Mary Grbavac, Queensland Regional Meeting
Friends, I have been contemplating the issue of the word “God” quite a lot lately. This has been triggered by being gently chided a couple of times for using the word “God” and being told that Quakers don’t use it anymore. I was disturbed by this reaction, and finally came to the conclusion that I felt that I was being told to “toe the line”, and change my habit of a lifetime. Are Quakers not open to all shades of the rainbow, the Aurora Borealis?
My Spiritual journey is my own, and no others’. Others’ Spiritual journeys are personal to them. We should respect each individual’s place on their path, and not criticise where we each are, so as not to cause offence or distress. William Penn said, “Oh God, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand”, and I think that fits in this case.
I grew up in a Quaker household, using the word God for a “benign guardian”. I suppose I can best describe it, looking back, as if God was everywhere around us! We learnt the different ways of viewing God at the different Sunday Schools we were encouraged to experience with friends when the family was not going to Meeting, and in the school environment. In my very young days, I was expected to say prayers before bed, in a mode of gratitude, rather than demanding attention.
I went to Friends’ School Saffron Walden, where God was a daily connection, in Assembly, and twice on Sunday, with scripture classes weekly. I’m sure most have had similar experiences. The teaching was not overly Quaker, as most pupils were not from Quaker families, so it was a broad brush-stroke learning environment.
After arriving in Australia, I married a Catholic, with a different view again, but it didn’t cause conflict as we were tolerant of each other’s different backgrounds. Although for a while, I did stay away from Quakers. After moving to Brisbane I eventually answered my inner calling to come to Meeting for Worship here.
Coming back to Meeting for Worship was a new revelation, where the words Spirit, Inner Light, and the Divine, became familiar to me. These words became a delight to use, and quite appropriate for certain situations, but my subconscious mind reverts to God on many occasions. I am quite comfortable with this. I believe that the Jews have 99 different names for God. The word does not change the essence; therefore why worry about the spelling?
I realise that many Quakers today have come from a different church background, and have found a welcome and comfort in our way of living. Some of these, it seems to me, are unable to lay down the burden of previous experiences, and continue therefore to allow that old pain to blight their new life. Hence the old connection of the “God” word to unpleasant experiences.
I don’t have to share their discomfort. I can sympathise, without understanding it. I can only encourage them to lay down that weighty burden, and immerse themselves fully into the refreshing well of openness, the freedom of an individual choice of words for the personal experience. The word “God” should not be feared in a Society that rejoices in its openness and welcome to all comers, and where we are equal.
I am a Quaker who is not “God fearing”, but utterly comfortable to use the word God, as an unashamed part of my life. I do not need to fear the use of this ages-old word, and do admit that my concept of the essence has undergone change over the years.
At a Quaker non-theist discussion I attended I was amazed. Here was a group of people each explaining why they no longer believed in God, but each one told a moving story of a Close Encounter, of a mystical experience that couldn’t be explained. Of course it is difficult to explain strong Spiritual feelings or experiences. But for me, it came back to: What is in a Word? It surely is why our Society is often called “experiential”.
George Fox had a revelation that “there is that of God in everyone”. In saying that, he possibly recognised that it was “Spirit”, or “the Light”, or “Inner Teacher”, and definitely Divine, but he declaimed this essential essence as “God”.
From this foundation, the Religious Society of Friends was established, and the Testimonies of Peace, Equality, Truth and Simplicity originated from that basis. As Quakers, we cannot deny where the foundation of the Society was built, and it has sustained us through the troubled times throughout the past three centuries. While some trappings have changed, the fundamentals remain as cornerstones of our Society. Remove them and the structure collapses. It does seem to me that it is a minority that are resistant to hearing the word “God” spoken. We surely don’t wish to become a superficial meditation group?
I am a Quaker, happy and comfortable to admit to a relationship with God, which is very meaningful to me, and I am sorry if others cannot share in that Spiritual experience. But I feel that I have a right to use the words that are part of who I am now, who I have evolved into over time through various connections and experiences, without needing to apologise, or to submit to be “pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century”. I am me, take me or leave me, I am still a Quaker.
Please let us have freedom of thought and speech, without having to look over our shoulder, in case an “Overseer” is nearby, as in times gone by. Please let people remember, that they requested and accepted membership into the Religious Society of Friends, and be tolerant of the majority, who are still able to gain comfort and strength, from a Divine “presence” in our lives.