters that we often use to cover our own emptiness. Suddenly he was there, silent and intent, and I heard and saw my babbling self. Quieting down quickly, I felt taught without words. He stayed with me for some days after that, and returns from time to time, though not often. He does not come in a time of crisis, but in times of spiritual barrenness.”
At one period in Boulding’s life, when her children were all growing independent, she made a trip to India. Her encounter there with people living in immense poverty and hardship made the excesses of U.S. suburban culture difficult to bear upon her return. “And so I lived in suburbia again,” she wrote. “All around me were well-intentioned, socially conscious people, supporting good causes. At Friends meeting on Sunday mornings I would sit in the silence with all these good people, listen to words of kindly mutual encouragement and often poetic insight, and return as they did to the domestic comforts which sealed us all off from the living God.” She experienced what she referred to as “a call to strip.” For months she was plunged into a state that nobody around her could understand, except that it was a spiritual crisis. Out of this stripping or refining process, she was born into a new condition.
In response to the previous blog post, which described how some early Friends underwent this refining, purifying, or stripping process, Rhonda shared her recent experience:
“The Refiner’s Fire has not been like fire for me, metaphorically speaking, but still painful and cleansing. I was telling a Friend recently that I feel like I’ve been turned inside out, literally. My skin is now on the inside and my organs are on the outside, so that tiny black pieces that are scattered about my organs can be picked out. They resemble the burnt stuff that comes up from bottom of the pan when burnt food is stirred.
“I perceive that I am being cleansed of that which keeps me from freely accepting and giving love, in relationship to both God and other people. My first sense of my distance from God and others came when I was a teenager, but then I did not have the capacity to do more than recognize it. As an adult, it came back again, as a result of some extended difficulty with one of my children. One day, I realized that if I could not feel love for my son, I certainly would not be able to love my enemy.
“After coming to accept that I needed help, I began the long journey of recovering my ability to be vulnerable and trusting as well as forthright and honest. I have endured years of pain and anguish as I have relived the harm that others did to me, so I could recover my self and allow myself to open up to God and others more fully. Looking back, I can see that I have improved significantly, but still my inability to perceive that I am loved limits my capacity to accept fully God’s presence and guidance.”
Alicia wrote that years before she discovered Quakers, she sometimes repeated these words to herself:
I stand in the Light
The Light that reveals
That burns out the dross
That cleanses and heals
The Light that Reveals and Transforms: How has God revealed things within you, or shown you ways you participate in your culture that are contrary to the ways of God? Has this brought about any change or purification within you or in the way you live your life?
* * * * * This post is Part Nine in a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe the experience of Being Gathered into Community.
Click here to see the bibliography page.
For information about a workshop at Milwaukee Meeting the first weekend in April, see the Teaching and Upcoming Workshops page.
(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin
There is a strand here which is timely for me – I was unexpectedly taking meeting on Sunday as the Friend due to do so was ill. In our meeting, the one who has signed up to take meeting will normally read from a text such as Advices and Queries or Faith and Practice. Unprepared, I tried to discern what to read and a simple sentence came almost at once – not from any text. I waited to test the leading, but (of course) found myself instead thinking: aware of the short story I had recently read which had probably been the seed of the sentence. I began to think how to explain that story as the origin; to criticise the original sentence; I began to think how to express my words fluently … fortunately I was brought up short – back to the simple original leading: ‘Just say that’ – and a well-worn section of Penington’s from Faith and Practice to folllow.
Reading your blog here made me even more grateful for the grace that kept me ‘low’ – I just gave that brief ministry.
Afterwards, three of the meeting separately spoke to me, convinced I was addressing a serious conflict that had arisen in meeting that week, which I had known nothing about. (They had found the words helpful.) In fact If I had known of it, I would not have dared say what was, in retrospect, rather pointed!
Dear Marcelle – Last night I was at a Spiritual Formation meeting with Friends. We were worship sharing about the pamphlet “Four Doors to Meeting for Worship,” by Bill Taber. There was one passage of interest to me about vocal ministry and the ways to recognize when a message is meant for the worhipping group, not just for the one perceiving it. Your paragraph about giving vocal ministry that you later knew came from you is what I was interested in last night. Your description answers some of the questions I was wrestling with. As I suspect many others do, I perceive insights of power and profound meaning, but they are almost always just for me. I continue to feel that it is sacred, as you describe it, to offer vocal ministry, and so I desire to know it comes from Spirit before I am clear to stand and speak. I think there have been times I have refused that call, but I feel that is better than offering ministry that I am not sure about.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience of your own discernment around vocal ministry.
In the case of the message I mentioned in the post, there was a piece that was given to me to speak to the whole group. I did speak that part aloud, but I added to it, in a way that blunted the true message. I’m not sure which is better or worse, to hold back a message God is asking us to speak, or to give a message that is not inspired ministry meant for the group. I think we’re called to learn how to be faithful in what we say and in what we don’t say. To a certain extent we learn how to do that by making mistakes (by withholding a true message, by embroidering or editing a message, and by speaking something that isn’t meant for the group). When we make those mistakes, we learn to discern better next time by experiencing the “refining fire.” We gradually become purged, too, of those things in ourselves that impede our discernment and our faithfulness.
I’m happy to imagine the fruitful conversation in your spiritual formation group. “Four Doors” is a wonderful pamphlet.