Ann K. Riggs
At the Fourth World Conference in Faith and Order in Montreal, 1963,
the Commission presented the influential text, "Scripture,
Tradition and Traditions."2 This text developed an
understanding of Christian Scripture as the creation of "a
tradition which goes back to our Lord." All Christians are "indebted
to that tradition inasmuch as we have received the revealed truth, the
Gospel, through its being transmitted from one generation to another.
Thus we can say," continue the Commission writers, "that we
exist as Christians by the Tradition of the Gospel (the paradosis
of the kerygma) testified in Scripture, transmitted in and by
the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit." (# 45) The
What is transmitted in the process of tradition is the Christian
faith, not only as a sum of tenets, but as a living reality
transmitted through the operation of the Holy Spirit. We can speak
of the Christian Tradition (with a capital T), whose content is
God's revelation and self-giving in Christ, present in the life of
the Church. But this Tradition which is the work of the Holy Spirit
is embodied in traditions (in the two senses of the word, both as
referring to diversity of forms in expression, and in the sense of
separate communions). The traditions in Christian history are
distinct from, and yet connected with, the Tradition. They are
expressions and manifestations in diverse historical forms of the
one truth and reality which is Christ. (# 46-7)
The recent text of the Commission, "A Treasure in Earthen
Vessels: An Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics,"
released in 1998, takes up the discussion of Scripture, tradition and
traditions again.3 In this recent document, traditions are
presented as articulating and transmitting the Gospel through a
variety of means and forms. "Traditions," it says, "are
transmitted orally as well as through written texts ... In addition to
textual and oral tradition, meaning is conveyed through non-verbal
symbols: Christian art and music, liturgical gestures or colours,
icons, the creation and use of sacred space and time ... As with
symbols, Christian practices need to be taken into consideration."
The Religious Society of Friends or the Catholic Church or the
Anglican Communion, seen as separate "churches" or "communions,"
can be characterized as traditions within the larger Christian
Tradition. Within or overlapping traditions may be a variety of
subordinate traditions. The Episcopal Church USA may be seen as having
its own tradition as contrasted with the tradition of the Anglican
Church of Kenya. The two communities have different histories and have
come to express the same Anglican heritage in differing forms. Or one
might speak of Augustinian tradition, a tradition with expressions
within the Anglican Communion, the Catholic Church and among
The Religious Society of Friends is a tradition within the
Tradition. That is to say, within the Society "a living reality"
is "transmitted through the operation of the Holy Spirit."
But in what way can the tradition of the Society of Friends, begun in
England in the 1650s 4 and now a world-wide network of
local and regional worshiping communities, be most adequately or
Viewed from one frame of reference, the Religious Society of Friends
operates as a church. Friends World Committee for Consultation, for
instance, participates in meetings of the Christian World Communions.
Friends General Conference, one of Quakerism's North American regional
provinces, and my own community, was one of the founding member
churches of the World Council of Churches.
But the self-identification of the community as "Society"
points in another direction. My proposal here is to consider Friends
as a religious order rather than as a church. This approach is
speculative and is not intended to contradict Friends' ecumenical
commitments. Indeed, it is intended as a further exploration of them.
I hope it may be a serviceable way of viewing Friends as a tradition
within the Tradition. Historically, monasticism and life in religious
orders have roots in the early diaconal practices of the church and
the fourth century phenomenon of a movement of individuals to the
deserts and wild places of the Mediterranean basin, Gaul, Britain and
Ireland for a life of prayer and intimacy with God. These individuals
and communal groups, although sometimes accused of heterodoxy, cannot
really be distinguished from the larger church community in terms of
doctrine. Their concerns were not primarily about theology or
doctrine, but about living. With time, these early impulses developed
into ordered forms of life, with traditions of how to pray and live so
as to maximize consciousness of relationship with God.
Similarly, what Friends teach is not as much distinctive theological
doctrine as a distinctive way of life and prayer. In the words of
Britain Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice, "In the
Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a
In the present essay we will consider that "way" under two
aspects: a way of life and a way of prayer. We will first consider
three specific Friends practices, the use of "Advices and
Queries," the "historical testimonies," and corporate
discernment, and compare them to practices found in religious and
monastic communities. Second, we will look at the tradition of prayer
in the Society of Friends, identifying four characteristic features:
light mysticism, silence mysticism, a characteristic intimacy, and a
mixture of apophatic and kataphatic elements. We will be speaking of
both personal and corporate prayer, for the same elements appear in
both private devotion and public worship, although, of course, varying
additional elements can emerge in each. Again, we will compare these
to prayer traditions of monastic and religious communities.
A Way of Life
Advices and Queries
In Benedictine tradition, an important practice for continuing
community formation in the tradition is the reading aloud to the
assembled group of chapters of St. Benedict's Rule. The
community together meditates on each chapter in an on-going cycle,
being reminded of aspects of the tradition, being open to deepening
insight into the Rule and calling themselves to accountability
to the tradition which they undertake to live out together.
The Quaker Advices and Queries serve these functions as
well, and are considered corporately in a similar manner. The Advices
and Queries are offered, according to Britain Yearly Meeting's
Faith and Practice, "for the comfort and discomfort of
Friends." 6 They are a record and a reminder of the "insights
of the Society." 7 Friends are traditionally
cautioned not to see the disciplines and insights of the Advices
and Queries as stultifying dead letters, but as Spirit filled: "that
all with the measure of light which is pure and holy may be guided,
and so in the light walking and abiding these may be fulfilled in the
The formality with which written responses to the Advices and
Queries have been prepared and the relative importance of the
devotional and the disciplinary aspects of consideration of the
Advices and Queries have changed over time. 9 Yet, they
remain "a profile of the Quaker way of life and a reminder of the
ideals Friends seek to attain"10 and a "quickening
influence in shaping our daily lives."11
Like St. Benedict's Rule, the Advices and Queries
contain guidance on participation in worship and community life.
Chapter 19 of the Rule states:
We believe God is everywhere, and his eye beholds the good and
wicked wherever they are: so we ought to be particularly assured of
his special presence when we assist at the divine office. Therefore
we must always remember the advice of the prophet, "To serve
God in fear": "to sing wisely": and that "the
angels are witnesses of what we sing." (Prov. 15:3; Ps. 2:11;
47:7; 138:1) Let us then reflect what behavior is proper for
appearing in the presence of God and the angels, and so sing our
psalms that the mind may echo in harmony with the voice.12
Number 12 of Britain Yearly Meeting's Advices and Queries
When you are preoccupied and distracted in meeting let wayward and
disturbing thoughts give way quietly to your awareness of God's
presence among us and in the world. Receive the vocal ministry of
others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep
within, recognizing that even if it is not God's word for you, it
may be so for others. Remember that we all share responsibility for
the meeting for worship whether our ministry is in silence or
through the spoken word. 13
The Rule and the Advices and Queries contain, as
well, guidance for growth in virtue. Among the list of "instruments
of spiritual progress"14 of chapter 4 of the Rule
is the admonition "to dash evil thoughts, as soon as they arise
in the heart, against the Rock Christ; and to discover them to our
spiritual father."15 Number 32 of Britain Yearly
Meeting's Advices and Queries advises and asks: "Bring into God's
light those emotions, attitudes and prejudices in yourself which lie
at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for
forgiveness and grace. In what ways are you involved in the work of
reconciliation between individuals, groups and nations?"16
Third, in differing ways, the Rule and the Advices and
Queries propose an ordering of time and responsibilities. St.
Benedict's Ruleand the Advices and Queries of Britain
Yearly Meeting address themselves to life circumstances which are the
reverse of one another. Chapter 48 of Benedict's Rule is
addressed to the negative spiritual possibilities of too much free
time: "Idleness is the enemy of the soul."17 The
Rule calls for a fixed part of each day to be spent in sacred
reading and another part in manual labor. Number 28 of The Advices
and Queries of Britain Yearly Meeting addresses a concern that
Friends not fill their lives with more activity than is beneficial to
their spiritual lives:
Every stage of our lives offers fresh opportunities. Responding to
divine guidance, try to discern the right time to undertake or
relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt. Attend to
what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness.18
The early diaconal and contemplative impulses which led to the
development of religious orders were associated with various forms of
private and public commitment. Ignatius of Antioch, writing about 107,
appears to speak in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and
Polycarp of pledged virgins.19 But the monastics of the
fourth and fifth centuries apparently lived according to a common
rule, without making formal public vows of commitment to that life.20
Continuing developments led to the institution, with which we are
familiar today, of specific vows, undertaken with high solemnity and
high levels of community enforcement.
The commitment to living out the "historical testimonies"
of the Religious Society of Friends expected of Friends has
similarities in content and function to vowed commitments to poverty,
chastity and obedience.
Over time, the rigor and urgency with which the testimonies have
been enforced by the community has varied. At present, entering into
adult membership at Chapel Hill (NC) Monthly Meeting includes giving
an account of the extent to which the "historical testimonies"
are a meaningful guide to life for the prospective member.21
But during the slave era, living out the testimony to equality,22
and during times of serious military actions, living out the testimony
to peace, 23 have been complicated and demanding
institutional problems, involving questions about when failure to live
up to the testimonies ought rightly to lead to "reading out of
meeting" loss of full membership in the Society of
Friends. In 1700 Margaret Fell Fox, an early, influential Friend, was
concerned that the Society was at that time becoming too focused on
the outward observance of the testimonies:
Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall
eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us
consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But
contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that
is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear
them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a
silly poor Gospel.24
Nevertheless, the testimonies are central to Quaker life. Howard
Brinton gave roughly a quarter of his widely-used book Friends For
Three Hundred Years to a discussion of the historical testimonies.25
The historical testimonies are, however, rather elusive of
definition. Brinton used a list of community, harmony, equality,
simplicity, incorporating truth within simplicity. Britain Yearly
Meeting Faith and Practice lists truth, equality, simplicity
and peace.26 Chapel Hill (NC) Monthly Meeting uses a
listing of peace or non-violence, respect for individuality,
community, simplicity, honesty and equality.27 Robert
Barclay in his seventeenth century Apology identified a
testimony against gambling, as a vain custom and habit. 28
The historical testimonies of Friends share a conceptual similarity
to the Evangelical Counsels, to which present day religious vow
themselves. Like the Evangelical Counsels, the testimonies identify
specific actions, but they also point beyond themselves to something
more difficult to articulate. In speaking of the Evangelical Counsels
the New Catholic Encyclopedia used the helpful wording of "advisory
directives of Christ ... given as guides to closer approximation to
perfection and imitation of Christ himself." Out of the "whole
complexus of such counsels, traditional Christianity has singled out
poverty, chastity, and obedience."29
Similarly, Friends have singled out simplicity, truth, equality,
community, peace and respect for the uniqueness of each person, and
related formulations, to point toward a way of life which itself
points towards, and leans into, the eschatological future of God's
reign in-breaking into our world in the actions and person of Jesus
the Christ. The testimonies are perhaps best defined as the behaviors
of the Kingdom of God.
This passage from the Faith and Practice of North Carolina
Yearly Meeting (Conservative) gives a sense of the richness of the
testimonies for Friends thought and life:
The heart of Quaker ethics is summed up in the word "simplicity."
Simplicity is forgetfulness of self and remem-brance of our humble
status as waiting servants of God. Outwardly, simplicity is shunning
superfluities of dress, speech, behavior, and possessions, which
tend to obscure our vision of reality. Inwardly, simplicity is
spiritual detachment from the things of this world as part if the
effort to fulfil the first commandment: to love God with all of the
heart and mind and strength.
The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the
extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s.
In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be
seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to
dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives
of triviality and mediocrity.
Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially
positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds
attention on the goal. Thus simplicity is an appreciation of all
that is helpful towards living as children of the Living God. 30
In Friends in the Lord,31 a study in the
pre-history and early life of the Society of Jesus, Javier Osuna, SJ,
reconstructed the characteristics of the incipient Jesuit community
and its evolving corporate decision-making style. The process
described is notably similar to the Quaker process of group
In 1534 the group of seven Parisian students united by personal
friendship and a common desire for on-going conversion began to
develop a community bond which went beyond the camaraderie of student
life. Each of the young men had engaged in the individual discernment
process of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, whom
they viewed as a natural rather than formal leader and as an elder in
the faith.33 Among them community and individual encounter
with God were held in a living connection. As the director of the Exercises
is expected to refrain from seeking to influence the retreatant in an
emerging path of commitment, similarly the group sought to safeguard a
"free communication of the creature with his creator and the
direct action of God on the soul".34 The group
displayed a shared commitment to the specific "concrete ideal of
apostolic imitation"35 offered by the Exercises.
And, apparently, the men felt a tremendous gratification in the
support of the community for each one's individual spiritual life: the
life of the group was a support to the achievement of the individuals'
As the group came to a point of commitment to one another as a
community, they developed a manner of group discernment for common
decision-making. They began from a shared agreement that they intended
to do "whatever work will give greater glory to God".36
When an issue arose on which they were in disagreement, they laid over
their decision until a later time when more agreement might be
possible, waiting for "greater spiritual clarity" and taking
what interim steps they could.37 While waiting to move
further on their deliberations they engaged in "an exquisite
docility and openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit".38
They trusted that it would be obvious to them when a majority view
among them was truly "the will of God communicated to the group
as a result of a community discernment".39 And they
committed themselves to joining with that view rather than holding
onto opposing positions when the sought clarity on God's will for the
group emerged. The group had a true cohesion as a community and they
sought corporate guidance for this community with the intention that
the implications for the individuals in the group would be accepted by
each and lived out fully. The group had no superior to offer or
enforce definitive decisions and in the decision-making process they
sought the will of God "in the group itself as it deliberates in
Friends, as well, seek to protect both the free communications of
the unique individual with God and the formation and development of
the community. Friends share a specific concrete apostolic ideal, the
living out of the historical testimonies, as their own particular way.
Friends view themselves as equals, while accepting the leadership and
support of the elder and more experienced members of their group. The
Clerk, the presiding official of a Meeting for Worship with Attention
to Business, serves as the person charged to maintain the discernment
process and as the one most responsible to hear the Spirit-led unity
of judgment, the Sense of the Meeting, as it emerges from the group's
search for God's will for them.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice offers a
seventeenth century expression of what is still a Quaker ideal and is,
at times, successfully practiced:
Being orderly come together [you are] not to spend time with
needless, unnecessary and fruitless discourses, but to proceed in
the wisdom of God ... not in the way of the world, as a worldly
assembly of men [or women], by hot contests, by seeking to outspeak
and overreach one another in discourse, as if it were controversy
between party and party of men [or women], or two sides violently
striving for dominion ... not deciding affairs by the greater vote
... but in the wisdom, love and fellowship of God, in gravity,
patience, meekness, in unity and concord, submitting one to another
in lowliness of heart, and in the holy Spirt of truth and
righteousness, all things [are] to be carried on; by hearing, and
determining every matter coming before you in love, coolness,
gentleness, and dear unity; I say as one only party, all for
the Truth of Christ and for the carrying on the work of the Lord,
and assisting one another in whatsoever ability God hath given; and
to determine of things by a general mutual concord, in assenting
together as one man [or woman] in the spirit of truth and equity,
and by the authority thereof. In this way and spirit all things are
to be amongst you, and without perverseness, in any self-separation,
in discord and partiality. 41
The forms of corporate discernment used by Friends and by the
nascent Society of Jesus have clear similarities to the sobornost and
synodality found in Orthodox church government 42 and
other ecclesial decision-making practices which aim at a communal
understanding of God's will that reaches beyond human consensus. Three
distinguishing elements of the Quaker use of group discernment, most
possible in a community as small as the Religious Society of Friends,
are 1) the utilization of this form of group government at every level
of the community's life; 2) its utilization at any time or place
without specific ascetical or other preparation; 3) and its continuous
use within the community for three and half centuries.
Way of Prayer
The Society of Friends came into existence through the encounter of
George Fox and a group known as the Westmoreland Seekers, who had been
meeting in silence, waiting to see what God would do next. Previous to
the encounter between Fox and this community of Seekers, Fox had had a
series of intense spiritual experiences. In his Journal, Fox
described one such, which occurred in 1648:
Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that
every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw
it shining through all, and that they that believed in it came out
of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the
children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it,
were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This
I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man,
neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though
afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.43
Fox recounted how the invisible power of God "opened" to
him an awareness of the Light of Christ, enlightening every person and
shining through all. The "two hands of God,"44
to use Irenaeus' phrase, the invisible power of Spirit and the light
of Christ, worked together in Fox's experience, the one leading him to
the other. The experience was, in Fox's own view and in traditional
Friends understanding, immediate, but it was an experience in
consonance with the experience of the Church through the ages.
The light of which Fox speaks is understood by Friends to be the
light of the Prologue of John's Gospel and the first Epistle of John.
It is the light which shines in the darkness and is not overcome. (Cf.
Jn. 1:5) It is the light in which we are able to walk in fellowship
with God and with one another. (Cf. I Jn. 1:7) It is the true light,
which enlightens everyone. (Cf. Jn. 1:9)
In Quaker thought and life, the word Light, meaning God, is
everywhere. Howard Brinton speaks of the Light dispassionately as he
writes of conscience:
The Light Within is not to be identified with conscience.
Conscience is not the Light in its fulness but "the measure of
Light given us," The Light illumines conscience and seeks to
transform an impure conscience into its own pure likeness.
Conscience is partly a product of the Light which shines into it and
partly a product of social environment. Therefore conscience is
fallible. But conscience must always be obeyed because it reflects
whatever measure of Light we have by which to form our moral
judgements. This measure of Light in the conscience may be
increased; as this occurs conscience becomes more sensitive to moral
But, frequently, use of Light language in Friends spirituality
refers to more passionate experience of God's presence. Thomas Kelly
wrote in Testament of Devotion:
In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is
the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and
we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of
light and darkness presses within us, "Behold, I stand at the
door and knock." And all our apparent initiative is already a
response, a testimony to His secret presence and working within us.
The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration
and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.46
In such accounts one hears clear similarities to the light mysticism
of The Discourses of Symeon the New Theologian:
"So I entered the place where I usually prayed and, mindful
of the words of the holy man I began to say, 'Holy God.' At once I
was so greatly moved to tears and loving desire for God that I would
be unable to describe in words the joy and delight I then felt. I
fell prostrate on the ground, and at once I saw, and behold, a great
light was immaterially shining on me and seized hold of my whole
mind and soul, so that I was struck with amazement at the unexpected
marvel and I was, as it were, in ecstasy. Moreover I forgot the
place where I stood, who I was, and where, and could only cry out,
'Lord, have mercy,' so that when I came to myself I discovered that
I was reciting this. But Father," said he, "who it was
that was speaking, and who moved my tongue, I do not know
only God knows. 'Whether I was in the body, or outside the body' (2
Cor. 12:2,3), I conversed with this Light. The Light itself knows
it; it scattered whatever mist there was in my soul and cast out
every earthly care ... there was poured into my soul in unutterable
fashion a great spiritual joy and perception and a sweetness
surpassing every taste of visible objects, together with a freedom
and forgetfulness of all thoughts pertaining to this life ... Thus
all the perceptions of my mind and my soul were wholly concentrated
on the ineffable joy of that Light.47
Friends have a similarly mystical understanding of silence in both
personal and corporate prayer. "True silence ... is to the spirit
what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment,"48
wrote William Penn in 1699. Friend Pierre Lacout spoke more recently:
In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to grow
a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle
argument and the clamor of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an
attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and
illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from
which this Light may shine out.
Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear
the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of
listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds
and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other.
The word born of silence must be received in silence.49
This understanding of silence as an active arena of nurture and
communication is very close to monastic understandings of silence.
Basil Pennington speaks of silence as "enough."
"In the end the monk learns that God speaks by silence and can
be heard in silence."50 The anonymous author of The
Call of Silent Love, a group of Carthusian novice conferences,
speaks of the Carthusian Statutes and of silence:
In the Statutes we find wise and practical teaching to help us
towards a life governed by the Holy Spirt. They emphasize the
importance of silence.
Exterior silence first. We must protect it for sake of
'devotion to the Holy Spirit dwelling within' us in ourselves
and in others. 'Long and uselessly protracted conversation is
thought to grieve the Holy Spirit more' (Statutes 2.14.4).
But even more important is interior silence. The criterion
for judging whatever to admit secular information is listening to
the Spirit. 'Let each one, therefore, listen to the Spirit within
him, and determine what he can admit into this mind without harm to
interior converse with God' (Statutes 1.6.6). This is but one
example of the attitude of attentive listening, an attitude of
interior receptivity, of pliancy and flexibility under the activity
of the interior Master, who would set everything aside that might
suppress his voice.
The longer he lives in cell, the more gladly he will do so, as
long as he occupies himself in it usefully and in an orderly manner,
reading, writing, reciting Psalms, praying, mediating, contemplating
and working. Let him make a practice of resorting, from time to
time, to a tranquil listening of heart, that allows God to enter
through all its doors and passages. (Statutes 1.4.2)
The entire doctrine of guarding the heart is implied here. It is
very important and can go a long way. Our silence is not something
negative, but a form of attentiveness, a positive receptivity. It is
rightly compared to the figure of Mary of Bethany seated at the feet
of Jesus, giving all her attention to this word. In his silence, the
monk opens himself to the Word in lectio divina, in prayer, in
the simple gaze of faith that receives God in all his creatures.
A life of prayer without interior silence, is an impossibility. (In
the structure of the intellect, there are two principle forms of
resistance to the light of the Spirit: first, excessive attachment to
purely rational insight, rationalism in all its forms, with the
consequent distrust of any light that is not purely rational; pride
and intellectual self-sufficiency; second, superficiality or lack of
attentiveness to spiritual realities. Both can be found in hidden form
in the Charterhouse.) This silence enables us completely to forget our
interior conversation, our ideas and our selves, to enter into the
silence of God who is fullness of life, of light and love, and where a
single Word is spoken in Love, the Word who conducts us into the
inaccessible light of the Father.51
A classic passage by Alexander Parker, an early Friend, from 1660,
offers an insight into corporate participation in this same silence:
The first that enters into the place of your meeting ... turn in
thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were
present but the Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that
comes in, let them in simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to
the same light, and wait in the spirit; and so all the rest coming
in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence
of all flesh, and wait in the light ... Those who are brought to a
pure still waiting on God in the spirit, are come nearer to the Lord
than words are; for God is a spirit, and in the spirit is he
worshiped ... In such a meeting there will be an unwillingness to
part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be
here: and this is the end of all words and writings to bring people
to the eternal living Word.52
In the passages quoted above, St. Symeon spoke of the Light as
being outside himself, while Thomas Kelly and Howard Brinton spoke of
the Inward Light. The Inward Light is a characteristic Quaker phrase
and understanding. In the above passage Alexander Parker spoke of
Friends in the Meeting for Worship as coming "nearer to the Lord
than words are."
Francis Howgill, one of the Westmoreland Seekers, asked:
Why gad you abroad? Why trim you yourselves in the saints' words,
when you are ignorant of the life? Return, return to Him that is the
first love, and the first-born of every creature who is the Light of
the World... Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat
is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you
will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; ... and here you will
see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are
upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing,
leading, correcting, judging, and giving peace to all that love and
Similarly, in her work, Showings, Julian of Norwich recorded
experiences of God as being "nearer to us than tongue can tell or
heart can think,"54 and "closer to us than our
own soul." 55
Silence between human persons who are fully present to one another
in that silence is also humanly intimate. Fox urged Friends to "meet
together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was
before the world was."56
Apophatic and Kataphatic Elements
To speak of God primarily as Light, as Friends do, limits discursive
articulation and lends itself to apophatic ways of thinking about and
approaching God ways which emphasize the incomprehensibility of
God to the human mind. Friends consider the infused prayer ascribed by
Teresa of Avila to the Fourth Mansions of the Interior Castle
to be a mysterious universal gift God offers to any one who will
receive it. Teresa's description of the fountain filled directly from
the source, God, is very close to Friends' expectations for prayer,
both public and private, in which, as described by Parker above,
Friends "sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and
wait in the light:"
The water comes direct from its source, which is God, and, when it
is His Majesty's will and He is pleased to grant us some
supernatural favour, its coming is accompanied by the greatest peace
and quietness and sweetness within ourselves I cannot say
where it arises or how. And that content and delight are not felt,
as earthly delights are felt, in the heart I mean not at the
outset, for alter the basin becomes completely filled, and then this
water begins to overflow all the Mansions and faculties, until it
reaches the body. It is for that reason that I said it has its
source in God and ends in ourselves for it is certain, and
anyone will know this who has experienced it, that the whole of the
outer man enjoys this consolation and sweetness.57
Yet, the phrase, "answering that of God in every one,"
found in Fox's writing, is as central to Friends spirituality as is
the apophatic aspects. In a classically kataphatic style, Fox speaks
of seeing the light of Christ "shining through all."58
In Meetings for Worship one hears many messages about encountering God
in a relationship with another person, an event, an animal and many
metaphors which utilize plants and weather to speak of spiritual
The ecumenical formulation presented in the text 'Scripture,
Tradition and Traditions' which declares that "we exist as
Christians by the Tradition of the Gospel (the paradosis of the
kerygma) testified in Scripture, transmitted in and by the Church
through the power of the Holy Spirit" (# 45) has been one of the
most fruitful contributions to recent ecumenical conversation. The
encouragement given in "A Treasure in Earthen Vessels: An
Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics" to
exploration of non-verbal means by which traditions transmit the
Tradition is likely to be an important contribution to ongoing
ecumenical thought as well. Exploration of practices of communal life
and practices of prayer may open additional new avenues for ecumenical
understanding of communities such as the Religious Society of Friends.
We have examined how three specific Friends' practices, the use of
'Advices and Queries', the 'historical testimonies', and corporate
discernment, may be fruitfully compared with practices found in
religious and monastic communities. We have looked at the tradition of
prayer in the Society of Friends, identifying four characteristics
features: light mysticism, silence mysticism, a characteristic
intimacy, and a traditional mixture of apophatic and kataphatic
elements. Friends' tradition of prayer also offers fruitful comparison
to prayer traditions of monastic and religious communities.
Mewn dau gae, by the Welsh poet Waldo Williams, with its
subtly woven references to encounter with God in elusive silence and
the bright world of the senses, is characteristic of Friends' way of
seeing and understanding, and speaks, as well, to our ecumenical
concerns in considering Friends as a religious community, through
which the living reality of the faith is transmitted:
Where did the sea of light roll from
Onto Flower Meadow Field and Flower Field?
After I'd searched for long in the dark land,
The one that was always, whence did he come?
Who, O who was the marksman, the sudden enlightener?
The roller of the sea was the field's living hunter.
From above bright-billed whistlers, prudent scurry of lapwings,
The great quiet he brought me.
Excitement he gave me, where only
The sun's thought stirred to lyrics of warmth,
Crackle of gorse that was ripe on escarpments,
Hosting of rushes in their dream of blue sky.
When the imagination wakens, who calls
Rise up and walk, dance, look at the world?
Who is it hiding in the midst of the words
That were there on Flower Meadow Field and Flower Field?
And when the big clouds, the fugitive pilgrims,
Were red with the sunset of stormy November,
Down where the ashtrees and maples divided the fields,
The song of the wind was deep like deep silence.
Who, in the midst of the pomp, the super-abundance,
Stands there inviting, containing it all?
Each witness's witness, each memory's memory, life of each life,
Quiet calmer of the troubled self.
Till at least the whole world came into the stillness
And on the two fields his people walked,
And through, and between, and about them, goodwill widened
And rose out of hiding, to make them all one,
As when the few of us forayed with pitchforks
Or from heavy meadows lugged thatching of rush,
How close we came then, one to another -
The quiet huntsman so cast his net round us!
Ages of the blood on the grass and the light of grief
Who whistled through them? Who heard but the heart?
The cheater of pride and every trail's tracker,
Escaper from the armies, hey, there's his whistling -
Knowledge of us, knowledge, till at last we do know him! Great
as the leaping of hearts, after their ice age.
The fountains burst up towards heaven, till,
Falling back, their tears were like leaves of a tree.
Day broods on all this beneath sun and cloud,
And Night through the cells of her wide-branching brain -
How quiet they are, and she breathing freely
Over Flower Meadow Field and Flower Field -
Keeps a grip on their object, the fields full of folk.
Surely these things must come. What hour will it be
That the outlaw comes, the hunter, the claimant to the breach,
That the Exiled King cometh, and the rushes part in his way?59
1. The present essay is a revised version of two papers, "The
Community of Prayer in the Religious Society of Friends" and "The
Society of Friends' Tradition of Prayer," presented May 1, 1999
to the annual meeting of Religious for Christian Unity, Notre Dame
Retreat House, Rochester, NY.
2. Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, "Scripture,
Tradition and Traditions," in The Ecumenical Movement: An
Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, Michael Kinnamon and Brian E.
Cope, eds. (Geneva and Grand Rapids: WCC Publications and William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), pp. 139-44.
3. Commission on Faith and Order, "A Treasure in Earthen
Vessels: An Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics,"
Faith and Order Paper No. 182 (Geneva: WCC/Faith and Order, 1998).
4. Historiography of the Religious Society of Friends has viewed
Friends from the two perspectives of locating the origins of the
Society from within Puritanism (e.g. Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in
Puritan England, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1964) and from
within Continental European traditions of mystical spirituality,
especially Rheno-Flemish instances (e.g. Rufus M. Jones, Studies
in Mystical Religion, London: Macmillan, 1909; Spiritual
Reformers in the 16th & 17th Centuries, London: Macmillan,
1914; and New Studies in Mystical Religion; The Ely Lectures
Delivered at Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1927, New York:
Macmillan, 1927). There seems nothing remarkable in the presence of
both Puritan and Continental mystical influences and elements in the
early Society of Friends. Anglicanism has held, and holds, Puritan and
Continental elements and influences in creative tension. In any case,
our present concern is not with the historical origins of the elements
and characteristics we are considering, but with their present
5. Introduction, Quaker Faith and Practice: The Book of
Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of
Friends (Quakers) in Britain (London: Yearly Meeting of the
Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), 1995), p. 17. From a certain
perspective, of course, such a statement is doctrinal. Yet, it seems
clear that Friends have not understood themselves as making
doctrinally distinctive claims.
6. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.01.
7. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.01.
8. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.01
and Epigraph, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of
Friends, Faith and Practice: A Book of Christian Discipline
(Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1972).
9. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, §
1.04-1.07 and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice,
pp. 187-8, 198.
10. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, pp. 187.
11. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, pp. 198.
12. "The Rule of St. Benedict" in Western
Asceticism, Owen Chadwick, trans. (Philadelphia: The Westminster
Press, 1958), p. 309; PL LXVI, col. 475-6.
13. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.02 #
14. Rule, p. 299, PL LXVI, col. 298.
15. Rule, p. 298, PL LXVI, col. 206.
16. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.02 #
17. Rule, p. 321; PL LXVI, col. 703.
18. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 1.02 #
19. Ignatius of Antioch, "Epistle to the Smyrneans"§13
and "Epistle to Polycarp"§ 5 in Early Christian
Writings: the Apostolic Fathers, Maxwell Staniforth, trans. (New
York : Dorset Press, 1986), pp. 123 and 129; PG V col. 857/858
and PG V col. 867/868.
20. Joan Chittister, OSB, "Vows" in The New Dictionary
of Spirituality, Michael Downey, ed. (Collegeville: Liturgical
Press, 1993), p. 1011.
21. Chapel Hill Monthly Meeting, "Membership" (Chapel
Hill, NC: Chapel Hill Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of
Friends, 1995), Preamble and § Membership Questions and Queries
22. See e.g. Stephen B. Weeks, Southern Quakers and Slavery: A
Study in Institutional History (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins
Press, 1896); Thomas Edward Drake, Quakers and Slavery in America
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950); Judith Jennings, ed. The
Business of Abolishing the British Slave Trade, 1783-1807 (London
and Portland, OR: F. Cass, 1997).
23. See e.g. Peter Brock, The Quaker Peace Testimony 1660 to
1914 (York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1990).
24. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 20.31.
25. Howard H. Brinton, Friends for Three Hundred Years: The
History and Beliefs of the Society of Friends since George Fox
Started the Quaker Movement. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill
Publications, 1994, pp. 118-174.
26. Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, §§
27. Chapel Hill Monthly Meeting, "Membership", Preamble
and § Membership Questions and Queries No. 8.
28. Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity(Philadelphia:
Friends Book Store, 1908), p. 484.
29. J. D. Gerken, "Evangelical Counsels," New Catholic
Encyclopedia (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 383.
30. Chapel Hill (NC) Monthly Meeting uses a listing of peace or
non-violence, respect for individuality, community, simplicity,
honesty and equality.
31. Javier Osuna, SJ, Friends in the Lord: A Study in the
Origins and Growth of Community in the Society of Jesus from St.
Ignatius' conversion to the Earliest Texts of the Constitutions
(1521-1541), Nicholas King, SJ, trans. The Way Series 3
(London: The Way, 1974).
32. An excellent study of Friends' decision-making written from the
point of view of an outsider can be found in Michael J. Sheeran, SJ,
Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society
of Friends (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1983). See
also Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, § 3 and
Brinton, pp. 99-117.
33. Osuna, p. 63.
34. Osuna, p. 63.
35. Osuna, p. 63.
36. Osuna, p. 56.
37. Osuna, p. 56.
38. Osuna, p. 56.
39. Osuna, p. 56.
40. Osuna, p. 57.
41. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, p. 84.
42. The Oxford English Dictionary, (Second ed., J. A.
Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, eds., Vol. XV, Oxford: Clarendon, 1989)
usefully defines sobornost as "A unity of persons in a loving
fellowship in which each member retains freedom and integrity without
excessive individualism", p. 903.
43. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 19.04
44. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against the Heresies, in The
Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, A.
Cleveland Coxe, eds., Vol. I (Edinburgh and Grand Rapids, Michigan: T
& T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), pp. 487-8,
527, 531; Adv. haer. IV.20.1, V.1.3, V.6.1; PG VII,
col. 1032, 1123, 1137.
45. Brinton, p. 34-5.
46. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.10.
47. Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses, C. J.
DeCatanzaro, trans. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), pp. 200-1.
48. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.13.
49. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.12.
50. M. Basil Pennington, OCSO, The Cistercians
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 48.
51. An [Anonymous] Carthusian, The Call of Silent Love:
Conferences : II. Vocation and Discernment, trans. An
[Anonymous] Anglican Solitary (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications,
1994), pp. 96-7.
52. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.41.
53. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice: a Book of
Christian Discipline, p. 46
54. Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund College, OSA
and James Walsh, SJ (New York: Paulist, 1978), p. 320.
55. Julian of Norwich, Showings, p. 288.
56. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, § 2.35.
57. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trans. and ed. E.
Allison Peers (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 81.
58. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, §
59. Britain Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, §
21.33, Tony Conran, trans.