Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Journey into Life

Our Friend Gerald Hewitson's Swarthmore Lecture, Journey into Life, is an uplifting and heartening read. It occurs in two formats: the original version published by Quaker Books; and the version he delivered at Yearly Meeting, which is, or will soon be, available on the Woodbrooke website or on CD from Woodbrooke. I heard the lecture, but haven't been able to listen again to it yet, so I'm focusing here just on the printed version. Gerald's readiness to rework his lecture for oral delivery provides impressive witness to his understanding that texts, and especially spiritual writing, like the lives they commemorate, are always work-in-progress, needing regular rewriting to accommodate them to the new situations in which they find themselves.

His lecture tells his own spiritual journey from a poor background in South Yorkshire through higher education to a career in teaching, and more than thirty years of committed service as a Quaker. It is a story read in the light both of Quaker testimonies, from the earliest Quakers to modern materials collected in Quaker Faith and Practice, and of the Bible. He uses the Bible not, as evangelical Christians do, as a source of proof-texts, but as the source of 'patterns and examples' by means of which the visionary can articulate his own experience to himself and others.

The high points of this spiritual journey are presented straightforwardly as moments of vision and revelation. When first Gerald goes to Meeting (at Bangor) a voice speaks in his head to him: 'Why have you been travelling the face of this planet? There is no need to journey any more. You are home'. Much later, during a term's residency at Pendle Hill, he has personal revelations of 'great compassion in the heart of the Universe', alongside a 'burning anger at social injustice' and of something which many mystical writers would have well understood, and which he describes as 'the entire flower of our being'. Another 'seeing', which comes when he finds himself, newly retired, in 'the dark night journey of the soul', he describes as 'the love of God streaming through the universe for each and every one of us – endlessly, ceaselessly, cascading as a benign flood.'

In these moments he applies to himself a phrase of George Fox: 'Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.' Fox's experience will be familiar to most lovers (think, say, of the love poetry of e e cummings), as well as to those facing their own death or the death of what they love (think how Dennis Potter, dying of cancer, said of the cherry tree, outside his study window, that it had the 'blossomiest blossoms he'd ever seen').

Fox is here blending two kinds of language, the mystical/experiential and the Biblical, and he is able to do so because he believes that the words of the Bible were themselves heightened visionary utterances: 'the Scriptures were the prophets' words and Christ's and the apostles', and what... they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it [directly] from the Lord.' In other words, the words of the Bible were an outward expression of an inner experience, which Fox and all convinced Friends share and can confirm from their own experience. Or, as Gerald puts it (speaking of a whole life and not just words on the page), 'The outer work of our hands is the result of the inner work of our heart.' This is not a view of the Bible likely to appeal to a modern sceptical cast of mind: which, in varying degrees, most of us share. But Fox's use of the Bible is at least in part a reflex of the language available to him to talk of ultimate reality. Had he been born in another age, as Gerald implies, Fox might well have used a different 'thought frame' to reach his readers. Like all mystics, Catholic and Protestant, Fox makes a clear distinction between the practice of contemplation and the credal statements (or Quaker lack of them) which I think of as the nursery slopes of the spiritual life.

In trying to return readers via Fox and his contemporaries to the biblical roots of Quakerism, Gerald has a very specific quarry in mind, the many members who have come to Quakers in flight from wounding experiences in other religious traditions, whether Catholic or Protestant: people for whom the experience of the Bible, and of words like 'God' and 'Christ', to say nothing of 'sin' and 'crucifixion', are really difficult to disentangle from the hurts that accompanied their previous delivery. But he insists that ways can be found through these hurts to a fuller appreciation of the truths they enact or point towards. He offers in his own story an instance of the process. Exposure when young to a Pentecostal preacher's ranting, 'being called to the front to be prayed over', has meant that 'language such as “the blood of the Lamb”, “God sacrificed his son for us”, “needing to be saved” can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck”.' But his time at Pendle Hill also included the experience of an American Quaker praying for and over him, thanking God 'for the meticulous attention paid to our lives'. The new context, his growth away from the reactive and angry child, and his ability to trust what was being offered, led him to feel he was 'encountering Truth'. At the same time, the earlier-noted vision of his own self as a flower was articulated for him 'in black American idiom' as '”who we say we are” [which] needs to be related to “Who we be”'. Probably this articulation of the spiritual journey – metaphoric, allusive, leaving the word 'God' out of the frame – will appeal more directly to readers than the Quaker praying aloud to God in thanks for Gerald. But, the text insists, both are complementary ways of apprehending and expressing the one truth.

If we want to use a single word for this activity of finding ourselves in the Bible and in early Quaker writing – and, equally, of finding them in us, as we and they model one another – that word is surely 'translation'. Gerald uses this word to describe the challenge he finds in translating 'seventeenth-century Quaker speech into the modern day speech which might be preferred by some readers', since he has 'barely learned to speak it, let alone translate it.' But he also offers a striking instance of translation, when John Woolman talks of his sense of his 'Inner teacher', the 'Christ within', as 'the presiding chairman.' This phrase is more fully 'translated' 150 years later by Thomas Kelly: 'it was as if there were in him a presiding chairman who, in the solemn, holy silence of inwardness, took the sense of the meeting'. Woolman and Kelly are both using a familiar idiom to represent an experience for which there are no adequate words: translating that experience into something homely and ordinary – a bit like what Christians think happens in the Incarnation. What is true of early and later Quakers is also true of the stories of the Bible. For a vivid example, think of Paul's account of a spiritual rapture in which he was caught up 'into the third heaven' (2 Cor. 12.2) – maybe an out-of-body state: Paul doesn't know – and heard words that 'cannot and may not be said by any human being'. As Gerald puts it:
'the Bible is, at heart, the continuing story of encounter, so it provided patterns and examples whereby their [Quakers'] new found, newly discovered experience was described and understood';
and again:
'their Biblical reading did not dictate the terms of the encounter, but helped them capture the sense and meaning of their experience.'

All the same, this new experience, and its new or more traditional articulation, cannot be had without cost. Gerald insists on the (self)-sacrifice that must accompany the journey; and on the pain that is part of the process: and the first such pain is the serious consideration that my own view of the world really is limited ('think it possible that you may be mistaken'). Here Gerald uses an extremely familiar metaphor (not, as such, biblical, though the Bible uses it frequently): childbirth, where pain is 'the price that must be paid for new life' – especially the new life in the spirit to which Quaker Faith and Practice constantly witnesses. Gerald starts by modelling 17th-century Quaker experience, as well as modern Quaker experience, on modern understandings of psychotherapy. But he rapidly returns to his difficult project of translating the modern experience by way of the seventeenth-century, biblically-inspired, Quaker one, when he adopts/adapts their terminology of crucifixion: 'crucifying the will', 'going to the cross'. We may find this more difficult than the psychotherapeutic model to work with: but since 'thought frames are simply that – a limited perspective on the world' - the rewards may be as great as the pains, if we make the effort. The struggle to develop what Buddhists call 'beginner's mind' is the first pain we must face en route to our new and fuller life.

But, unlike some doom-laden theologies, the end of this process is not pain at all, but, on the contrary (a word which Gerald uses twice), 'delight'. Hence that amazing and humbling story of Mary Dyer, climbing the ladder onto the gallows in Massachusetts in 1660 and offered her life if only she would come down. She replied that she could not deny the will of God, in obedience to which/whom she had put herself in such jeopardy. 'Then one mentioned that she should have said, she had been in Paradise. To which she answered, “Yea, I have been in Paradise these several days.”' Mary Dyer doesn't use the word 'delight' to express her sense of herself, and it might have felt strange, if not masochistic, had she done so. But that word seems to me the heart of any true spiritual understanding, the thread that joins Quakers to the source (God, life, spirit) of their vitality and will eventually return them fully to it:
'the voice of that Presence... delights in our unbounding glory'
'the Quaker answer [to the mystery of the human condition] however provisional and hesitant, has a delight in life, an acknowledgement of the richness and complexity of the human experience, and a wholehearted responsive affirmation to the world and all it offers.'

Better still, though we can obviously take delight in this book reading it by ourselves, Gerald hopes to make it a resource for Quakers meeting together. So the book ends with a series of activities readers can undertake in small or larger groups. Here Gerald's gifts as a teacher come to the fore. As does the sense that the book cannot be finished until we are finished with it, and it is finished with us. Or that the book is truly prophetic, in pointing us beyond itself, and ourselves, to that at which it, and we, imperfectly gesture. I do recommend it to you, and think it would be great for any of our smaller group meetings (like the Spiritual friendship groups) to work on.

Many thanks to Roger Ellis for this blog post.