Adrian Glamorgan, Fremantle Meeting.
A well-lived spiritual life is of greater importance to practicing Quakers than any worldly success. How can we reflect on our journey? First and foremost, we can directly go into stillness to seek insight and direction. Additionally, every Friend has readily at hand our Advices and Queries, to help examine the spiritual life, both in specific aspects of each day, and in the patterns of a lifetime. Less well known, the insights posed by Howard Brinton (1884-1973) in his Quaker Journals can help us reflect on consistent patterns in one’s lifelong spiritual encounters with the Truth. This article is a reminder of these resources, with a particular encouragement to Friends to embark on writing a spiritual autobiography – as a contribution to your own process of discernment, as well as enrichment for others.
The invitation to review in Advices and Queries
Our Advices and Queries invite us to the conscious patterning of our daily life as well as our life journey. Let your life speak! (A&Q 29) More specifically, we are asked to bring the whole of our life into the ordering of the spirit of Christ (A&Q 2), and learn from Jesus’ life (A&Q 3), suggesting that there is some template available to us. We are also encouraged to the cherishing of one another’s life in marriage (A&Q 25), and living in the virtue of that life and power taking away the occasion of all wars (A&Q 33). We are called to consider the life and witness of other communities of faith (A&Q 6), and avoid prejudiced judgments about the life journeys of others (A&Q 24). We are recommended to exercise our own spiritual learning throughout life (A&Q 7). From these advices and queries, it seems one’s spiritual life over time is as worth attending to and reflecting upon as it might be on any single day.
Discerning Steps in Religious Experience over a lifetime
In Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience among Friends (Pendle Hill Publications, 1972), Brinton turns to three hundred spiritual autobiographies, (usually called “Journals”) dating from the beginnings of Friends to the twentieth century. Allowing for differences, Brinton details a common spiritual path amongst Friends, through the writing of Quaker women as well as men:
· Self-indulgence in youth
· Struggle of a divided life
· Ultimate unification of that division through silence and insight
· Later conversion or acceptance of the light
· Adopting the plain style of life
· Speaking in meeting
· Restricting business activities
· Concern with testimonies/social action
· Working with dreams
Brinton finds a common consistency in Quaker encounters with spirit. Do you find steps in your own Quaker journey in his list?
What your Spiritual Autobiography is, and isn’t
Reviewing our life through writing a spiritual autobiography can be a unique opportunity to reflect on the workings of the Spirit in your own life, and help pose constructive questions how to best attend to spiritual opportunities ahead.
This worth has nothing to do with whether you believe you have done little in the world worth recording. This is not about your profile in the world: it is an invitation to a spiritual autobiography. It is a review of your relationship with the transcendent and immanent, not a record of your worldly achievement.
The focus on your spiritual path may often not correspond with any milestones in your passing worldly fame, fortune or notability. A spiritual autobiography might pass wordlessly pass over these details, much as analytical psychologist Carl Jung failed to note in his autobiography a meeting with Doctor Goebbels when he is supposed to have vehemently denounced the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. If an episode doesn’t add to your review of your spiritual development, best leave it out.
You might start out thinking you know what belongs in your spiritual autobiography – but there could be surprises along the way!
Getting Started on your Spiritual Autobiography
Begin the task each session with mind and heart prepared. Writing like this requires sustained practice, a set time per week, for example, with enough space for the spirit to work through and with you, and time for you to mull over what is raised. Allow for a walk before or after writing – you will soon learn what works best.
These questions may help to get you started.
Journal Entry 1: As a child, how did I experience the inward light? In what circumstances was I more or less likely to experience the inward light? (Give details of how you felt closer to or further away from this inward light)
Journal Entry 2: In what ways did I lose this connection? (Note specific occasions. Try and be specific about what happened)
Journal Entry 3: In what ways did I experience a divided life? (Again, think of particular times and places.)
Journal Entry 4: What happened to help unite body and soul (the temporal) with the Spirit (eternal)? What role has silence and stillness had in this?
Journal Entry 5: Am I converted? From “what” to “what”? Is this “acceptance of the light”?
Journal Entry 6. How has this acceptance become manifest? (Be specific about the ways this feels divinely guided, rather than worldly directed)
Journal Entry 7. In what ways does a plain style of life work in you?
Journal Entry 8. Describe times when you have spoken in meeting? What has been your experience of this, before, during and after? If you have never, or rarely, spoken, what forces have been at work both in favour of and against speaking in meeting?
Journal Entry 9. How has life in the Spirit affected your perceptions and practice of working in the world? What ways in business (practices and occupational categories) are now closed to you? In what ways do success in worldly affairs bring you closer to or further away from God?
Journal Entry 10. How has the presence of love and truth in your hearts led you into action in the world, through particular testimonies?
Journal Exercise 11: Keep a dream journal as part of your spiritual biography. Are there are recurrent dreams that visit you? Do you regard it as “an accessible channel” to the divine? In what ways are you open to as well as cautious in interpreting your dreams as offerings of leadings or directions to your life?
Journal Entry 12: Is there anything you sense is coming towards you, in early formation?
At each Yearly Meeting, we gear testimonies to the grace of God in lives now passed. With each Friend gone, we remember the richness that has been amongst us, and is now lost, sometimes feeling the raw regret at conversations and learning now impossible. Spiritual autobiographies can partially remedy this loss. Encourage Friends to write – investigate – their own lives through this practice. Help their lives speak. And consider your own spiritual autobiography, a chance not just to hear your own life speak, but to listen to the way the spirit may have been speaking to you all along.