Saturday, 21 October 2017

Standing Up for Quaker Mysticism

“Mysticism”. It's an odd word. You think of “mystic” as a noun, and you might get a lot of odd mental images – fakirs and gurus, new age crystal-power proponents in billowing robe-like dresses, and maybe, if you happen to know about them, perhaps Christian ascetics on pillars in the desert. You will find people talking about the Religious Society of Friends as a mystical tradition, but rarely and obliquely in our official literature. Are we mystical, and if so, why don't we talk about it much?
A good starting point, that may say much about the matter, is consider the general meanings attributed to “mysticism”. Those found in online references fall largely into two areas. The first is that union with God/the Divine/whatever, or otherwise hidden insights, are attainable through contemplation, meditation, self-surrender and so forth. The second, more disparaging sense refers to vague or ill-defined belief, including in the popular supernatural or stereotypical occult. One can clearly see in the first definition why Quaker tradition, especially in the unprogrammed traditions, might be considered mystical, and just as clearly in the second definition why Friends might be reluctant to use it.
Yet this first sense of “mystic” is the older and more time-worn, coming from the same root as “mystery” in ancient Greek, in reference to hidden and secret things – coming from words related to initiation. Thus it referred to those rites only conducted with those who are initiated, and thus trusted to maintain secrecy. Thus we speak of the mystery cults of the Greco-Roman world, and some even describe some branches of Wicca as mystery religions, with their focus on the idea of initiation creating an in-group. We even have the concept of “occult mysteries”, with a double implication of things hidden – as “occult” means hidden, as does “mystery”, though the latter carries the implication of “to be revealed to the initiated” in its original usage. Occult mysteries are therefore things utterly hidden from the world, but revealed to those initiated to them, a concept familiar in western esotericism.
The Quaker way is not a mystery religion, we do not have initiation or secret rites (or if we do, no-one's told me about them), but that is not what defines the concept of mysticism now. While related, the term has mutated in meaning from the original use in the ancient Greek terminology it is derived from. The general use of mysticism, aside from the disparaging one, is given by Oxford's online dictionary as “belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender”; there's a few dimensions of subtle variation in meaning there, but it's easy to see how it applies to Quaker teaching. The Quaker approach to silent waiting can be seen as contemplation and/or self-surrender, and while many might struggle to see the goal of this as “union with or absorption into” God/the Divine/whatever, the idea that we seek “spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect” is probably acceptable to many Quakers. That is not to say that all Quakers would be comfortable with any permutation of this definition applying to them, though it might be that exploring the subtler aspects of the meaning of the term would lead to more accepting it.
To me, being a Quaker is fundamentally a mystical path. Others, even understanding the term in the same way, won't agree, and that's fine. Even so, I want to explain why it works for me and perhaps, if it is helpful and right that it does so, this will lead to a wider knowledge of and acceptance of Quaker teaching as, among other things, mystical. If it doesn't, that's fine, but I think it is something that will be of benefit for more Friends to at least think about and talk about.
I can't see our goal as “union with or absorption into” the Divine, as I consider that we – and everything else – are part of it already. However, we are also ourselves, so that could be taken as more closely aligning our ego-selves with our divine selves. Certainly, I would wholeheartedly agree with the idea of “spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect”, at least in as much as that knowledge is inaccessible to the intellect alone. No amount of reason, book-learning or hearing of sermons can give us the knowledge we can gain through conscious contact with the divine. This is, essentially, what Fox and other early Friends railed against in established churches; these churches held that by simply reading the Bible, listening to sermons, confessing the creed, keeping to church law, and assenting to the various statements of belief and doctrine, one was living religiously. The Quaker way, not unique by any means, asserted that true religion could only be experienced, not taught. Reading the bible was meaningless without being attentive to the Spirit that gave it forth. Church rituals were nothing but empty forms when not accompanied by a devout spirit, for such a person the rituals were unnecessary. Taking certain actions and refraining from others was pointless, spiritually speaking, if done only out of an expectation of doing so; they became meaningful only when done out of sincere conviction. Just so, no theology taught by learned scholars has one tenth the value of a simple insight reached for oneself in communion with the Divine. I can, and do, attempt to share the fruits of my insights, but they will be of vastly less benefit to you than the insights you reach on your own – even if they are the same insights. Once we have achieved our insights, we can apply our intellect to them, and then gain new insights that can be obtained through the intellect, with the original spiritual apprehension already obtained and intellect working together. Yet there will be other insights that we must once again return to the inward teacher to attain.
Let us then consider the latter half of the definition, that these insights, these “spiritual apprehensions”, are obtained through “contemplation and self-surrender”. I struggle with this a little; expectant waiting is not precisely contemplation, especially for those who consider that which we wait upon to be outside of oneself. Nor would many people readily call it self-surrender; we maintain ourselves and our identity while we do it. Yet Britain Yearly Meeting's Advices and Queries urges us to bring our whole life under the ordering of the Spirit; is there an element of self-surrender to that. Perhaps we should not be too hung up on those precise words, but consider what they seek to convey overall.
That clause comes joined with the idea that the insights are not accessible to the intellect. Considering it in those terms, perhaps it is only one aspect of the self that we are surrendering. Our reason, our intellect, possibly our whole ego-mind. Our selves are much more than just those things, as important as many of us feel they are to our lives – myself included. But when we seek to know the Divine, we are surrendering a certain amount of control of our own mind – we let it go where the Spirit wills, to dwell on things that would not occur to us, to gain new insights and hopefully some useful guidance, and ultimately be transformed.
Thus we are surrendering ourselves, in a sense. Not letting go of all we are, but letting go of rigid, reasoned control. We surrender ourselves to the urgings and guidance of the Light within. In so doing, we hope to gain apprehension of ideas, leadings, knowledge not attainable purely through reason and intellectual endeavour.
Thus it is that Quaker practice is mystical. We may worry that to say so will cause people to think of peddlers of crystal woo, but then people often have wrong ideas about what Quakers are until they know more about us – who hasn't known someone to confuse us with the Amish, the Brethren, or even (and this one threw me the most) the Mormons? We are mystics, and this tells us things we should remember. When we, as Quakers, share our experiences and our journeys, we should not by aiming to give others the benefit of those experiences; that is not possible. What we are doing is sharing our stories along the way, that might help others on their journey to find their own experiences. That is, in large part, what I hope to do with my posts here, both ministry and deliberate writing. I encourage all Friends to do the same, not to preach to one another or contend over notions, but to share our perspectives and experiences to mutual benefit.
This post now has a companion piece on Quaker groundedness. If you've enjoyed this, or disagreed with it, it's probably worth reading that post as well.
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