The Journal of the
Quaker Universalist Fellowship
In This Issue
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From the Editor
This issue of Universalist
Friends captures some of the mystical side of Quakerism in essays and book reviews. It
opens with an article by Adrian Fisher who explores the metaphor
of the seed, a metaphor commonly employed by George Fox
and the early Quakers to represent that of God in us all which,
with proper nurturing, can grow into a great power for good in
a person's life. The seed metaphor leads us naturally to
consider ecology, as Rhoda Gilman does in her review of
Robert L. Pugh brings his readers into a Meeting
for Worship where he uses the metaphor of human beings as
actors to explore the Spirit he sees as Convener of the Meeting
and the essence of our inner selves. Such is the view of the
mystic, artfully presented by Rhoda in a review of a book by
Dorothee Soelle, a German theologian who seeks to describe the role
of mysticism in today's world.
Finally, Sally Rickerman reviews
Consider the Blackbird, a book on that much-discussed topic, the relationship
between religion and spirituality. Our own Quaker
Universalist Fellowship has recently published two collections of essays
on this topic.
The emphasis on mysticism in this issue reminds me of
an incident that happened to me many years ago, when I was
an Episcopalian. One of the clergy at my church asked me why
I thought the church existed. Without hesitation, I replied,
"To celebrate Eucharist." For me, that was all, the end,
nothing more to be said, the church's sole reason for existence.
Let me translate my reaction into experiential terms.
For me, the church (or Meeting) exists solely for one purpose:
to make manifest within and among us the Holy Spirit of
light and power. Period. As George Fox notes, preaching is so
that all external teaching may cease; so that people will know the
Inner Teacher within themselves. Here is my own
experience, from a slightly different perspective,
... My faith lay in my experiences of God and
Jesus. I met Jesus in church regularly through the celebration of the Last Supper [Eucharist] in
churches of all sorts, from charismatic to Roman Catholic....
I claim I would know him [Jesus] if he were to
walk down the street. (Where Christianity Went Wrong,
This inward, experiential knowledge is quite biblical,
of course. Jeremiah in the Hebrew Scriptures says, "But this is
the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after
those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I
will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they
shall be my people." (31:33)
The Hebrew prophet Joel describes the experience of
this promise (God is speaking):
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
And your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
In those days I will pour out my spirit. (2:28-29)
The New Testament book of Acts famously describes
the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus' disciples:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from
heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent
wind, and it filled the entire house where they were
sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among
them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of
them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to
in other languages, as the Spirit gave them
ability. (Acts 2:1-4)
These quotations, of course, are formative ones for
the Pentecostal Churches, which grew from nothing to the
largest group of Protestants on Earth in a brief century, beginning
in 1906. Among Pentecostals is deep longing for the power
and works of the Holy Spirit, which they receive.
Robert Barclay early posts warnings about matters of
the Spirit to people whose worship style is silent Meeting:
If this form of worship [silent waiting] is
observed, it is not likely to be kept pure unless it
is accompanied by the power of God. For it is so naked itself that there is little to tempt men
to become excessively fond of its mere form, once
the Spirit has departed. (Apology XI, 27)
If the soul is busy with its own work, and if
thought and imagination stem from self-will, even
though the matters they may be occupied with are good
in themselves and may even be about God, the soul is thus incapacitated from discerning the still,
small voice of the Spirit.... Wouldn't a king's servant
be thought impertinent and lacking in discretion if
he didn't wait patiently and willingly in order to answer the great prince when he speaks? ...
Wouldn't it be rather ridiculous if he [the
servant] ran around doing things which might be good
in themselves, but for which he had no direct
order; things that other people had been told to do
at other times? (Apology XI, 10)
"Things that other people had been told to do at other
times...." I fear that our peace creed, so deeply corrupted by our ignorance
of economics, is leading us away from "worship in spirit and
in truth" (John 4:23), away from the power and works of the
Spirit, to doing harm while we believe we are doing good.
I leave you with the opening to one of my favorite
prayers from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a confession
I learned early to make from my heart for myself, my
church, and all humanity: "Most merciful God, we confess that we
have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what
we have done, and by what we have left undone...." (From
Holy Eucharist, Rite II)
Patricia A. Williams
From the Clerk
With this issue of Universalist
Friends, Patricia Williams lays down her responsibility for editing the journal. We
greatly appreciate Pat's excellent work during her term as editor
of this publication and her outstanding contribution in
editing the QUF Readers 2 and 3. We are also delighted with her
new book, Quakerism: A Theology for Our
Time on Quaker theology in relation to today's scientific worldview. We have valued
her service on the QUF Steering Committee and her
willingness to share her views at gatherings of Quakers. We look
forward to future opportunities to publish her reflections on
themes relating to universalism, mysticism and the tradition of
Friends. We wish her well in her important work.
Nurturing The Seed
"The cares and pleasures of this life choke
and destroy the seed of the kingdom and quite
hinder all progress in the hidden and divine life."
William Penn, No Cross, No Crown
My life as a gardener has often led me to meditate on
the "Parable of the Sower." In each of three similar versions,
Jesus tells the parable and then explains it to his disciples. In
each, seeds shrivel, are easily uprooted, choked by thorns, or
thrive, according to where they're planted. Lately I've been
considering the seed and the thorns among which it falls, named as:
"the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth"
(Matthew 13: 18); "the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth
and the desires for other things" (Mark 4:13); "life's worries,
riches and pleasures" (Luke 8:11). The parable furnishes a
metaphor, and the subsequent explication is not very specific. There is
no set of definitions, no list of bad or illegal practices or
approved ones, for that matter. The general wording insures that
each person can interpret it in an individual way.
On one level, the deceitfulness is pretty obvious:
enough physical comfort and material goods so that one doesn't
think beyond oneself. There are all the many pleasures of
our American culture whether of consumerism, ownership,
lifestyle, or entertainment to which stoking and satisfying of desires
we are so accustomed we may not even notice that they
are excessive or even distracting. Often the strategies involved
in the acquisition or maintenance of wealth, status and
power become ends in themselves. But it's not just social
games, pleasures or comforts. Many people are overly busy,
stretched thin by their daily responsibilities. To survive in this society
we must tend to our business, pay our bills, work, raise
children, have long commutes, struggle with ill health; we are all wealthy
in cares. "Wealth" becomes anything that fools us into
thinking there's nothing beyond ourselves and our little lives. I, at
least, am often easily fooled. All these aspects of life do provide
a worldly identity, even a sense of reality, but one way or
another, the presence can be choked out and one can fall away from
the holy nature of things without even realizing itdeceived
again. All this has been said many times before.
In his essay Rain and the Rhinoceros, Thomas
Merton writes that besides the identity there exists a true spiritual
self. He says we must shake off distractions to find this self at
our center so that the seed, or the Word, can flourish. Each of
us has a different identity, different life, different distractions.
Yet each carries the inner light, the seed, willing or not. In
Quakers and the Use of Power, Paul Lacey writes of those who
deny their strength and ability to take on responsibility, in
effect saying "I'm too weak to do anything, I can't take
responsibility for my acts. I'm a victim of X, Y, or Z." Some people might
feel this way about their spiritual lives: too busy, too weak,
can't see it. Spirituality should just happen, maybe someone
else could do it for us, or we'll get to it later.
"The Parable of the Sower" asks us to take
responsibility for the cultivation of the seed and offers fruitfulnessto
anyone willing to pay attention and do the necessary work.
The explication makes clear that we ourselves are the soil in
which the seed is sown, our lives are also the land, the seed is
that which is sacred, the Word, the Holy Spirit. Yet we are also
the farmers or gardeners, responsible for cultivation.
From experience I know that seeds exist in infinite variety: they
can be tiny as grains of sand, or large, tough, weighty in the
hand. They need different conditions just to get ready to
germinateperhaps scarification, cold stratification, heat, or even
fire. Some can lie in the soil for years until the conditions are
right, and then, miraculously, begin to grow. Thus must the seed
of the Holy Spirit be: infinitely various, for each person is
unique, each person's life provides different conditions for growth. If
we nurture the seed and give it some space, no matter
how busy we are, then it will grow and developour lives will
speak in their various ways.
Gandhi also writes of how each of us is responsible
for attending to inner changes and that our lives demonstrate
our inner spiritual growth. To do this gardening work may
require one to shift one's attention inward just to find the
seednot always easy, but the seed is there, having already
undergone the process necessary to enable germination and waiting
for shafts of spring light. It is never too late, the timing is
always right. As a result of that shift, other changes, in philosophy
and values, might take place. Or one might feel the seed, the
power, the light, already growing, and be led to make changes in
one's life to provide a more fertile ground. It depends on the
person. Few can retreat to a monastery, as did Merton, or
renounce earthly possessions and paying jobs as did Gandhi. But
one person might reduce his possessions, another
commitments. Some might work to harness their emotions, to rechannel
their anger; others might read spiritual books, or keep a journal,
or go on retreats. Daily prayer or meditation often
This process can be scary. One discovers before long
that it requires self-disciplineand who wants to be an ascetic,
an extremist, a religious nut, or to be considered so? One
might feel one is losing one's identity. I found the process a little
less daunting once I joined the community of Quakers. It helps
to know others are engaged in this work, with whom I can
compare notes from time to time. Our silent worship serves as a
weekly retreat. Our testimonies, which in their different yet
overlapping ways center on this inner cultivation, yield guidance. I try
to "live plain" as a way of following the Truth, and allowing
the seed to grow. Wilmer Cooper, in "The Testimony of
Integrity" quotes George Fox as saying, "take heed of the world's
fashions, lest you be moulded up into their spirit. That will bring you
to slight truth." The plain outer life simultaneously reflects and
nurtures the inner life, so one becomes whole and behaves
with integrity. In the same spirit, Leslie Marmon Silko writes,
"Great abundances of material things, even food, the Hopi
elders believe, tend to lure human attention from what is
most valuable and important." The Hopi "must `live by their
prayers'" if they are to survive. Thomas Kelly valorizes the discipline
of going through one's days in a constant state of prayer,
even when fully engaged in the world. This "plain living and
high thinking," as Wordsworth put it, might serve someone
well who is not on retreat, but living in the midst of cares.
Plain living could be considered a form of
"self-denial." Recently I read a blog in which practicing an
environmentally friendly lifestyle was likened to the painful self-sacrifice
involved in going on a diet. We might think of the practice of
self-denial embodied as the pinch-penny, the party-pooper, the
censorious grinch, the snarky, self-righteous authority who wants to
deny everyone else's self along with his or her own. Perhaps
there should be a new phrase, for in common speech,
"self-denial" seems to mean self-punishment or even self-hater a method
of manipulating or oppressing others and to have lost
whatever positive connotations it once had. We are often urged to
indulge ourselves, not deny ourselves. Yet to me, the discipline
involved in plain living, and moving towards sustainable
living, inextricably connects with nurturing the seed within.
Plants can't grow in toxic conditions; neither do they grow
because you will them to. Gardening requires watchfulness and
love, requires watering, weed-pulling, daily care and attention.
The self is not being denied so much as the identity, as expressed
in one's way of life, is changing to reflect the growth of the
spiritual self, the seed, the kingdom of God. It is a journeying
towards communion with God, moving past distractions, and
involves understanding the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires
for other things as what they are engines of unhappiness.
Forced good behavior constitutes oppression and repression, but
as Gandhi points out, good behavior undertaken through love is
a way towards true freedom. One walks a new path,
practicing self-denial in a positive sense that connects inner and
The "Parable of the Sower" reminds us that the
anxieties of life and an un-centered focus on the material world can
make one lose or even kill one's spiritual self and one's real
lifethe part that is open to God, that expands like a plant in fertile
soil if allowed to. It offers an evocative image that connects us
to all of life on Earth as well as to God. We are to remember
and not intellectually, but in an inner, almost physical way the
inner life of growth and joy accessible when we heed that
message. Centering in that place brings hope, a sense of
spaciousness and love and reconnects us with the world in a new way.
One true thing is that not only Christians or Quakers, but holy
people of many faith traditions speak, write and practice
cultivation of the inner spiritual self. They indicate that this practice is
not restricted only to saints, visionaries and mysticsthe sort
of people many Americans, even Quakers, might distrust or
see as impracticalbut can nurture everyone, regardless of
the material circumstances of their lives.
EarthLight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological
edited by Cindy Spring and Anthony Manousos (343 p.,
Friends Bulletin, Oakland, CA, 2007)
Reviewed by Rhoda Gilman
This volume is a choice compendium of inspiring
and sometimes classic writing that will be treasured and referred
to not only by Friends but by other readers for whom ecology
has profound spiritual implications. It draws upon the 54 issues
of EarthLight, a magazine published under the oversight of
West Coast Friends from 1990 to 2006. Most, but not all, of
the essays, poetry and art are selected from its pages. The 61
titles in the book are divided into seven topical sections, each
of which is introduced in the manner of Friends by a few
quotations and queries of self-examination. These have been provided
by Quaker storyteller and author Sandra Moon Farley.
Perceptive readers may see between these covers
footprints that trace the long trail Friends have trodden since 1990
in coming to recognize environmentalism as an ethical
and spiritual concern on a par with peace and social justice. It
was in 1985 that Marshall Massey electrified Intermountain
Yearly Meeting with a prophetic address in which he pointed out
the stark reality that human activity was fast destroying
the possibility of life on earth and that Friends were
responding with little more urgency than most other
complacent Americans. His message led immediately to the creation of
a national committee on Friends in Unity with Nature
(now renamed Quaker EarthCare Witness) and by 1990 to
the establishment of a magazine to spread the word.
From its beginnings
EarthLight was universalist in scope, embracing the entire human family and the Earth's diversity
of spiritual traditions. Yet the distinctive Quaker context
and perspective apparent in its early issues faded with the
appointment of non-Quaker editors and disappeared
entirely after 1996 when under K. Lauren de Boer it became a voice
for the broader sacred ecology movement. As such it carried
the work of a number of widely known authors Thomas
Berry, Brian Swimme, Gary Snyder, Maya Angelou, Starhawk,
Joanna Macy, John Seed, and Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.
Their contributions, along with the work of many lesser lights,
give this new anthology both brilliance and depth.
By 2006, however, the magazine itself succumbed to
the crushing financial pressures that have eliminated so many
small printed publications in recent years. It had apparently failed
to attract any strong following among Friends, and other
sources of support were insufficient. All of us should be grateful
to Cindy Spring and Anthony Manousos for their labor
in preserving the best of its contents by compiling this
volume and to Friends Bulletin for making the book available.
Robert L. Pugh
"The invisible and imponderable is the sole
fact" (Emerson, Letters and Social
You show up at the theatre to watch the show. But
before it starts, there is shouting from the stage. It's
at you! They're telling you "You are the actor! You're empathizing well
with the role. You act like it's really you. You're so convincing!"
The spotlight on you makes you nervous. Relax. It's
only beaming on the external, world-filled you. It's not your
essence. You don't have to work this role just now. Close your eyes
and help the theatre disappear. Open the gates of your
spiritually gated life. Find comfort in your breathing. Find comfort in
the non-verbal sounds and stirrings of those Friends in the
circle around you and in the distant murmur of the children
from another part of the Meetinghouse. Be peace. Be spirit.
Be courage to let your self experience
longing for God.
"More ego, less God; more God, less ego." In the
early part of Meeting for Worship, I try to lessen my ego, to
resign the roles I act, to release my tendency to over control life
and minimize emotional response. I wrestle with my
self-deceptions, my vanities, my obsessiveness, and my anxieties. So often
a prisoner of my misperceptions of what constitutes
reality, happiness and self, I try to release this world-filled self into
the Patiently Waiting Spirit.
Who are we meeting with in a Meeting for Worship?
More with One than anyone.
Time passes. Though the container of the
Meetingroom may bulge with perceptions and misperceptions, the
Divine Force convenes us in the heart of the Meeting. Often a deep,
peaceful spirit prevails as this Convener finds the long
middle of the Meeting the staging area.
The deep, calm, peaceful, steady spirit in me
is me and the same in you is you. We're not these well-learned,
well-worn roles. We only have brief parts to play in this long,
amazing human story, and we're not these forces we push so hard
against. We're not these struggles. They will pass. Every body,
every place, every structure our eyes see will pass and disappear.
We may be upset about our bodies: their sizes, their illnesses,
their aging, their lack of cooperation with our plans. Be upset.
Then also be aware it's not the deeper you or the deeper me.
Allow the Spirit to watch it. Watch it from some distance.
Now I'm not watching anything from a distance.
My daughters could be 9 years old and 5 years old. It's maybe
8:00 p.m. and the three of us are lying on one of their beds in
the middle of our evening calm down, end of day ritual. Our
eyes are closed and we're doing what I call "tones," but you
may know it as "om" or group meditative chanting. We three are
in the bigger-than-us Sound, though we have no label for it
other than tones. Life is too perfect here to even be labeled
"perfect" as the process of labeling removes one a bit into the
observer role and the Sound isn't observing, and we
are the Sound. It feels so great. It's floating and melting around the room.
It sings just right. Oh, the precious in-breaking of the Divine:
the Chant chants me.
Then wham, I'm unbalanced, falling off a cliff.
I'm ungrounded. I'm not there. "There" was around 1987 and
I'm instead in a June 2004 Southern Appalachian Yearly
Meeting in a workshop with about 30 others on "Sacred
Chanting." Somehow the combination of the group worship with my
eyes shut for an hour, while thirty or so of us are repetitiously,
slowly chanting together, stumbles me into a mystical experience
of joy mixed with one of utter loss. I'm on the edge of weeping.
I ache that that wonderful phase of life is gone. My children and
I love each other, but too seldom see each other as their
lives are taking them far away from home. And besides, they're
adults. They'll never be little girls again. Then cascading down
this loss-cliff, my history of losses is all in the present the deaths
of parents, of friends, of others I've valued. Then future
inevitable losses are heremy wife, my brother, friends, uncles,
aunts, and our health. There's no protective distance. The
divine chanting that enveloped me in all wonder now envelops me
in all loss.
In the week before the Yearly Meeting, I traveled
alone and visited elderly relatives I see too rarely, and saw
family tombstones in eight cemeteries around South Carolina.
Some living relatives' tombstones are already in place, waiting
the carving of the date of death. In the chanting, I see
my tombstone and the stones of those I love, only awaiting carving.
George Fox writes, "I saw, also, that there was an
ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and
love, which also flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I
saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings."
So often great openings to the Divine include
the experience of attachment and loss. Aren't the two
intractably intertwined? Mysticism has many sides. It's not just the
ever being born but it's also the ever dying. It's not just the
adherence of all, but it's also the annihilation. Rumi writes
(The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks), "don't let your throat
tighten with fear. Take sips of breath all day and night, before
death closes your mouth." But when you let go the fearful
tightening of your ego and its body, you may be released into the ocean
of darkness or the ocean of light. The light we accept as
Quakers is juxtaposed with a dark night of the soul. I try to accept
this as I know the angel of birth walks with the angel of death,
and that both walk with me.
The most truthfully jarring worship in the
Christian liturgical churches for me is the Ash Wednesday service.
As the ashes are imposed on foreheads of those kneeling, the priest
somberly speaks "Remember thou are dust and to dust
thou shall return." (Book of Common Prayer,
In another Meeting for Worship, no one speaks for
the entire hour. In the long silence, I return to a conversation
with a man whose wife has recently died. There is heaviness in
every syllable he utters. "I wander. Yes, in limbo. Yes, I'm in
between stages of life but in some enormous nothingness. Doing
the minimum I can to not be fired, to not call negative
attention to me. Yet little matters. My sleep is weird. I won't let
myself sleep at night. I sleep an hour here or there in the day
only. Sometimes when I'm supposed to be working, I pull my
car over on a busy city street and nap." As we talk, he realizes he
is tightly avoiding an agony that comes when he nods off to
sleep. Sleep is a vulnerable place where our feelings go
uncontrolled. He notes he avoids their large living room because there
he most feels the emptiness and loneliness. In later talks with
this griever, he tells me how he now sits in the living room
nightly to talk to his dead wife's presence to move toward, not
frightfully away, from the agony. At times, he wails into the
blackness "I want you back!" He cries and cries. In the long, long
silence of needed grief, I sit with my needed grief. "I want you
back, but know you won't come back," I think, as I recall my
mother's death when I was a child, almost forty years ago. The man
and I sit in the same staging room in silence, two mourners,
together and lost. Lost, yet found in Silence.
Lao-tzu said, "Embrace death with your whole
heart." Socrates said, "Practice death."
In a recent Memphis summer, a terrible 100-mph
wind-shear storm shut down the city for many days. Members
of Memphis Friends Meeting still gather, though most are
without power and have damaged homes and yards. As we
worship, one Friend says, "This destruction is everywhere. At times I
feel God is a terrorist." We sit with this. Meeting is not a
time to quibble over what anyone construes as God.
Dorothee Soelle, in The Silent Cry, writes "Darkness, night, and
suffering cannot be excluded from the wholeness of God as some
New Age piety promises."
We all sit in silence for the first 25 or so minutes at
another Meeting for Worship. I'm unsure of the time as my eyes
are closed for the whole hour. The first voice speaking into
the silence is that of a 60-year-old woman in great anguish.
She discusses her three cancers, the losses of different men in
her life, and then hesitantly ponders suicide. She tearfully
recounts her stepfather's terrible child abuse of her. She talks about
a visit to a psychic who told her she is a psychic too and told
her she'd have a real love late in her life and she would know
him with certainty upon their meeting. Then she notes how
delighted she was that the man and she found each other, how
beautiful it was, but then he recently dropped her for another woman.
The unfortunate woman speaks on and on, and when she
stops, she still sounds trapped in a dark hole of despair.
The silence then weighs more. Its weight changes
during the hour.
Several minutes later, the Silence finds human
voice through a wise woman. In her deep strong voice, she notes
she wanted to stay home today, lie in bed, enjoy the
beautiful sunshine in her bedroom. But her husband of a marriage
now totaling 42 years asked her to please come. And here she
is, she said, meditating on songs of African American slaves.
Here she is, thinking about the death of her son last year,
thinking about the devastation, the wide confusion, and on
how eventually she came to believe that a Grander Being
knew things, understood things, in ways that humans will not
fathom. How in the fields, the slaves sang "Keep your hand on
that plough, hold on." Little made sense, yet they held on.
There's so little we know. Yet we know we're here together now.
We know people care about each other here.... hold on, hold on.
The children entered the Meeting as they do the last
ten minutes. After they calmed down, the wise one spoke
again about the field slaves. She noted many couldn't talk to
each other because they spoke different African languages.
Yet exposure to Christianity was allowed with many slaves,
including exposure to the music of Christianity. Music, music, music
... it reminds us of a truththat we incomplete beings must
have each other, are bound together, are together. She
encourages the children to join her in singing.
From deep in her chest, deep in the children, and
deep in all of the still, silent bodies in the Meetingroom comes
the gathered sounds, the words, and the Holy Spirit. "This
little light of mine, I'm going to make it shine...." Is there a dry
eye in the room?
Yes, the weight of silence changes during the hour. It
begins uncomfortably. It becomes a silence of private
meditation, prayer, and free thought. It can be a silence fraught
with struggles. It can drop with rock hardness. But so often it
ends with buoyancy, with lightness, and with liberation from
These Meeting hours are unlike any other hours. The
clerk turns and shakes hands with those next to her. All of us join
in as we return to a different, awake social world. Is it show time?
The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance
by Dorothee Soelle, translated by Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt
Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2001)
Reviewed by Rhoda Gilman
This is a book about the role of mysticism in today's
world. It is the final and most substantial work of Dorothee Soelle,
a German theologian (1929-2003). First published in
Hamburg in 1997, it is slowly becoming known to a worldwide audience.
There may be those who think that between the
battling fundamentalisms of monotheism and the secular,
materialist scientism of the industrial world, mysticism has nowhere
to stand. Yet if we look and listen closely, we will detect
beneath the tumult a slowly rising tide of spirituality. Swelling in
silence, it is fed by hidden springs of yearning and a
wordless, inexpressible touch of mystery that has haunted our race
from its beginnings. Over the ages, the human response has
taken many formssome very strangebut the intuition persists
that we are part of a reality that we can neither define, describe,
nor fully know. And surfacing in vastly different cultures across
the globe, it has universally carried a sense of oneness with
each other and with all of life. That sense, Soelle maintains,
leads directly to resistance against the world-destroying course
of global capitalism.
Writing during the last half of the 20th century,
Soelle was in many ways a successor to Rufus Jones, Evelyn
Underhill, and Aldous Huxley, the thinkers on mysticism best known
to Quaker readers. Like Jones and Underhill, she spoke from
within the Christian tradition, and she limited most of her
discussion to examples from late medieval and early modern
times, including among many others Meister Eckhart, George
Fox, and John Woolman. Living in the post-World War II
era, however, she, like Huxley, also recognized that today's
mysticism represents a merging of currents from many
sources. She was familiar with Sufism, the current within Islam, and
her discussion of Sufi mystics is a strong part of the book.
But although she acknowledged the mystical traditions of
Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, and Native American
peoples, her treatment of them in this book is incomplete
Readers will find mention of Gandhi but no
recognition of the Theosophical movement, an early bridge between
Eastern and Western mysticism that played an important role in
the rise of the Indian National Congress Party. There is
also discussion of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat
Hanh, but examples of Buddhist-inspired resistance movements
in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, along with the
worldwide impact of Tibetan refugees and the spread of a
radicalized Buddhism to the West in the past half century are
missing. Overlooked also is the quasi-Buddhist meditation practice
in China that has led to the mass movement known as Falun
Gong. Perceiving correctly that a public square full of silent
meditators is a formidable statement of opposition, China has
brutally suppressed it.
All of these examples go far to strengthen Soelle's
thesis that mysticism leads to resistance. They also point to
the universal presence of mysticism among the world's
spiritual traditions and to its potential power in uniting rather
than dividing those traditions. Readers may well ask if its time
has come, now that the shared fate of the whole human family
and our unity with all creation are immediate and inescapable facts.
"I pursue my aim of democratizing mysticism
without trivializing it," Soelle writes as she begins to examine the
various places and circumstances in which a direct experience of
divine reality can arise. Consistent with this aim is her treatment
of nature mysticism and pantheism, which "dissolves
God's personhood in favor of life-power, energy, oscillation, and
radiation." Traditional monotheism, she argues, posits
a hierarchical universe, dividing creator from creature, and
lays the basis for "sexism, feudalism, racism, class-domination,
and the desacralization of nature."
Also consistent with democratizing mysticism is
her emphasis upon the historic identification of women
with mystical movements. From the Sufi saint Rabi'a
al-Adawiya and the martyred Beguine Marguerite Porete to
Catholic Worker Dorothy Day, women's lives and words are
constantly present. Nor does she overlook Margaret Fell, "the
brilliant woman who toiled with George Fox" and defended the right
of women to speak the words of the spirit in Quaker meetings.
Her explorations of eroticism and suffering in
connection with mystic experience stay strictly within the Western
world. She makes no mention of the tantric tradition in yoga,
which draws upon the complementary energies of male and female
in achieving ecstasy, nor does she discuss the achievement
of equanimity in the face of suffering as the main goal of
the Buddha's teaching. Her examples of mysticism rooted
in community include Hasidism among the Jews of
eastern Europe, the medieval Beguines, and the Society of Friends.
At times the line Soelle draws between mysticism
and simple religious faith becomes indistinct. Defining as
mystics such church-based leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr. and
Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff and
Dom Helder Camara may stretch the definition of mysticism for
some readers. Yet if direct experience of a divine calling
and persistence in the face of institutional opposition are the
tests, then her argument is credible in most cases.
The keys to mystical theology in Soelle's view are
the immanence of God within the world and "the
mutual dependence of God and human beings." Never fully
knowable and always indescribable, the God of the mystic speaks to
all of creation with a "silent cry." By contrast, the image of
a transcendent, magisterial, other-worldly God leads human
worshippers in their turn to dominate and subjugate the rest
of nature. Soelle concludes that the power developed by
science and technology in the 20th century has made this contrast
ever more sharp and now threatens "the whole of life on the
little blue planet."
Science itself points the way toward mysticism. To
the leading thinkers in quantum mechanics, complexity,
and evolutionary theory, "It has become clearer and clearer
that everything that exists coexists and is bound into a network
of relationships that we call interdependence." Although the
words themselves strongly suggest the Buddhist concept of
dependent self-arising (that all phenomena exist in a process of
continuous co-creation), Soelle does not take the further step of
examining parallels and interpretations that might point toward a
more truly universal understanding of mysticism.
Such a step may be unnecessary, however. The
drawing of distinctions is itself inimical to the simple awareness of
what is that forms the essence of mystical practice. Direct
experience will convince us far more clearly than words that the
indwelling, unrecognized "Buddha Nature" or the "Atman" in all
humans is the moral and spiritual equivalent of the "Living Christ"
or the "Light Within." If that can be achieved, then
perhaps humankind can realize compassion for each other as the
way to survival and turn its efforts toward restoring the earth.
Consider the Blackbird by Harvey Gillman
QuakerBooks, British Yearly Meeting, UK, 2007)
Reviewed by Sally Rickerman
There are few exquisite pleasures in life. Recently I
have had and am continuing to have one! For the price of
perhaps two and one-half movie tickets ($25), I bought and am
reading Harvey Gillman's latest book. He was born into and
brought up in a Jewish enclave, a working-class neighborhood
adjoining Manchester (UK). From there he went to Oxford where
he briefly flitted in and out of the Quaker Meeting. His
inborn interest in language was further developed as he spent his
spare time honing this exceptional skill to be better enabled
to explore truth from the perspective of
religion/spirituality. Harvey then returned to and found Quakerism to be the
best fit for his own religious/spiritual needs. His career as
Outreach Secretary for 20+ years both encouraged and allowed him
to express those needs as he served London Yearly Meeting,
as today's Britain Yearly Meeting was then known.
Utilizing his long life interest and study of
languageusages and nuancesHarvey Gillman both discusses and
offers explanations concerning the relationship between religion
The topics he considers in this tersely written
book regarding religion and spirituality are:
How are they the same?
Are we throwing these two babies out with the
"bath water" to prove that we are au
Are we afraid of one "name" and not the other?
Are we sure that
our definition of each is the real one?
Do we include: poetry; myth; story-telling; etc; in
our emotional reaction to of these major subjects?
Are we influenced in our use of either word by our
own self image?
Are we attracted to either of these words by our
How can we best communicate with others who
have differing understandings of these two words?
He says: (p 45) "The division for me on the religious
life is not between members of one religion and another, or
even between skeptics, atheists and followers of religions. It
is between those who include the stories of their fellow
humans and those who exclude them."
Each word Harvey uses seems to be as carefully chosen
as the jeweler chooses the next exquisite gem and its place in
its new setting. This thoughtful care involves his reader in
the consideration of his main topic again and again. His
writing reflects his sensitive listening to others'
spiritual/religious journeys, which he has encountered as he has traveled his
"The language (for science) we used to describe what
was going on was non-symbolic, non-metaphorical, free from
gender distinctions. We were observing the unvarnished
unambiguous truth of things... . Perhaps it is an ever evolving story of
the way things are, a story open to new observation, to
new understanding, an emerging story which in the light of
new evidence makes the scientific method one of differing stories."
In Gillman's description of another aspect of the way
in which language influences our understanding of
whichever discipline we are examining, he paraphrases the
instructions which translators were given as they approached the
"King James" version of the Bible: "... that the language should
be slightly archaic. If sacred text and liturgy are the means of
seeing the present time in the context of the timeless, then
archaic language and a slight incomprehensibility may well be the
means of achieving this." In continuing the analogy not only in
the area of religion but in that of science as well, Gillman states,
"The fact that this story (science) is based on a particular
view of reality makes the scientific method one of the differing
stories; indeed we can talk of science as a myth, a story which
claims to describe the world as it is and allows us to see within it
the context of our lives. Myth, here, is the story that
confers meaning and enlightenment and enables us to engage with
the world around."
This book resonates with me for two reasons: the
first because as I turn each page I find new insights, a new "aha,"
a new joy as I discover "why." The second but equally
important one is that I am bundled into being a universalist, a mystic,
a Quaker searching for truths and given to poetic expressions.
The gold mine of understanding this complex topic
which he has explored over a lifetime, can perhaps be summed up
in the following paragraph near the end of his book:
The language of spirituality does not answer
questions in an absolute way. Indeed it asks questions. It
tells stories. The answers we may giveor, better
findwill be the ways we have discovered in our lives
and relationships. When these stories are put next to
each other, there may seem to be many
contradictions. But somehow, I take heart from the great
mystics who have proclaimed in many differing words
and melodies that behind all stories, there is one
story. And that story is known and shared; not defined.
It is about lovethat other desperately
Contribute to the Journal
The mission of The Quaker Universalist
Fellowship is to foster the under-standing that within everyone is a directly accessible
spiritual light that can lead people to equality, simplicity, justice,
compassion and peace.
QUF Steering Committee, November 2005
We are seeking articles from 500 to 3,000 words. These may be essays
on personal experience of arrival or maturation in Quaker universalism
or of worship or they may be scholarly works focused on
Quaker universalism, history, biography, sociology, scripture, and theology,
both Christian and non-Christian. We also welcome book reviews,
poetry, personal essays, and letters. Use inclusive language. Please send
your submissions by U.S. mail on diskette or CD in WORD to
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or as WORD attachments to email to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put UF in the subject line. We do
not accept anonymous submissions without
very good reason. Deadline for next issue: December