Saturday, 4 November 2017

Standing Up for Quaker Groundedness

In an earlier post, I argued that Quaker practice is essentially mystical. I stand by that point. However, it is also clear that this is not all there is to Quakerism. While my meaning of mysticism in that post is quite clear, there are connotations of mysticism that are unavoidable for many, and that jar with Quaker teaching. In this post, I will outline what those connotations are, why they jar in the minds of many Quakers, and why it is important that they continue to do so.
As I previously discussed, mysticism has the connotation of some of the more ill-defined spirituality approaches of the modern age, including New Age practices, conjuring images of billowing robes and the power of crystals. Even aside from that, people might think of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived on pillars, believing that the mortification of their bodies would lead to the sanctification of their souls. It may even lead to poorly understood images of South Asian fakirs, beds of nails, that sort of thing. Overall, a lack of concern for the material or every day things of life. Even the understanding of mysticism that I argue fits Quakers, that of seeking through religious or spiritual efforts to attain spiritual understanding not accessible to the purely rational mind, has no obvious connection to the life that we live, to practical concerns. And yet it is the Quaker experience that our spiritual life drives decisions and actions in our practical life, and many if not most would say that the spiritual life is hollow if not accompanied by the practical life.
While I've had a huge, positive reaction to the post supporting Quaker mysticism, some people responded less positively. They assert that, for them, the essence of Quaker practice is its grounding in everyday life, and in things proven by experience. I don't disagree, and while the latter point suggests that they have not understood “mysticism” in the way I meant it, asserting Quaker mysticism, the first point is a subtler one. So, in case there are those who run away with the idea of mysticism as part of Quaker spiritual practice, I am writing this companion post, asserting the grounded nature of Quakerism – grounded in our everyday lives, in the world of the solid and certain, and in personal experience. This is not to say anything is incorrect about the assertion of Quaker mysticism, but rather that it is only one side of the Quaker coin; this groundedness is the other side of the coin.
Perhaps the clearest element of how Quaker practice is grounded in ordinary life is found in one of the many well-loved quotes of William Penn: “True godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it”. We do not expect our increasing spiritual knowledge and development, the fruits of our mysticism, to elevate us and take us away from the world, but rather to instruct us in the right way to live better – and more importantly it will drive us to improve the world, not just for ourselves and our loved ones, or our own narrow community, but for everyone. This is why Quakers have been involved in work around peace and disarmament, human rights, refugees and forced migration, economic justice, prison reform, and a dozen more major causes. That doesn't even scratch the surface of the individual, detailed work done by faithful Friends around the world on a hundred issues, small and large.
It is our faith, and the inspiration and strength that we draw from our experience of the Spirit, that enables to act with courage and strength, to speak truth to power, to face threats of arrest and even threats of violence in order to stand up for what we are convinced is right. It is the wisdom and guidance we gain in corporate discernment that allows us to know with confidence what causes we should do this in aid of, in which situations we should stand forth and take risks. And it is the prayerful support of our whole community that enables those who take the greatest risks, or put in the greatest work, to do so. None of our great activists and agents of change could do what they have done, what they continue to do, and what they will go on to do, without the community of Friends and the support of their Meetings behind them, even if they no longer have regular contact.
But this output to the practical is only one side of our faith being grounded. Groundedness also plays a role as an input, as well. For how can we relate our spiritual experiences to the real world in order to see what must be done without experience of the real world? Our spirituality cannot be one of ivory tower reflection, prayer and meditation away from the concerns of the world. We must do what is necessary to be aware of the concerns of the world in order to live faithfully; more than that, we need to know it with as much clarity and first-hand experience as possible. Not all of us can go be Ecumenical Accompaniers in the Middle East, or volunteer to support asylum seekers, or work with the homeless – but we can make sure that we not only support those that do, but that we encourage them to share their experiences and we can listen to them, and apply all our empathy to draw all we can from their experience to enhance our understanding.
This means trying to understand what life is like for those whose lives are not like our own. To understand the life of the economically disadvantaged in our own country, to comprehend the exclusion of disability, to see the values and experiences of the different cultures that share space with our own. We need to understand that the lives of people in other countries can be very different to ours, and that while we can never condone and struggle to understand many things – marrying young girls, female genital mutilation, or socially approved, willing conscription – we must not vilify whole societies or the people within them simply because there are elements of their culture that we oppose, however rightly.
Nor can we vilify those, even in our own society, who are the living examples of policies that we object to; that vilification is only suitable for those who promulgate such policies, if anyone. A soldier, a worker for the Department for Work and Pensions, a prison worker – these are agents of a policy that they do not control, and may have been economically coerced into their role, or drawn to it by the blandishments and distortions of those in power. In many cases, they may even have made that career choice out of the best of intentions, with the expectation that such a position would give them the opportunity to make a positive difference in people's lives; indeed, even with the parts of their work that we might consider unconscionable, there are times in many such jobs that they do have the chance to make a positive difference. Even if you could not, through the restraint of your conscience, take on those roles, especially given current policy, it is not the Quaker way to castigate for a lack of similar conscience; let them wear it as long as they can.
It is only by understanding all of these things, refining that understanding through the action of the Spirit, reflecting, seeking guidance of that same Spirit, and applying your understanding and your own abilities to that guidance, that you can truly give all you can to serve right. Even if it is not given to you to be one who acts to make change, to support those who need it, to speak truth to power and oppose what must be opposed, the same grounding in experience and understanding is needed to provide the support such Friends need, both in their action and in the discernment that lays behind it.
So it is that, while Quaker practice is inherently mystical, it is also essentially grounded in “real life”, in the experience of Friends and others, and in understanding of humanity.
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