Friday, 14 November 2014


In this year's Swarthmore Lecture, Transformation', Ben Pink Dandelion says we are a DIT religion – Do It Together, not Do It Yourself – DIY. The allusion to DIY though makes it abundantly clear that if we are to Do It Ourselves, then we need skills. If you are going to be a DIY handyperson you need to acquire proficiency in a range of skills – not for you paying the tradesperson to do your home improvements while you put your feet up – or rather perhaps tend to neglect your family and community while you scurry about earning the money to pay the tradespeople. We Quakers do not employ priests or ministers, so likewise we need to become proficient in religious and spiritual skills. Not for us sitting passively in the pews whilst being lectured by the man at the front in a frock.

Also, if we are to 'Do It Together' than not for us either spiritual advisers, teachers, gurus and all the paraphernalia of the spiritual self-help bandwagon that perhaps some Quakers are leaping on along with so many others in our society. If we really do believe that the light is equally accessible to all, irrespective of status, then we should be seeking our spiritual help and guidance from one another.

But it is one thing to believe that the light is accessible to all, and quite another to use that light to acquire the skills to be able to help one another. Quakers are not about belief, even belief in the light within, or 'that of God' in everyone, for we are about practising our religion or spirituality. But acquiring skill is not easy, and is certainly not acquired just sitting in silence on a Sunday morning.

Acquiring skill requires application over an extended period of time. It is generally asserted that it takes 10,000 hours to bbecome proficient in any one skill, whether it be playing a musical instrument, carpentry, wind surfing, tennis or whatever. 10,000 hours is five years at 40 hours per week – the length of many traditional craft apprenticeships, though some are even longer, such as in medicine. Acquiring and utilizing a skill takes place over three stages, recognised in the traditional craft guild terms of 'Apprentice', 'Journeyman' and 'Master'. This not just a Western categorisation – in Japanese Martial Arts, it is called 'Shu-Ha-Ri' (守破離). Shuhari roughly translates to "first learn, then detach, and finally transcend."

The Apprentice works under a master in their workshop. There they learn technique, mainly by showing – the master will give verbal instruction where necessary, but knows that the best way to learn is by example. 'Not like that, but like this'. It is essential to make mistakes, to learn through failure. John Ruskin describes the transition from mere external rote learning of rules and procedures to beginning to acquire personal understanding:

“Understand this clearly: you can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.” (The Stones of Venice, 1851)

This is where all of us were when we first came to a meeting for worship, or first attended the meeting for worship for church affairs. We were given the introductory leaflet and learnt the rules about silence and ministry and waiting and not debating and so on. How far have we moved on? How many of us are afraid to offer ministry for fear of getting it wrong? How many of us do not realise we have got it wrong because no one told us: 'Not like that but like this'? - because they too were afraid. This is the state of affairs in religious practice with a minister or priest. The priest tells us when we get it wrong on those few opportunities we are permitted to practice for ourselves rather than just learn the catechism. But because they have the priest to tell them, perhaps they are more spiritually skilled than many of us Quakers?

The Journeyman has left the master and is recognised as a skilled person in their own right. 'Journeyman' can mean both the right to claim their own wages for a days work (from the French journée – day') or the right to travel away from the master's workshop and set up on their own. But how do you know when the apprenticeship is over? Because the master tells you, and in many crafts you make an 'Apprentice Piece' to show your skill. These are often miniature works so that the journeyman can take them with themselves and show potential clients that they deserve a days pay for their work.

So in our spiritual journey, who tells us we are fit for the road? What do we have to show for it? All too often it seems to me we make the decision for ourselves, taken up in the individualistic spirit of the age. We think we can strike out on our own because of some little thing, and no one tells us otherwise. The apprentice is told by the master 'I have shown you all I know' – or possibly just – 'I have shown you all you can take in' for we are not all equally skilled. The client looks at your work-piece and declares 'Yes I will pay you'. The recognition comes from without and is given to us by grace.

And so the journeyman sets up shop and makes a living in the community. But the journeyman is not a master, and all self-respecting craftspeople know this. When and how do they become a master? Again the recognition comes from without, from the community the journeyman has settled in. When the parents or guardians of a young person approaches them and asks the journeyman to take them on as an apprentice. And the cycle of life turns and starts around again.

The discipline of practical apprenticeship and mastery of skills has much to teach us spiritually, especially us Quakers, for we 'Do It Together'.

Furthermore the discipline of application of  practical skill teaches us about our spiritual lives directly. The mastery of practical skills in the world directly translates into enabling our relationships with one-another. The need to work out how to turn a material object into something useful and beautiful – including getting the best sound out of your musical instrument – teaches us to stay with the problem and discover the solution from within the material, which in turn teaches us to engage in dialogue with others, and not to force ourselves on others. The need to find the best and easiest way to get the result we are looking for without laborious working and reworking teaches us to be tentative with the material and so to be tentative in our dealings with other people, to listen and consider ourselves perhaps mistaken. And above all, the need to deal objectively with the world, to confront the material objectivity of the other teaches us empathy with both the materials we work with and with other people. Hear Richard Sennet on this.

The master truly knows the meaning of 'For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.' (Matthew 16.25). The master transcends the self and becomes one with the work, and then in the work discovers themselves.

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