Many in our time have transforming experiences of God’s love or are inwardly given the power to overcome burdens, barriers, suffering, and unhealthy habits. A great many of us who attend Quaker meetings for worship have experienced moments and sometimes extended periods when we feel gathered together in a loving divine Presence, which we often call a “gathered” or “covered” meeting.
One reader of this blog, Rhonda Pfaltzgraff-Carlson, wrote to describe a powerful sense of divine presence while sitting in a silent meeting for worship in a county jail. Present were four female members of her meeting and twenty-five men accused of crimes. God’s love was palpable among them. Peter Blood-Patterson often dreams about the spiritual power he has experienced in community. “Intentional community at its best gives us a taste of the Kingdom,” he wrote. That’s why he helps plan and facilitate QuakerSpring each year.
As we grow in faith, we learn to look for God and rely on God in every circumstance; we learn to abide in divine love and power. Sometimes we discover that God is making most of the effort to help us learn to do this; at surprising moments I have suddenly been able to rest in God’s love after a period of struggle and fear. Bit by bit, the power of God helps me to overcome the inner and outer obstacles.
This summer my beloved elder and companion in ministry, Louise Mullen, died after years of living courageously with a lung disease. A quiet, humble Friend, she spent hours every day in prayer, and she was a model for me of a friend who was abiding in God’s presence more and more of the time.
Back in 1996, we received a joint leading. She was then in her sixties and experiencing a call as an elder, a call not widely understood in our branch of Quakerism. I was almost forty and felt called as a Quaker traveling minister. The leading came during a powerful extended meeting for worship at the conclusion of a weekend conference at Pendle Hill retreat and study center. It was a covered meeting, when many of the fifty people present felt a powerful sense of becoming one in God, tangibly joined together and covered by divine love.
During that meeting for worship, Louise and I felt God communicating with us. We both felt a sense of being led to do something to help make the experience of gathered meeting more available for Quakers today, as it had been for Quakers long ago. Afterward, we explored our leading through numerous conversations and by attending a series of lectures on Ministry given at Pendle Hill. William Taber and several other speakers in that series spoke about the useful function of special meetings for worship for those called to ministry and eldering. In my Pendle Hill pamphlet, “Invitation to a Deeper Communion,” I describe how Louise and I followed our leading step by step, with other Friends joining us. Tri-annual gatherings for “Worship, Ministry, and Eldering” were held three times a year for over fifteen years. About forty-five such gatherings were held, at more than thirty meeting houses, in the Philadelphia area and beyond. Starting in the third year, these gatherings included a full morning of worship, usually three hours or longer. Often these were gathered meetings, in which many felt a special sense of God’s presence and activity.
Louise Mullen wrote about an experience she had at one of these meetings. She had come to the gathering bent over from pain in her back, but was lifted out of this pain by an experience of God’s immense love:
I was sharply aware of the pain and at one point began to move forward on the bench to get relief. I thought the move was intentional, then realized that in the most gentle, tender and strong way I was being moved. I was experiencing the great flowing energy of the Divine. At first I thought this could be a call to speak, but there were no words accompanying the power I felt. After a while I opened my eyes, looked around at the precious souls and knew that the same powerful love I felt in my body had permeated the entire room and all the people it held. I don’t know how long I bathed in this awareness of the Great Love, feeling no pain in my body.
When worship came to a close, I rose from the bench with a knowing, once again, of God’s presence, as well as the depth and vastness of the power of that love which is inextinguishable. I have returned to this experience many times since, especially after the tragedies of September 11th. My comfort is in knowing that this indescribable power of love is eternal and it is only this which can sustain and bring peace to these chaotic times. As I do what I can in peace-making activities, this knowing in my heart is what I carry with me. The Gatherings with extended worship time provide the space for the Divine to touch us in discernible and powerful ways. (27-28)
During my last visit with Louise, about two months before her death, I sat with her while she slowly breathed medicine into her lungs, which she was doing eight hours a day at that point. Then we talked for a while. She had a delighted, radiant smile on her face the whole time we spoke. She was abiding in God’s love.
At the summer 2013 sessions of Illinois Yearly Meeting, during a talk on the subject of “Joy,” Helene Pollock shared a powerfully transforming experience of being joined with God’s love, an experience that was cosmic, yet very personal at the same time. For her it confirmed the Christian experience of the divine love that comes through Jesus. Since then, God has been the focus of her life. She was sustained by God’s love and power even through the ordeal of being diagnosed and treated for cancer:
I’ve experienced a particular need for a sense of the experience of being loved by God. Having lived my whole life as a committed Christian, just a few years ago I experienced a dramatic spiritual awakening. (This is hard to talk about). It was a shift in consciousness that seemed to come at me out of the blue — not related to anything I had done. Suddenly, without warning, one night I was beset by the profound sense that my whole universe had changed in a delicious sort of way. The horizon rose to meet the sky, and I found myself rising into the infinity of the stars. I was infused by the heart of the universe, while remaining very much on the ground. It was as if the stars were reaching out and calling my name – as if I were united with the vastness of all the grains of sand on all the beaches that ever were, yet I remained as small and insignificant as the tiniest grain of sand.
This sense of dislocation in time and space was accompanied by an overwhelming sensation of joy, along with a feeling of being loved by Love itself, and thereby in love with everyone and everything. The Christian Gospel that I had known all my life came to me with fresh intensity. The experience was so very personal that I knew that God had reached out to me alone – touching my heart in the precise way that I, Helene, most needed to be reached. I experienced myself being newly christened into the Christian story of a God who takes on personal, human form in the incarnation of Jesus, the enfleshed embodiment of Divine Love. From that point on I plunged into the task of agape-loving. Connecting with people in a way that honors God became the focus of my life.
In the months and years following that special night, fragmented pieces of my life came together under the umbrella of God’s love, and I changed a lot. Much of this was due to daily prayer. Of course, I still made many mistakes, but the main change is that I became much more of a risk-taker. I became increasingly aware of God’s Truth and able to speak truth to power. So I was more confident in facing challenges at work, in my Meeting and in my friendships. When I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, I was at peace, trusting God each step of the way.
Although I have had many glimpses of God’s love, and on numerous occasions have felt divine Providence providing for my needs, I am still learning to trust and abide in God’s love. My Friends, including Louise and Helene and many others, give me reminders that I am sustained by a Great Love that is at the heart of everything.
Abiding in Divine Love and Power: Have you experienced divine Love and power infusing you and helping you to face and overcome challenges? What is your experience of abiding in God’s Love and Power?
* * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe Friends’ experiences of Perfection (in one’s measure).
On November 8-10, 2013, Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio will host a weekend retreat on Learning From the Spiritual Journey of Early Friends. Click HERE for more information.
A Whole Heart has a Bibliography page.