Quakers are mystics. Friends testify to a communicative Creator who is both transcendent and immanent, present among us, even within us. Our practices of silent waiting worship, corporate prayer, or verbal sharing in message or songs of admiration and gratitude, create an intentional inviting environment for awareness of the guidance and action of the Holy in our personal lives, in community and in all of creation. Dorothee Soelle understands that: ”The basic conviction of Quakers was—and is—that God reveals Godself ‘without respect of persons’” (Soelle 2001, 173). God continues to reveal that which is real directly to any person or sincere group of seekers, no exceptions. Positive energy within a group enhances our perception of the brightness of the Light because humans respond to and open up their hearts more when nurtured in acceptance, respect and encouragement. As it should be mysticism is, indeed, at the center of Quaker praxis, both personal and corporate.
From our meditative practice we each gain insight that guides our actions. Some receptive mystics hear, sense or dream very specific instructions while many intuit soft nudgings moving them forward. We have read in our books of discipline from the time of the earliest Quakers that it is important to have a personal time of “retirement” daily in which we separate from all of our worldly concerns to read of the Holy, to journal, to sit quietly and to nurture our souls. Our individual centeredness provides balance and maturity to support our community of Friends. A dedicated discipline of silence is challenging because it exposes our own thought patterns and emotional mind states. Change needed to decrease the burdens of resentment, guilt, self-cherishing and anger can only be implemented by our own surrendering of them based on self-awareness. Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) writes: ” Every person, then, who awakens to consciousness of a Reality which transcends the normal world of sense—however small, weak, imperfect that consciousness may be . . .The success with which he follows this way to freedom and full life will depend on the intensity of his love and will; his capacity for self-discipline, his steadfastness and courage” (Underhill 1990, 445). The discipline begins in our private practice, and the fruits nourish the community.
Corporate discernment is crucial to ground and guide our decisions and direction. We make many mistakes due to our human limitations, frailties, and ignorance. Mature questioning is required, along with willingness to challenge one another aiming toward decisions that fulfill all righteousness and prevent needless harm. We are at our best when we take time to nurture one another’s strengths and to lovingly challenge or redirect any oppressive behaviors among Quaker brothers and sisters. Becoming vulnerable with one another and humble under G-d, we can operate at a higher vibrational frequency the more we open to the mystical.
We Friends have not lost our mystical foundation, but it can be obscured by excessive rationalism or by distractions caused by either sincere attempts to meet the needs of work to support life and family or by the many attractive entertainments available toward which our time and energy are spent. I think Jesus warned of such useless preoccupation when he said: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:22 & Luke 12:34).
Friends must be willing to nurture Spirit despite the disapproval of the dominant culture focused on often empty promises of intellect and reason and on a false sense of security in material attainments. Friend Marcelle Martin writes of her life-changing commitment to a mystical path: “I had come to the moment when I wanted nothing more than to discover the truth about life, when I was finally willing to give up being ‘normal’ in order to do so . . .I believe I opened to mystical experience by opening first to the direct experience of my own emotions, including the most painful, and to a direct and feeling confrontation of my deepest questions and fears” (Martin 1995, 1). Quakers have forever been known to be a peculiar and courageous people. We must remember that the spiritual journey often includes an acute awareness of the sufferings of life as well as the bliss of being united with the loving Source of all life.
Although not widely acknowledged, there are Friends from programmed and unprogrammed traditions working together to support mystical engagement. Recently I learned of a newsletter entitled “What Canst Thou Say?” that a small group of volunteer Quaker mystics publishes. In it Friends share many varieties of religious mystical experiences. The vocabulary and symbolism used by way of description come from Early Quaker, New Age, Evangelical, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi traditions, for example. In 1996 Pendle Hill hosted a gathering, Mystics Among Friends Today, which filled to its 50 person capacity and required a waiting list. Bill Taber, Marcelle Martin, Marty Grundy, Patricia McBee and Mike Resman led workshops there. In response, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article entitled "Quakers’ Mystical Heritage." The Ben Lomond Center planned a similar conference scheduled one month later. Although I imagine most all Quakers to practice mysticism to some extent, there is small contingent among Friends who are deeply dedicated to this style of Divine experience.
If a rich mysticism were more evident among Quakers, it could only bring increased unity because by definition it would indicate more obviously the presence of G-d among us. Perhaps then we could say with Paul: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
Coogan, Michael D. Ed.The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010
Martin, Marcelle. What Canst Thou Say? Friends Mystical Experience, and Contemplative Practice. Newsletter #5, July 1995
Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: The Preeminent Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. New York: Doubleday, 1990