Sunday, 11 February 2018

What do Quakers Mean by "Holding in the Light"?

Light breaking through cloud over hills in the countryside.
It is something of a pat phrase, among Quakers, to respond to the difficulty of others by offering to “hold them in the light”. I do not mean by this that we do not do anything else to help people in difficulty, or that such holding is not appreciated. Indeed, it is equally common, in my experience, for Friends to ask others to hold them in the light as they face adversity.
Like many Quaker phrases, however, it serves to obscure the divergence of understanding among liberal Friends. We do not explain what we mean when we use it, and rarely discuss what we mean by it at other times. It is clear that there are a range of meanings Friends ascribe to the saying, and even where people have similar conceptions of the Divine, they may not mean the same thing when they offer to hold someone in the light.
In this post I will explore some of the different interpretations of this phrase that I have come across, looking at what connects them and what differentiates them. I will also, naturally, explain my take on the matter.
It is an evocative phrase for many Friends, and certainly one that is pretty specific to Quakers, but even with a knowledge of Quaker language in general, it is hard to say with certainty what that combination of words might mean. Light, as a term among Quakers, has complex and multifarious meaning. Sometimes it is used as a general term, one among many, for the Divine – along with such standby terms such as Spirit and God. At other times, it is a more specific aspect of our experience of the Divine, a shorthand for Inner Light or Light of Christ (which may or may not be mutually interchangeable depending on the theology of the individual Friend). Any given Friend may use the term in different ways at different times. What then can we make of the idea of holding in the light? In my experience, we don't consistently capitalise “light” in the phrase, though some do, which even calls into question the idea that “light” refers to the same sort of things as it does when used as a word on its own.
The truth, as best I can determine, is that pretty much any possibility you might reasonably imagine is the meaning held by some Friends, somewhere. To some, it is essentially intercessory prayer; others view it as a kind of practical magic, a way of attempting to change the world through the application of human will. Many do not expect it to do anything in any practical sense, even spiritually, but know that it is nice, even helpful in adversity, to know that others are thinking of one. Some examples of cases I have heard, or read, should give some illustration.
Holding in the light as a visualisation is common – imagining the person, or the group, or some symbol of the matter in question, bathed in divine light. What Friends who do this consider the significance varies. For some, it has the character of intercessory prayer, that they see this visualisation as an expression of their hope that God strengthen the Light around/within the object of their attention; that this bring strength, or healing, or good fortune. For others, they see it as bringing light in the same way, to the same ends, but without the involvement of a deity; the transmission, by dint of will, of some of the Divine essence from themselves to the object of their attention.
In one or two cases I have heard of, Friends with a foot in a neopagan tradition will actually engage in some sort of ritual, possibly actually envisioned as an exercise in practical magic, to help the person directly – or simply to focus their own mind on the task as they understand it.
For some, who may or may not also engage in the visualisation described above, it is a matter of attempting to be receptive, rather than transmissive. They are opening themselves to any leadings that might come as to how they might constructively help with a situation; there is a hope that the Spirit will give them some insight into the situation that will lead to them being able to actually do something tangible to help.
For others, it is actually a Quakerly shorthand for more traditional intercessory prayer, directly asking God (or other divine figure or figures) to intervene on behalf of a person. This may even be spoken prayer. Similarly, for some it is a matter of spiritual healing, which may or may not mean an intention to bring about physical change.
For myself, and occasionally for some others I know of, it is a matter of holding the person in my thoughts, with good intentions, without any express idea about how this might lead to any results. It might, or it might not. Sometimes it produces a leading for action, but I do not expressly hope or expect that it will do so. Sometimes I get a sense that something changes as I do this, but I do not know where that sense comes from. I do not need to know; I know that I am doing something, possibly all I can do. If I already know something concrete I can do, I would do that; if I cannot, for whatever reason, I do what I can simply in the hope that something positive might result. I cannot it see it being worse than doing nothing, and it might do some good.
It is important to realise that these different patterns have overlap, and many Friends will recognise their practice reflected in several of them. Much like conceptions of the Divine, or understandings of the Quaker Business Method, trying to cover the full range of experience with separate descriptions might not be possible – and if it were, it would be a very, very long task.
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