In April 2015, Pendle Hill conference center offered an extraordinary opportunity for a merging of the Christian contemplative tradition and the faith and practice of Quakers. Fifty people desiring to immerse themselves more fully into the waters of the Spirit participated in a conference entitled Streams of Living Water, facilitated by Cynthia Bourgeault and Paulette Meier. We explored how meeting for worship and Centering Prayer, when practiced daily, can help us open up more fully to the power of the Spirit that wants to flow through us. The heart-opening words of the first Quakers testified to their experience of being gathered, healed, guided, and empowered by the Light of Christ within, and we also heard guidance and inspiration from a contemporary contemplative.
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, noted author, part-time hermit, and esteemed workshop leader. For years she worked as a colleague of Thomas Keating and others in teaching Centering Prayer, a silent practice in which one lets go of grasping onto thoughts (or anything else) and surrenders to the presence and activity of God. Her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is possibly the best on its subject. During the Pendle Hill weekend, she explained this simple form of prayer as a way to practice the self-emptying (or kenosis) which both Jesus and early Friends revealed to be the doorway to a conscious communion and union with God. The unprogrammed Quaker meeting for worship is, similarly, such a pathway. One distinction between the two practices is that Centering Prayer remains silent throughout, while the meeting for worship often includes inspired spoken words, called vocal ministry.
In her book The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia’s fresh and careful examination of the gospels and other early Christian texts reveals that Jesus invited his disciples into a profound change of consciousness. For many readers today, this is news. It is not, however, new. Early Quakers in the seventeenth-century discovered that the Spirit of Christ was inwardly present as a living teacher inviting them into radical transformation of heart and mind, as well as way of life. Written records of their spiritual experience and the historical record of their transforming influence on society reveal the power that is possible to those who learn to live in the unified consciousness to which the Light of Christ invites us.
Cynthia Bourgeault attended a Quaker school as a child, and then a Friends meeting early in her adult life. However, her hunger for spiritual depth was not met in that meeting, and eventually she moved to the Episcopal Church. Long sojourns at Benedictine monasteries later helped her enter more deeply into contemplative experience and the transformation of consciousness toward which she felt called. She is now a lively, Spirit-filled teacher with a keen interest in helping Quakers better connect with the contemplative depths of our tradition, and a desire to help others learn from the treasures of Quakerism.
Centering Prayer offers practice in letting go of one’s thoughts. Repeatedly consenting or surrendering to the presence and activity of God within eventually leads into a deeper, wordless, unified state of consciousness, an awareness of the presence of God in all things. Cynthia spoke about meeting for worship as another form of contemplative practice. She urged participants in the conference not to speak too easily or soon when feeling a prompting to stand and offer vocal ministry. Let the divine energy of that prompting take you deeper, she suggested, so that you can become vessels of greater currents of the energy of the Holy Spirit. Then the vocal ministry and prophetic witness that eventually comes can become a more powerful expression of the Spirit.
Through most of the history of Christianity, the contemplative tradition was practiced primarily by monks and cloistered nuns whose lives focused on communion with God and prayer for the world. The first Quakers, in the mid seventeenth-century, demonstrated that a community of people can enter the profound, powerful depths of union with God while still living in the world. They were mystics and also prophets, called by the Spirit to demonstrate an alternative way to live one’s daily life. They challenged dishonesty and injustice, and hundreds of them were sent by God to publically speak truth in a repressive society.
Paulette Meier is a Quaker singer/songwriter, teacher, and long-time activist. During a year as Artist-in-Residence at Pendle Hill, she copied powerful passages from the tracts and books of the first Quakers, not only the words of George Fox, but also Margaret Fell, Isaac Penington, Sarah Blackborrow, William Penn, and others. To help herself remember the spiritual guidance offered in these short selections, she put their words to music. These were later recorded in her cd, Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong. Over the years Paulette has done a lot of singing at outdoor rallies and demonstrations for peace and social justice, and there is great vigor in the way she delivers her plainsong chants. The words of early Friends, sung in Paulette’s strong, clear voice, convey the truth they found in a way that enters the heart as well as the mind. During the weekend we sang these words together, allowing the chants to be a pathway toward the profound shift in consciousness to which Jesus invited his followers. Many people who attended the conference at Pendle Hill had already found that listening to the cd over and over provides heart-touching spiritual guidance.
For example, the first passage in the album is instruction from early Quaker leader George Fox: Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts…
Many forms of contemplative prayer and meditation give similar instructions to let go of one’s own thinking and let the mind and spirit become still. If one’s mind becomes quiet, Fox says, then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God.
Let go of your own thinking, let your mind become still, quiet, and calm. That will allow you to feel the divine principle, seed, or Christ light within, and this will focus your mind on God. After that, thou wilt receive God’s strength and power…
The relationship between practicing this stillness of mind and receiving the power of God is one of the themes running through the words of early Friends. In between this stillness and receiving divine power there is a clarity that arises, a necessary seeing of the way things really are, within and without. In another of his epistles, Fox urges Friends to, Stand still in that which is pure. If one gives patient, quiet attention to the pure Light of God within, it will reveal things in one’s consciousness and behavior that may be difficult to acknowledge. However, power is also given to overcome them and to change. Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and there doth strength immediately come in.
At the Pendle Hill conference in April, we experienced two half-hour meetings for worship and one twenty-minute period of Centering Prayer. During the second morning’s meeting for worship there was a much more profound and fertile silence. Many felt encouraged to engage regularly in contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer or the kind of daily period of worship maintained at Pendle Hill. Regular practice can, indeed, help Friends today move toward a powerful collective spiritual transformation of the sort experienced by the first Quakers. More teaching about what happens during worship and prayer, and about the nature of consciousness would also be beneficial. In Maine this June, Cynthia and Paulette will co-facilitate another weekend retreat at the Northeast Guild for Spiritual Formation.
The Quaker path springs from a deep communion with God This flows into the world as loving service, ministry, and prophetic truth telling. Opening to the consciousness to which the divine Light calls us requires that we learn the spiritual surrender that is practiced in meetings for worship and contemplative prayer. I look forward to the mutual enrichment that can come from continued dialogue between Christian contemplatives, contemporary prophetic people, and the rich teaching and practices of Quakerism.
Streams of Living Water: What is your experience of letting go of thoughts and allowing your mind to become still and quiet? What practices help you to surrender in trust to God, the Light, Christ, divine Love? Have you experienced the divine strength and power that is given when one’s quiet mind is focused attentively on God, the Light, or Christ within?
© 2015 Marcelle Martin