In the Quaker practice of group worship on the basis of silence come special times when an electric hush and solemnity and depth of power steals over the worshippers. A blanket of divine covering comes over the room, and a quickening Presence pervades us…. Thomas Kelly, The Gathered Meeting
When I first attended Quaker meeting, it was uncommon to hear Friends speak about mystical experiences. Occasionally I encountered debates about whether Quakerism was a mystical or prophetic religion. Some thought it was both, others stated emphatically that it was prophetic but not mystical, and others were cautious of the kind of closeness to God that might lead to either kind of experience. The debate puzzled me: I believed that only those who experience a mystical connection to God can hear and respond to a true prophetic call. From the books I read, especially about George Fox, it seemed evident that the early Quaker movement was both mystical and prophetic. At the same time, early Friends lived out their faith in the concrete details of ordinary human life, in the midst of the world.
What about contemporary Friends? It was moving to find passages from the writing of Thomas Kelly in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s book of Faith and Practice. Kelly’s writing gave clear evidence that some Friends in our time also experienced a direct, mystical connection with God. Other passages in Faith and Practice revealed that out of an inward, mystical relationship to God, many people in our time had been led to acts of prophetic speaking or living.
I was hungry for such accounts, as they helped me better understand how God was at work in my life. During vocal ministry, I sometimes spoke of unusual inward experiences, such as seeing a spiritual Light flowing through all things, hearing a voice giving gentle guidance, feeling a fiery energy inside, having vivid dreams and visions about the power of God to heal the world. My heart pounded when I felt a prompting to speak about such an experience during meeting for worship, and there was a mystical sense that the prompting came from beyond me, from something larger and divine. Many Friends in the meeting provided a supportive context in which to offer such vocal ministry. I heard, however, that one or more people felt uncomfortable hearing about such experiences.
Wondering if Quakerism was, indeed, the right faith community to nurture my sense of a direct connection with the guidance and leadings of God, I attended the summer FGC Gathering and took a five-day workshop on Quaker Mysticism. I met Quakers from across the country who’d had similar experiences and who, like me, felt a powerful call to live a life of faithfulness, close to God. Many had felt the need to be “in the closet” in their monthly and yearly meetings about the nature of their spiritual experiences. I then joined some ongoing groups of Friends who gathered once or twice a month to share about our spiritual lives. One group identified itself as mystics, another as contemplatives. The need to share experiences initially brought both groups together. This changed over time, and what later drew us most powerfully was the divine presence we experienced when we settled in silence together. In both groups we began to worship for longer and longer periods of time.
More than twenty years later, sharing mystical or contemplative experiences is more comfortably received in most meetings. However, many Friends with a clear sense of divine guidance are uncomfortable calling themselves mystics or contemplatives. Some feel it more appropriate to speak of their call to ministry, spiritual nurture, or eldering. Others simply help deepen the meetings for worship in which they participate and pray for others without giving a name to their experience. However we speak of ourselves, many of us still feel called to gather from time to time with others who are drawn to mystical communion with God.
My Pendle Hill pamphlet Invitation to a Deeper Communion describes the long meetings in which, sometimes after hours of silence together, early Friends felt themselves gathered into the Kingdom of Heaven, present in their midst. It also recounts experiences of Friends today who have taken up a regular practice of unprogrammed meetings for worship lasting for hours. Saturday gatherings for this kind of extended worship are currently being held quarterly in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The next one will be on June 6, 2015, at Lancaster Meeting. Friends United Meeting is planning an extended meeting for worship for one evening of their upcoming gathering entitled Stoking the Fire. Quakers have also organized weekend retreats that are, in essence, a meeting for worship that lasts for days. The School of the Spirit Ministry offers regular silent retreats.
In addition, editors of the newsletter What Canst Thou Say? have organized a few weekend retreats for Quaker mystics and contemplatives. Last year’s gathering was followed by two days of mostly unprogrammed worship, an opportunity that helped to take me and many in that group to a deeper connection with God. Some experienced a universal sense of divine presence, and others felt the presence and guidance most specifically of Christ. During the two days of extended worship, many received a taste of contemplative depth, and there was also a prophetic quickening among us.
I look forward to attending the upcoming 2015 gathering June 12-14, in Richmond, Indiana. The weekend retreat, entitled “Touching God Together,” will be led by Elaine Emily. For those who are interested, two days of unprogrammed meetings for worship will follow. The Registration Form is available here ( Word file ) or ( pdf file. ) Although the form says May 1st, the registration deadline is May 15th.
Gathering in the Divine Mystery: During worship, prayer, or social witness do you ever feel drawn into a profound spiritual unity with God and others? Has regular spiritual practice led to a sense of deeper grounding in God, Christ, or the Light in the activities of your daily life? Have you had spiritual experiences that involve God’s love, heavenly peace, inward voices, visions, senses, knowings, leadings, or fiery spiritual energy? Would you like to enter a deeper communion in which you might hear and discern more clearly the leadings of the Spirit? Have you found ways to gather with Friends who share similar experiences and spiritual longings?
© 2015 Marcelle Martin