Renee Ellerton, West Australia Regional Meeting

I have a deep yearning to live out the foundational Quaker advice, ‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God…’ In 1999 I found a home in Quakers and over the years have come to feel community with Friends all around Australia. In 2004 I became aware of the beginnings of a leading to put more energy into accompanying Friends on their spiritual journeys. In 2008 I took part in the ‘Meeting for Learning’ retreat. This confirmed and strengthened my leading and I was inspired to undertake the Graduate Diploma of Spiritual Direction at Dayspring Centre for Spirituality in Perth.

Spiritual companionship (otherwise known as spiritual direction) is an ongoing relationship in which a seeker wanting to attend seriously to his/her spiritual life, meets with a spiritual companion on a regular basis, for the purpose of becoming more aware of and responsive to the presence of Divinity in all of his/her life. The practices of spiritual companionship and eldering are closely related. Douglas Steere eloquently describes the foundation of both:

To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another. For in penetrating to what is involved in listening do we not disclose the thinness of the filament that separates people listening openly to one another and that of God intently listening to each soul? … the task of all spiritual guidance is to take people to the living Listener, and leave them there.

The course, and in particular, my research into spiritual companionship for individual discernment with Friends has felt like work done in response to this leading. I have felt deeply blessed with the privilege of joining six Friends on their discernment journeys during the last year. My time as a spiritual companion in training this has been a time of fulfilment, affirmation and great learning.

Six Friends each took part in four spiritual companionship sessions as part of this research. Data in the form of observations and reported responses shows that the sessions had a profound and positive impact on each of the participants and proved useful in their discernment processes. All reported they would welcome another session if given the opportunity. The findings and implications have been explored in my paper entitled ‘Spiritual companionship, discernment and the Quaker tradition’.

One participant writes:

… while I went into the process with only a vague issue for discernment I came out with quite concrete and practical suggestions for nurturing the Spirit in daily life –I was finding answers within the process when I didn’t even know the question. And it became clear to me by the end of the sessions that what I was receiving discernment on was how to more fully give my life over to God …. I have come to a point in my life where, without reservation, I have committed myself to God. While not necessarily easy, I feel as if my whole life I have been trying to get to this point.

This research shows that spiritual companionship can deepen the spiritual life of Friends. As more of us take part in spiritual nurture, the quality of Meeting for Worship in our meetings may deepen. In turn, this may fuel us to act more and more on the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. This has the capacity to benefit the whole community.

I believe that we need to:

  • embrace spiritual companionship.
  • revitalise the spiritual companionship aspects of the eldering tradition.
  • encourage and support spiritual friendships in our Quaker Meetings.

This has the potential to re-engage the mutual accountability which nurtured early Quaker communities. I am inspired by Marjorie Mears Larrabee’s vision for Quaker community:

A Friends meeting is intended to be so much more than a loose association of individuals on separate and private journeys. Friends are called to be a faith community, seeking to know each other ‘in that which is eternal’ as we journey together. Ideally we acknowledge that our primary relationship is to God and that of God in each other. We let go of the idea that we have only private lives and hold ourselves accountable to the authority of the Spirit in the life of the meeting. We grow in a sense of responsibility for each other and become part of a gathered meeting.

Taking responsibility for our spiritual lives and being accountable to each other, benefits not only ourselves but the whole of our meetings.

Although spiritual nurture is a part of the eldering role, most of our elders are overburdened and time poor. If we choose to prioritise the spiritual health of our meetings, we need to discern whether to action one or more of the following:

  • recognising, encouraging and supporting spiritual companions (those trained and those recognised by their meetings), as a formal or informal part of the meeting.
  • appointing more elders.
  • delegating some aspects of the elder role.

For those interested in spiritual friendship, Trish Roberts’ pamphlet: ‘More than Equals: Spiritual Friendships’ (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 345) may be a helpful resource.

Perhaps we also need to reframe how we think about elders in current community. Frances Thorsen suggests we can do this by:

  • sorting through the strengths and weaknesses of our traditional practices;
  • rescuing the nurturing aspect of the elder tradition, and not being diverted by the occasions when it was exercised for control and power;
  • acknowledging the equality of us all and being able to rejoice in our different gifts;
  • naming and reclaiming the spiritual sensitivity and practices of deep accompaniment of the meeting and individuals;
  • naming and reclaiming the capacity to provide the space for, accompanying and understanding the spiritual journeys of individuals and meetings.

Moving more deeply into faithful relationship with the Spirit and each other could have untold positive impacts on the Australian Quaker community: in our local meetings, Australia Yearly Meeting and at the Silver Wattle Quaker Centre.

I invite Friends to explore spiritual companionship and the revitalisation of eldering with open hearts and minds. I encourage Friends to reflect on and discuss these issues in their local meetings. There will also be opportunities to open up these issues further at Yearly Meeting in 2012 during the Summer School, ‘Exploring Spiritual Friendship among F/friends’ and at the Share and Tell session, ‘Exploring Spiritual Companionship and the Revitalisation of Eldering in Quaker Community’.

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