This is a collection of articles by Harvey Gillman, originally written for the independent weekly Quaker magazine The Friend. The bulk of this booklet consists of eleven articles around words commonly used by Friends – words such as Worship, Spirit and Mysticism. The Friend seems to have had a strict word limit, each word is explained in a maximum of 2 short pages, requiring a truly heroic brevity. Sometimes I wished he had been allowed a bit more space!
In an Afterthought, Gillman tells us: “I have spent most of my life as a teacher of language, a communicator, a writer, a would-be poet. … I love words, but I know they have a life of their own, lives of their own, and will not be pinned down. They can only be offered. We are responsible for how we offer them but we cannot be responsible for how, if at all, they are received by other people.”
Gillman chooses his words carefully, and often comes up with a felicitous turn of phrase which sticks in the memory. He usually begins each article with the origin of the word, thus linking an abstract word to a more concrete one – so Spirit comes from a word meaning “breath”, and Mysticism from a word meaning “to be silent”. Then he tries to show how words have changed their meaning over time. In the article on Church he says: “Whenever I hear the phrase, ‘Friends have always believed/said/claimed…’ I pause, gulp and wonder how true that it. Our understanding of Christianity and the church has changed throughout our history. It is changing still.”
I found many passages in this little book which speak to my condition. I like his distinction between a Religious Society of Friends (pilgrims) and a Society of Friends (tourists). I like his distinction between prayer (a form of words) and prayerfulness (an intention of the soul, even when words fail). And I love this comment in Minister: “I do not like to hear people say ‘I am not spiritual, just a drains and pipes man’ (it is usually men who say this) or self-deprecatingly, ‘Well, at least I can bring some cakes round for Area Meeting tea’. The ability to look after drains and cakes and finances; the gift of welcoming people at the door; the arrangement of flowers; the sitting in silence week after week; and the nurture of younger Friends are all forms of ministry.”
After the section on words there are some other articles, covering themes such as light and darkness, and the relationship of Quakers and Jews. And there is one poem, which starts:
We met in silence, the cows and I
in the long wet grass, in worship they,
ruminating I …
This is a book which needs to be read slowly, and thought about. An excellent source of short, daily meditations.
Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Words by Harvey Gillman. The Friend Publications Limited, London. ISBN: 978-0-9954757-0-0
This book is available for £5 + £2 postage from Penny Dunn, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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