Kerry O’Regan, South Australian Regional Meeting.
I must confess that the notion of “leading” is something I’ve struggled with. In fact it’s one of the things that scared me away from Quakers at one stage.
I had discovered among Friends an insistence on the importance of our choices being Spirit-led rather than the result of our own ego-driven impulses, whether that is for ministering in meeting or embarking on some other enterprise. George Durham is fairly typical in describing it as “responding to the Spirit… allowing myself to be led, not deciding for myself” (1). And it seemed that every other Quaker I came across, in writing or in person, said much the same thing.
What wasn’t the same were the accounts of what being led felt like and how I could know from whence an impulse came. I found it all very confusing. Some insisted that a real ‘leading’ clearly came from a source outside oneself, others that it came from deep within. Some said the impulse was overwhelming – that one was propelled into action almost against one’s will, others said they experienced the gentlest nudging which could even go unnoticed unless you paid close attention.
I found this all most perplexing. How could I know if it was the Spirit calling or just me? In the end, I decided it was all too hard and gave up. However much I tried, I just couldn’t distinguish between me and non-me, at least in relation to the source of promptings. I really couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t relate it to my experience. I decided that I might be like someone who was tone deaf or colour blind, and simply didn’t have this capacity. And if you needed it to be a proper Quaker, then perhaps this wasn’t the place for me.
It was only when I began taking some tentative steps back to Quakers again that I shared my dilemma with a Friend. Don’t stress over it, she said, think of it all as metaphor. So I breathed a sigh of relief and let go; stopped worrying about whether the impulses came from within or without, whether they were loud or soft, whether the source was me or Other. I simply sought to find a way to be, to act, to live, that was guided by a spirit (I don’t know about Spirit) of love and integrity. This involved a process of stillness and reflection on my part and sometimes, too, a drawing on the wisdom of others.
While I’m at it, I might as well confess to another difficulty which is probably related to the first. I really can’t ‘get’ the phenomenon people call the Will of God. Does that mean that God has a detailed blueprint for the way I should live my life, one for every choice I should make, and that it’s my job to figure out what this blueprint is? And if I don’t succeed in figuring it out then will it be the case that things won’t go well if I get it wrong?
I’ve been in classes and workshops where the teacher or presenter asks a question of the group and has a particular answer in mind, and persists in asking the question until someone comes up with the ‘right’ answer – more or less dismissing other responses that emerge along the way. They seem to be playing a game of guess-what’s-in-my-head, and I resent it every time. Surely God wouldn’t be so mean as to play that kind of game with us on a life-scale.
Even if he did, there’s still the problem of knowing whether you’d got it right. To say “It’s God’s will” is hard to argue against, but how do you know with any certainty – for yourself or for anyone else – just what that is.
The wonderful Quaker-based Susan B Anthony said, with reference to those involved in religious persecution at the time, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do to their fellows, because it always coincides with their own desires” (2). Yet apparently God’s will isn’t always what you might desire for yourself.
I know a woman – in her eighties and perhaps not as frail as she looks – who’s in pretty constant communication with God. He’s always telling her, in no uncertain terms just what his will is for her. Often it’s that she should not indulge in the luxury of living in a house. So she’ll wander off and sleep goodness knows where. Most recently, it’s that she should visit every Aboriginal community between Darwin and Alice Springs, though she’s arguing with him about that one. How is she to know? How am I to know?
What I do know is that I have experienced, have heard about, and have observed in others, two distinct ways of knowing, of decision-making. The one is the way of deliberation; the other is intuitive and insightful. We can work our way, sometimes ploddingly, step by step or we can suddenly arrive at a place we weren’t at before. I also suspect that the two interact with and inform each other.
It was when Archimedes put aside his calculations and relaxed in the bathtub that his Eureka moment came (or so we’re told). More reliably, perhaps, it was when Kekule took a nap and dreamed of a snake biting its own tail, that he ‘saw’ the ring structure of the benzene molecule. It can happen, too, in the silence of a Quaker meeting. We may be struggling with an issue, with no apparent resolution in sight. Then, if we let go of the struggle, something emerges in the stillness; what emerges is a new way forward. Collectively or individually we tap into wisdom we did not know we had. But is it the Spirit leading us?
I don’t know.
Intuitive knowing used to be regarded rather dismissively as fanciful women’s ways, but it is now being taken rather more seriously, even by hard-nosed management types (3). And there is a vast amount of research being done by neuroscientists into intuition, insight, and implicit learning – the knowledge we don’t know we have, and the learning we don’t know that we have done – when and how it happens and what parts of the brain are involved (4). Perhaps that’s one more gap that God doesn’t have to occupy.
I’m grateful, though, that whatever explanation we might or might not have for our sudden insights and impulses, we Quakers have processes for testing them as possible paths to follow. We can draw on our collective wisdom, through our meetings of various kinds, to try to discern if a proposed course of action is loving and wise (maybe even if it’s the Will of God).
For me, I’m content now to simply honour the experience and not try and explain the process. I’ve let go of stressing over what labels we can put on it all. I’m neither a theologian nor a neuroscientist and I’d rather leave the explanations to them. I’m content now to just live it; to know it experimentally.
1. Geoffrey Durham, Being a Quaker: a guide for newcomers, Quaker Quest, 2011.
2. Susan B Anthony, Speech to the National-American Woman Suffrage Association, 1896. http://www.thelizlibrary.org/undelete/library/library005.html
3. Eugene Sadler-Smith, Intuition, neuroscience, decision making and learning, Personal reflections following the Meeting of the Society for Organisational Learning UK, Triarchy Press, 2006. http://www.triarchypress.co.uk/pages/articles/Intuition-neuroscience-decision-making-and-learning1.pdf
4. Matthew Lieberman, Intuition: A social cognitive neuroscience approach, Psychological Bulletin, 2000, Vol 126, No 1, 109-137. http://www.scn.ucla.edu/pdf/Intuition.pdf