By Robert Griswold
Save us from what our own hands might do; lift the veilJelaluddin Rumi, Mathnawi, II, 2443-49
but do not tear it.
Save us from the ego; its knife has reached our bones.
Who but You will break these chains?
Let us turn from ourselves to You
Who are nearer to us than ourselves.
Even this prayer is Your gift to us.
How else has a rose garden grown from these ashes?
The Experience of George Fox
Quakers generally are familiar with the record made by George Fox of his first and perhaps most personal and most profound spiritual experience. “I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.” 1 A lot has been written about Fox’s experience and its effects and, in a sense, all of Quaker theology flows out from this point. The personal relationship with the Divine, Christ Within, the Inward Light, the Seed, Christ as our direct teacher, convincement, the universal availability of the Light, the testimony against creeds, silent worship, all these and more can be seen to grow from this foundational statement.
The one word in Fox’s statement, however, that has not been given much consideration is the word ‘condition.’ I want to bring this term to the fore because I believe that it needs a central position to aid us in understanding Friends theology. I hope that this understanding can help us be more coherent and relevant witnesses in our times.
For the voice that spoke to Fox to have an impact, Fox must have had a sense of himself as being in a condition and an unsatisfactory condition at that.
But what was his condition? In the prior pages of his journal there is evidence of restlessness, dissatisfaction with the conduct of peers and religious leaders and perhaps some depression. He was seeking an authority to guide his life but not finding it. Even so, there is no evidence that Fox had fallen into bad habits, bad behavior or had committed any offense against anyone. He doesn’t fit the category we usually designate with the term, “sinner.” He was not suffering from guilt. On the contrary, he had a reputation for exceptional honesty and went to great lengths to keep from falling into temptation. Yet, though there appears to be no one reproaching him and he isn’t conscious of doing wrong, that was not enough. He is still possessed of a sense that things weren’t the way they should be. And, in spite of the experience cited above, it still took Fox time to work out its implications in himself.
There seems to me to be only one helpful and meaningful answer to the question of what Fox was sensing about himself. That is that Fox felt that he lacked an understanding of who he was and what his relationship was to the Divine. Indeed, he felt his whole life was lacking authority. His experience of the voice showed that the inadequate authority he was following was none other than himself; that is, his own judgement and powers of understanding. What he had wanted was a more solid ground than his own notions, a connection to reality, an experience of reality that was authentic. His condition prior to this inward voice was his awareness that he was connected to his own notions rather than to spiritual reality.
Quakers Today and the Awareness of Our Condition
This sense of “condition” may seem subtle and distant to us. What could Fox’s sensitive spiritual quest have to do with us in our present time? Most of us most of the time are not aware of being oppressed by the kind of feelings that Fox describes. I assert that our lack of our awareness is due to the massive cultural weight being brought to bear to keep this condition obscured from us. We are far from the quiet pastoral life that dominated the England of Fox’s time. We can read Time or People and watch the evening TV news for weeks and only get the faintest glimpse that, as a society, we are in a condition of acting deceitfully without a connection with reality.2 Even those faint glimpses – crime, corruption, celebrity misbehavior, etc. – are offered as for-profit entertainment so that we can be pleasantly shocked and enjoy the “tut-tut” factor of being separated from “those people.”
The massive and general personal concerns of people are almost never acknowledged. When they are, they are often pejoratively labeled to assure that “those people” are dismissed from consideration. (A good example is the Wall Street Journal which dismissed the World Trade Organization demonstrators in Seattle as “lunatic Luddites.”) Our media feeds us a steady diet of shallow thinking designed to keep a mask of normalcy firmly in place over the abyss. When something like Columbine or the Oklahoma City bombing threaten to tear off this mask, our news media occupies itself for weeks with law enforcement and court processes to keep the mask on by pretending that events are being brought under control. The focus is always on finding the guilty and exacting retribution and never lead to a sincere effort to expose the actions of the powerful that have contributed to these events.
These efforts are deceitful ways of maintaining the illusion that our society is just fine except for these few aberrations. I believe that in the past Quakers have made a contribution to revealing hidden deceit within individuals and within society thereby encouraging us to live more authentic lives. We Friends of today could have that role again. But first, we need to clarify our own understanding; we need to consider afresh the role of the term “condition” in our own theology.
As Friends we are usually aware that the Inward Light as proclaimed by George Fox was universal, that is, to be found within everyone and available to everyone. But as Friends we have entered the third millennium having minimized Fox’s knowledge that the need for the Light is also universal. We need the Light within because there is darkness within where the light needs to shine. What the Light is for is to illuminate what is dark in us, what we are using to deceive ourselves, what we have sacrificed for a “mess of pottage” by absorbing the lies of our culture, what we have made part of us but hidden from ourselves.
Quakers, like many others, have become very comfortable with the acceptable illusions. We tend to be puzzled by the fervor of early Friends who saw themselves in a “Lamb’s War.” We like to remember these Friends sitting quietly in meeting – we can relate to that. It’s a nice picture. But in truth, however good these people were, I suspect that they did not fit this nice picture.
These early Friends were worked up. They saw their message as apocalyptic and one that could change the way people would relate to the world and to each other.3 They knew their lives were changed and they were out there uncovering the deceits of people around them and they were brutally punished for their efforts.
What brought the wrath of others down on them was not Friends positive message of the Light but the fact that they called attention to the deceitfulness of the “condition” of people in their times. Having found this deceit in themselves Friends naturally became an offense to those still clinging to the illusions of the culture in which they lived. Friends took many contrary positions on tithes, hat honor, plain speech, etc., which greatly offended their fellow citizens. I believe that it was the message behind these positions that caused Quakers to be rightly perceived as a threat to the existing order. They were a threat by what these positions implied.
What Quakers threatened was people’s basic sense of satisfaction with who they were and how they were living. The Quaker’s words and their conduct said, “Who you think you are is founded on a lie and a corruption of what you could be. And the more you are satisfied with who you are the greater the lie and the greater the corruption.”
Before people can change their condition they have to be aware of the need to change their condition and that is done by challenging people’s illusions. As Friends of today, we should expect that living our message of love and hope (figuratively, not taking our hat off) will provoke a hostile response from those who want to hold on to their illusions. As Paul saw, if we are at home with the Divine, we are not going to be conformed to this world, and, those who are conformed will be upset by that. Quakers of today are not sufficiently despised.
Our times are not different from theirs except that we have invented new and powerful tools to distract us from the deceitfulness of our lives. It should not surprise us that Friends of today have lost much of the sense of their condition and the universality with which they share that condition with others. We are all subject to the miasma of cultural blather in which we are immersed. Imagining ourselves to be “in the world but not of it” is a pleasant notion but it is also an illusion to which Quakers may be more vulnerable than others.
Where does the condition of “condition” come from?
Since I am arguing that the Quaker sense of condition is universal and is grounded in the sense of self or ego (not uniquely a Quaker discovery), I feel obligated to suggest a process for how this condition comes to be. I would like to offer an explanation that I believe is consistent with Fox and puts the matter into a contemporary framework that Friends may relate to better than to the seventeenth century language of early Friends.
All people grow up in human society and from middle childhood on begin to develop a sense of self. This sense of self is not something critically constructed because most of it is assembled without the critical faculties being brought into play. Rather, it is an aggregate of relationship experiences (good and bad), instruction and misinstruction by parents, siblings and other teachers, imaginations and worries (often poorly tested), and social safety and defensive skills. And this sense of self is developed in a cultural environment reflecting the accepted values, notions and ideologies of the dominant authorities.
By the time we reach age eighteen to twenty-one, this history and its attendant attitudes becomes our guide for handling the rest of our lives. We have absorbed the spiritual values of our culture and made them into us. (Of course this is hidden from us, sealed over, by the cultural emphasis that encourages us to think of ourselves as “rugged individualists.”) We have reached (as we say) our “majority” (an interesting term that can carry the implication that we are a composite of a variety of influences, some of which are contradictory, and that we have selected out of this composite certain features which we will use to rule over the others).
We continue to add or subtract bits to the heap of our self-understanding as life moves along but we rarely examine this pile because, as a collection of assumptions, it is itself now in place as the judge of our experience. Though we are not fully aware of it we have fallen into a condition because we have been subjected to conditioning. 4 We have incorporated (literally) the illusions and delusions that the dominating society around us wants us to have. Eventually we have this tool, the ego, and we rely on it to understand the world.
There are two problems with this tool. First, while the products of this tool, the conclusions we use to guide our actions in the world, are something of which we are sometimes aware, the processes of using this tool and its dependence on absorbed values are largely unconscious. In arriving at conclusions we are dependent on long-formed assumptions and those assumptions are vaguely understood at best and are almost never brought to critical review. In other words, we aren’t aware of the functioning of the ego as we use it. Our consciousness focuses on what we are doing with the tool, not how the tool is shaping what we are doing. 5
The second problem is that all of our experience becomes colored by this ego, filtered by us and defined by us. There are no pure physical perceptions taking place in human beings. We are kept to the limited perspective of our relationship with the rest of the world that has been given us. We lack the whole context that could give meaning to our lives. Even if those around us are on a parallel course and reinforce our illusions, in a profound sense our experience is ours alone. We are solipsists without knowing we are.
Anais Nin said it well, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” And, what we are is conditioned beings whose conditioning is constantly being reinforced by the social environment that dominates us. This condition is universal for all except those whose condition is changed. I believe the restlessness and occasional despair that George Fox felt before his revelation was exactly due to this condition in which a connection to reality (God) is lacking and the illusions of the ego shape the understanding.
How does this “condition” feel as it develops in us in our times?
To explore further the idea of a universal “condition” I would like to make some observations about how things seem to be going in people’s lives today. I don’t assert that all lives go precisely like this model but I think it is common enough to be recognized. The point is that the fundamental condition of people’s lives (in the sense of being free of the illusions of the ego) has not changed for the better since Fox’s time. I know many people today enjoy comforts and choices undreamed of even by the royalty of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, I find ordinary people (including Friends) are still leading “lives of quiet desperation” as Thoreau noted over a century ago.
Over the last twenty-five years the number of economically “well-to-do” folks who have been flocking to lectures and buying books on subjects dealing with personal angst and life’s discontents has risen exponentially. Drug and alcohol abuse continues to draw in millions in spite of a “war on drugs” and the legislation of severe penalties for drunken driving. What’s going on? I don’t want to focus here on the obvious casualties produced by the world’s cultures – the war victims, the damaged, the sick, or those crushed by our Western economic system – even though the great numbers of these should be a caution to us. I want to avoid this because that kind of emphasis can only contribute to the illusion that most of us are managing our lives well and that we are not damaged by what has happened in our socialization.
I do not believe that is the case. I want to focus on the middle and upper class family that appears to function fairly well, takes care of its children, gets schooling, orthodontist services, good nutrition, etc. In other words those who are trying to and want to be fair, honest, generous, and kind. (For example, those in Friends meetings.)
The following course of experience seems “normal.” We seem to start off OK as young children, but, from adolescence on, there tends to be an emptiness, a restlessness under our busyness. (I go to the mall on a weekday afternoon and I see dozens of adolescents affixed to computer games or just wandering.) There seems to be a nearly insatiable demand for distraction. As the Western (USA) model has become the world culture, we are running full tilt away from any quiet.
Why are we running? When we are quiet or alone for a while, feelings often arise that are not pleasant. It may only be a slight feeling of dis-ease or it may be a powerful fear that drives us back to the company of others or machines. We don’t like these feelings. All feelings are hard to put into words but those that make us doubt that all is well with us are the most difficult. Thinking about our anxieties doesn’t seem to do much to make them better or get them to go away. Sometimes we reach a conclusion about what to do with these feelings and we feel better for a while with the understanding we have imposed. But, shortly, the feelings come back and the understanding doesn’t work anymore.
Over time we may feel the need to try to talk to others about these feelings to see if they can help. We may get someone who listens to us sympathetically and we feel better for a while (catharsis is articulation). Often we don’t encounter sympathy. What we get is the other person giving us a description of the life raft they are clinging to though it doesn’t fit us at all. Or we get those who pretend that our feelings are odd so that they will not have to deal with us.
Our uncomfortable feelings reflect feelings they deny and so they find ways to turn us away. If our pain keeps growing we may seek the counsel of a priest or pastor or therapist (what George Fox might be doing in this day). The chief advantage of these folks is that they have to listen to us because they are expected to and are paid to. The experiences we have with professionals may also disappoint us.
What to do? Typically, at some point our ego takes charge and we adopt modes of behavior to escape the pain of our doubts. These escapes are legion (remember Mark. 5:9). Please note that these escapes generally have been given a positive cultural endorsement. To name of few classes of these ways:
- We set a career goal that will make us “somebody” by standards of the culture.
- We pursue distractions (for example, we become sports fans or hang out at the casinos).
- We attach ourselves in service to a cause, political party or project that can devour our attention.
- We join a church (especially those where the pastor clearly believes he or she has the answers).
- We work to accumulate unnecessary wealth and material goods.
- We try to lose/find ourselves in a love/sexual relationship.
- We seek positions of authority over others (to make it easier to think we are “somebody”).
- We use alcohol or take drugs.
- We keep very, very busy (Marx was wrong – not religion, but work is the opiate of the masses).
- We become practiced at blaming others or projecting our pain outside of ourselves.
Often we undertake several of these classes of behaviors at once. In this process our ego grows to be fully in charge and well defended as we incorporate these behaviors into a life-style.
It is my experience (most of the above list have been a part of my life) that all these kinds of behaviors point to the reality of our condition. This is the condition where we have accepted dysfunctional answers to the basic ontological and theological questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my relationship to what is? What is the meaning of my existence? We have bought an answer that lets us hide in our culture and that places our fabricated ego in charge.
We’re not entirely comfortable with that choice. We may not even be aware that we have made a choice. Living through an ego involves a lot of defensiveness and repression. But, at the same time, we are convinced that we are supposed to be able to figure it out with our own skills. We trust that being led by our assembled ego is just the way it is for everybody and we have nothing else to rely on.
Thus, in the face of our ontological and theological emptiness, we continue to reinforce an inauthentic guide – the ego. We repress that we have done this and are doing this – making this choice – to avoid the pain of our doubts.
The Quaker “condition” defined
What I have been attempting to describe so far is an experience that I believe fits what Quakers have labeled with the term “condition.” For Friends, the term condition has four parts:
It refers to that state where, through
conditioning, we have lost a firm connection to
the meaning and value of our lives and our sense
of connection to a spiritual reality.
It refers to the fact that we have given our ego,
with its attendant absorbed fears, desires and
obsessions, the role of authority in our lives and
that choice makes us impotent to confront the
illusions that shape our view of the world.
It points to the false relationship with reality –
the self-deception – that is the ego’s authority.
It offers the potential for the recovery of an
authentic existence – “conditions” can be
changed if we find within a new relationship with the
The experience of George Fox, as reported in his journal, follows much of the basic outline I have described above. As a youth he was in distress and doubt about what he could rely on to guide his life. He tried the company of his peers and was put off by their willingness to choose distraction and drink. He tried talking to pastors and priests and other learned persons to hear what answers they might have.
Fox’s response differed from that of many, however, because when none of this worked for him, he went off by himself and spent long hours alone, taking a room in a town for short stays or wandering the countryside. He resisted the temptation to follow the culturally accepted behaviors that would contribute to an inauthentic self even when doing so left him in misery. And in time he heard the voice within quoted above. This experience grounded him. From this point on he had a way of knowing who he was, he knew what his relationship was to the world (visible and invisible), and he knew how to get back on the path if he lost his way. His condition changed.
Understanding our condition
What is this condition that needs a revelation? What is this condition that needs to get in touch with something that is not from outside us but is not us? It has to be a condition that is felt to be lacking in authority. We may not be able to articulate what it is exactly but we know we are cut off from the truth of who we are and why we are here. This is a fallen condition: a place where we have fallen from the grace of a genuine authority to a place of pretended authority. We are out of the place that is our true home and ground, and our self-will can’t get us back to that place because it is our egos that are the false authority, the false guide, we have embraced. We are trapped in the inadequate authority of our egos.
Why are we trapped? No doubt the messages coming to us daily from the society around us contribute to the problem. But we can’t just focus on the problem as out there. We are trapped because this false self inside us has been set up as the authority by which other authority is to be judged. The ego can’t afford to let us imagine that we can do without it ruling our lives. If it did, all the ontological and theological doubts it is sitting on come back to threaten our superficial comfort – we might not find our “self” in the “majority.” We would have to face the abyss of unknowing, that is, what is beyond the power of the ego to know.
Sometimes, as with George Fox, the ego keeps us busy trying to bring it answers to judge, hoping that we will despair and give up. And we might give up because that approach can never work. Sometimes it keeps us busy serving good causes. That can work for the ego, too. If we are busy enough (the selfish will hopes) maybe we will fail to discover that we don’t have to be working on the ego’s projects at all. Trusting in our ego (and our Western culture constantly directs us to trust our egos) we are in a mystifying condition. The ego always puts itself in the center as the “haver.” I have the thought. I am the actor. I have the perception. I decide what is me and what is not. It all exists in relation to me and who I think I am. The universe moves out from where I am. To be guided by an ego is by definition to be egocentric. Maybe we are not always crudely selfish because that may not be in our self-interest. But our perspective is still confined though we deny it.
It is the work of the selfish will to keep us enthralled in the basic sense of that word, that is, in bondage. From inside the ego there is no vision that can lead us out of this bondage. Who is the self that is not me? From the perspective of self, the ego is identical with who I am. For those who have long been in a prison cell, the world is a prison cell. For those who have forgotten what it is to be outside of the centripetal force of their own egos, there is no way to imagine a world without self and the false authority of self. In fact when we try to imagine it, it can only feel like death for, when the ego gives up its place in the center, it withers.
Herein lies the mysterious and paradoxical wisdom of the Quran, “Die, before you die.” And the Christian, “You must be born again,” or “Except you become as little children.” And the Buddhist, “If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill the Buddha.” The ego dies if we let it go and that is exactly what keeps us tied to it. We can’t find out who we are until we let go of who we think we are, but, on the other hand, we (as egos) have no idea how to stop thinking we are who we think we are. We’re in a trap. There is truly nothing we (as egos) can do.
From this perspective it is easy to understand the appeal of credal religions. It is also easy to appreciate how the great religions noted above can fall into the apostasy of a credal form. These forms are much less threatening to the ego. They may require frequent salutes to be given in the direction of bizarre theologies, but the ego is kept safely in charge. Believing in nonsense is less risky than having yourself taken out of the center of the calculation. As Nietzsche said, “Rather than believe in nothing, people will believe even in nothingness.”
Changing our condition
There are ways out of this trap. We have to come to know that this condition is a lie and an illusion. The Quaker way to come to this knowledge (and there are other ways) is to have an experience from within that is not from or to our ego. And for this to happen we have to let go of our attachment to the ego so that something else, a true connection, can come forth in us to guide our lives.
George Fox, “Stand still in that which is pure, after you see yourselves, and then Mercy comes in. After you see your thoughts and temptations, do not think but submit. Then the Power comes. Stand still in the light and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone. Then contentment comes. When temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed and fly away. Your strength is to stand still” (my emphasis, Epistle 10, 1652). 7
This is the Quaker bedrock. Early Friends sat in long silent meetings waiting. And we know from the record that in these meetings there was much sighing and groans and tears. Tears are the sign in humans of the dissolution of the boundaries of the ego.8 In writing to Friends, one of George Fox’s constant themes was “wait.” Divine Grace happens when we have the patience to wait for the ego to subside.
Once this new experience has been absorbed into our life, once we are convinced and come to practice allegiance to the Seed we are changed, root and branch. The fears and lusts of ego that had been running our lives drop away. Once that has happened within, we find a new relationship with others and the world around us. Before, we were seeing that world through the screen of the fears and desires of ego and those robbed us of the strength needed to change the world. We should never doubt that it is our task as Friends to change the world. Listen again to George Fox. “And be bold in the Power of Truth, and valiant for it upon the Earth; treading, triumphing over and trampling all Deceit under Foot, inward and outward, having done it in yourselves in particular, ye have power over the World in general” (my emphasis, Epistle 18, 1652).9
The light of Quaker theology
Friends theology shines a powerful light on the new covenant articulated in the work of Jesus and some early Christians. Under the old covenant, the relationship to God was through law and rule – thou shalt do this and thou shalt not do that. The weakness of this approach is that it reinforces the authority of the ego by treating it as the one in charge of making changes. “You (whoever you are) shalt do this.” The Seed (Christ within) is not called forth. The old covenant focused on what a person did or did not do and when they did it, leaving intact the assumption of the ego as the actor.
The gospels make clear the shift taking place between covenants. Do you remember the Pharisees hating Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath? (Mt. 12:10-14) The new covenant focuses on the ontological and theological questions – who are you and what is your relationship to what is? Not “what are you doing?” but “what are you being?”
This isn’t a change of the rules. It is a change of the paradigm. This points to a new relationship with the Divine in which we become (F)friends. Fox experienced this shift in him-self and describes his experience thus, “It is the great love of God to make a wilderness of that which is pleasant to the outward eye and fleshly mind; and to make a fruitful field of a barren wilderness.”10 For Fox this shift was so profound that he thought the world smelled differently. Jesus spoke to his followers in stories, parables and metaphors because a paradigm shift cannot be communicated effectively in direct ego language. In that language the Truth always sounds like a paradox or a mystery.
The ego keeps spiritual reality hidden. As Fox says, “I did discern my own thoughts, groans and sighs, and what it was that did veil me . . . and could not give up self to die by the Cross, the power of God.” (my emphasis).11 Fox speaks of Christ as the “second Adam” that is, leading into a new relationship with the Divine. He boldly contended that we could be restored to the condition that Adam was in before the Fall.12 The Garden of Eden is a metaphor for a rightful connection between who we are and our place in ultimate reality. (We resonate to the story of the Fall in the bible because we experience the Fall [condition] in our own lives.)
Fox and early Friends were convinced by their exper-ience that their condition of allegiance to a false authority, the ego and the worldly powers it represents, needed to be changed and could be changed and was changed – not by any action of theirs, but by waiting. For Friends, the illusion (Fox’s word is “deceit”) that our egos are adequate for the construction of a meaningful life is a universal condition. But this condition is an illusion that can be surrendered and we can find a new relation-ship and a new authority for our lives. We can be “saved.”
Not from some fiery hereafter, but from not living an authentic life while we have it to live. Not from doing bad things but from living the lie that leads us to do bad things. We sin if we cling to the illusion of the authority of self or allow ourselves to fall back into the illusion and start serving self again. If we stick with the measure of Truth we are given under the experience of the Light and go only so far as the Light of that Truth shows, we will do what we should be doing and need do no more.
Fox considered that the Puritans and other reformation Protestants were in apostasy because they held that sin was an inescapable and unchangeable fact of the human condition and thus their brand of Christianity was in denial of the “good news” of the gospels. He berated the Puritans for “arguing for sin.” He considered the Catholic Church to be in apostasy because they assumed the authority for the forgiveness of sins for themselves, imposing themselves between the direct experience of the Divine and the sinner.
Fox and other Quakers had an experience that convinced them that the human condition could change in this lifetime. In fact it needed to. For Friends, a condition of sin is not something you do (or have done) but something you are, if you attend to your ego for your guide. The Light isn’t there to point out bad choices but to point to where these bad choices are coming from – the ego.
The soteriological problem for Quakers isn’t that you did something wrong and need to not do that. Rather the problem is that you are in a condition where you have set up a false authority and are letting it guide your life – the wrong guide is making your choices for you. Fox’s “Power of the Lord” is the power of love released in the heart of the humbled person. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”? He meant that the arrogant, the ego bound, never experience an authentic relationship with reality while the humble person can be free of the illusion that is the condition of bondage to self.
We do need to turn around our lives or turn away from the dead ends we have pursued as the root of the word, conversion, indicates. But not all turning that happens in our lives is helpful. Perhaps no expression better captures the last two decades of American life than “I’m trying to get my act together” (an expression that perfectly reflects the lack of authenticity in our approach to the world).
We never seem to make it. Events seem to keep pushing us off track. The next time we reflect on it we find that we are trying to get a new act together. So our usual “conversion” just leads to vertigo (a word with the same root). We go from one distraction to another, one interest to another, one passion to another but we aren’t really going anywhere. We are just spinning and making ourselves dizzy to support the illusion that we are moving. If we did our spinning intentionally as the Sufis do, we might spin out of the confines of the ego. Instead we fasten on one ego-selected pursuit after another and remain in the illusion. We need to have a real conversion that can release us from spinning in place and move us to an authentic life.
One of the ways critics of the early Quaker movement tried to denigrate it was to accuse Quakers of being “enthusiasts.” These critics were exactly wrong. What Quakers were doing was stepping out of that process of spinning in place. Quaker worship shuts down the voices of the ego, stills the passions, and humbles the heart. Real conversion requires a turning away from self-centeredness, a letting go of our guiding misconceptions, an opening to the Spirit, an opening to reality, an opening to love and caring for each other. This can only happen if we find a way out of the vertigo of the ego-life. What the ego can bring into its grasp, always turns to dross. What the Light can bring us is loving, and the courage to risk loving.
This is the new covenant, this is the Quaker Christian message. Live in Truth.
What is our condition as Quakers of today? Have we let self wither? How much are we trusting in our own judgement and powers of understanding rather than the Light we know we need? How often are we waiting until we get into difficulties before we seek the Light? Are we finding ways to challenge illusions in ourselves; ways to put love before fear; ways to let go of angry and defensive responses? Do we genuinely believe the Quaker message can change the world and do our actions demonstrate that belief? Are we ready to be regarded as peculiar and to be treated with hostility, as we likely will be if we find the courage to confront the deceits we encounter everyday? How much are we supporting other Friends who are learning to let self go? Do we show them the tenderness they need? Are we asking all to hold us to living the life these queries make plain?
1. The Journal of George Fox, John L. Nickalls, editor, Religious Society of Friends, 1985, p. 11.
2. A thorough account of the sinister role of the media in our spiritual lives can be found in Unmasking the Idols, Douglas Gwyn, Friends United Press, 1989, p. 113-116.
3. All Friends should get clear on this point. Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox, Douglas Gwyn, Friends United Press, 1984 is a good place to start.
4. For more details on this process, I recommend reading Walter Wink, Engaging The Powers, Fortress Press, 1992. He states, “Every mind is a “contaminated mind” a mind constructed of a network of suppositions and assumptions.” (page 54)
5. For further background on this subject, the reader is directed to Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Bantam Books, 1980. See especially the section titled, “Every Schoolboy Knows.”
6. To verify these aspects of “condition,” I recommend reading the (formerly) unpublished letter of George Fox at the end of T. Canby Jones’ The Power of the Lord is Over All, Friends United Press, 1989, p. 474, or a poetic transcription I made of that letter, entitled “Fox Bones,” published in Friends Journal for March 1998, p. 9.
7. Jones, p. 7.
8. Consider the following questions. Why do people cry when they see loved ones after a long separation? Why do children cry more easily than adults? Why do people cry at weddings? Why do we call false tears, ‘crocodile tears’? Why are men not supposed to cry? The answer to all of these has finally to do with ego boundaries.
9. A Day-Book of Counsel and Comfort: From the Epistles of George Fox, L. V. Hodgkin, editor, Macmillan and Co., London, 1937, p. 11 (epistle 18)
10. The Journal, p. 13.
11. The Journal, p. 14 –15.
12. The Journal, p. 688.