The early Quakers found that that it was possible to have direct experience of God, and to use that to guide their lives. I would see this as the primary message of Quakerism. It is possible to live as the early Quakers sought to live, seeking deep communion with the Divine, and guidance as to what we are meant to do with our lives. It’s possible, but it isn’t easy.
It’s not easy for many reasons. It’s not easy to take the risk of writing the Sacred an open cheque, to say ‘Thy will be done’, and mean it. Where might that take me? What might I be asked to do? Might it be something that my family, friends or partner might not understand? Might I be asked to go in a completely new direction? To leave my comfort zone? To do something that scares me half to death? Would I have the courage? What would it cost me? Would it be worth it?
These are some of the fears we meet if we seek to live by the primary message of Quakerism, that it is possible to be in direct relationship with the Source, and to live our lives in accordance with guidance from there. None of these fears are new. They are the classic fears on the spiritual path. But they are not all that we meet. In seeking to live open to the Goddess, with each deepening of the connection we taste the sweetness of coming home to our true selves. The leadings which come to us make intimate sense in terms of the circumstances of our own lives.
As we find the courage to follow our leadings we take inner and outer actions that are as individual as we are. Through this we have precious moments of knowing we are doing what we are here for. We experience a sense of inner alignment that sustains us, in a way that the world cannot. We may come to know, from experience, that we do not have to rely on second-hand accounts of the mystical experiences of earlier Friends, but that such experiences are available, fresh, to us here and now.
The early Friends began by ‘waiting in the Light’. As this led to spiritual truth, they sought to witness these truths in their lives. Hence the testimonies, which I would regard as the secondary message of Quakerism. The testimonies have become another way that we describe or define ourselves as Quakers. Referring to our testimonies raises fewer eyebrows in a secular society than saying that as Quakers we seek direct experience of God, and guidance as to how to live our lives from there.
We may also use the testimonies as a sort of formula to guide our actions in the world, along the lines of ‘I’m a Quaker. We have testimonies to peace, justice, equality, simplicity, earthcare. So what can I do for peace, justice, equality, simplicity, earthcare?
This approach was exemplified by the booklet prepared for the Summer School on the testimonies at 2008 AYM. The section on each testimony concluded with the heading ‘Getting involved: some action-related organisations’ followed by a list of organisations we could join, and the question ‘Can you suggest others?’ The subtext appeared to be that the testimonies give us the answers as to how to act in the world. We begin with a testimony, brainstorm possible actions or groups to join, and then take action.
But there are issues in using the testimonies as a ready-made answer to what we are to do with our lives, as if they are a short-cut to determining the will of God. The most obvious issue is that this use of the testimonies omits the step of cultivating a direct connection with the Divine, and seeking guidance for our lives from there. In that sense, it bypasses the primary message of Quakerism. We have then put the testimonies between us and the Sacred, where the priests used to be.
Another issue is that when used as a means of defining what it is to be a Quaker, or a good Quaker, the testimonies can lead to a subtle or not so subtle sense of a hierarchy of concerns within the Meeting. This can lead to some members feeling less valued because the concerns to which they give their time do not appear to slot neatly into the testimonies.
A further risk comes from the fact that the expression of our testimonies is generally seen to require lots of action, working for peace, social justice, earthcare etc. When our focus, or our definition of ourselves, is based on outward action, we risk down-playing the importance of turning inward to seek guidance. We might even resist setting aside the time, or just find that we are forever too busy. This decreases the chance that what we do will actually be what the Goddess wants of us.
A further concern is that work for peace or social justice, for example, can be undertaken in a way that is self-righteous and judgmental of others, seeing all fault ‘out there’. Action, even for peace, can proceed out of a place that is anything but peaceful. The more we are focused on ‘doing’, and the less on ‘being’, the more these subtleties may elude us (while being clearly visible to others.)
Another cost of putting the focus on ‘doing’ at the cost of ‘being’ is that it is in spending time ‘being’ that we may come up against the blocks to more Light and love flowing through us. Such blocks reside at the places inside us where it is scary to go. Keeping busy (including doing good works) protects us from going deep enough inside to find these scary places. Learning how to go there, and hold our fear and pain in the Light, opens us up to receiving guidance more easily. It also leads to healing, which enables more love and Light to flow through us, whether we are ‘doing’ anything or not.
Then there is the issue of playing it safe. Determining how to act by reference to the testimonies may lead us to act in relatively familiar ways, whereas spiritual reality may actually want to stretch us, to ask us to do something for which we do not feel adequate, which leaves us asking ‘Who, me?’ Getting to the point of accepting our rightness for the task may be just what we need for our growth, and to enable us to bring something only we can bring into the world.
So what is the alternative? We can see the testimonies as spiritual truths to live by, rather than as ready-made answers to the question of what we are meant to do in the world. Instead, we can deepen our connection with the Divine through Meeting for Worship, silence, prayer and other spiritual practices. We can take the risk of writing the Sacred an open cheque, and ask for guidance as to what we are meant to do with our lives. We can deal with our fears about where that might take us. We can fine-tune our awareness of the particular ways we are ‘tapped on the shoulder’ by a leading. We can schedule spiritual conversations with one another. We can invite others to support us through Meetings for Clearness.
In these and other ways we can hold one another in the Light, to assist each of us to find our own authentic path, and the strength to follow it. We can abandon any preconceptions as to how that might look. What results might look like a life fashioned to demonstrate the testimonies to the world. Or it might not. I think it’s important that either be equally fine with us.