[From The Preface: “The Church, the Draft Board, and Me” recounts my conflicts with the Catholic Church, whose ethics were called into question by the war in Vietnam, and the U.S. Selective Service System, which refused to honor my conscientious objection to participation in war. In telling that story, it sketches my evolution, despite encounters with predatory priests and a vindictive draft board, from youthful candidate for the Catholic priesthood to adult a-theistic Quaker who still asserts that “God is love.”]
From Part 1: The Call
Until the possibility of conscription for war illuminated the Church’s contradictions, I had been an unquestioning and pious Catholic. During my freshman and senior years of high school, I was a candidate for the priesthood in boarding seminaries, and I came close to trying it a third time after high school. My motivation for those repeated attempts can be traced to experiences I had during grade school.
My parents were sober and industrious, but we were not financially well-off. During my eight years in Catholic grade school, we lived in a working-class area characterized by ignorance, intolerance, and occasional violence. Education beyond high school was seen as neither attainable nor necessary: a man who got a secure job in a unionized craft was considered to have done very well. From my perspective, the future looked bleak: I wanted as much education as I could get, and I didn’t want to pass most of my life performing rote tasks inside a noisy factory. One day, I stood in the school athletic field across the street from our home, looked around slowly at the tract houses that enclosed it, and vowed aloud, “This will not be my life.” I would find a way out.
I didn’t have far to look. The Catholic Church offered to lift a boy out of the blue-collar blind alley and into the most respected and important position a man could hold: the priesthood. Like many other devout Catholic boys, I was already considering that offer by the sixth grade. Then, in the latter years of grade school, I was befriended by two popular priests at our parish. Each of them singled me out for conversation, arranged for me to serve him as an altar boy, took me for ice cream and visits to churches in his impressive new car, and gave me gifts. They even addressed me by name in the confessional booth, as if in recognition that one day I should be sitting on the priest’s side of the screen.
If that looks today like grooming for abuse, that’s because, for one of them at least, it was. But that priest, Robert Hopkins, left me alone after the rectory housekeeper blocked his attempt to take me to his bedroom. We had just returned from an afternoon outing, and Father Hopkins said that he wanted to show me something in his room. He looked surprised when the housekeeper called to him from a doorway and asked where we were going. When he replied, “Upstairs,” she asked to speak with him privately. He was gone briefly, and he returned visibly angry. “She says we can’t go up there,” he said. “Go home.” I guessed that she must not have cleaned his room yet, but I was disappointed by his anger at her and hurt by his curt dismissal. I would attribute his subsequent coldness to embarrassment over that display of anger. Many years later, Hopkins would admit that he had sexually abused boys for decades. I then understood that I would have been among his victims had that brave woman not intervened.
The other priest, whose sermons occasionally included condemnation of women who wore shorts and halter tops across the street from the rectory, was soon transferred. One of the last times I saw him was when he gave us eighth-grade boys “the talk,” during which he told us that sex, which we must not experience until marriage, was effective at relieving tension. I would speak with him once after grade school, visiting him at the rectory after we moved into his new parish in 1965. During that brief audience, he would offer not even the hint of a smile for his former favorite. And he would say very little, other than to ask, “Do you have any sexual problems?” — and when I said that I didn’t, to dismiss me with, “I’m very busy.” Some time later, I would hear that he’d been sent somewhere for health treatment before being transferred again.
At the time of the grooming, I was a naïve boy who revered priests as alter Christi, “other Christs.” I interpreted the priests’ attentions to mean that two holy men saw something special in me: a calling from God, a “vocation,” to the priesthood. My desire to become a priest seemed confirmed as divinely inspired.
Wanting to learn more about priestly life, I consulted the classic recruiting digest, The Guidepost: Religious Vocation Manual for Young Men. I found that there are two basic forms of the Catholic priesthood: the religious and the secular (also called diocesan). I would need to choose between them. And if I opted for the religious priesthood, I would then need to choose a particular type of religious life from the variety catalogued in The Guidepost, which listed more than 130 distinct groups.
One might assume that all priests should be called “religious,” but in the Catholic Church the term “religious,” often used as a noun, refers to people who have professed vows (such as poverty, chastity, and obedience) as members of an officially approved religious institute. Ideally, religious priests live in communities called monasteries or friaries. Often, the communities are mixed: although all members make the vows, some are not, nor will ever become, priests. In theory, all members of such communities are brothers to each other. However (and despite Jesus’ explicit proscription: see Mt. 23:9), priests receive the title of “Father,” while members who are not priests are addressed as “Brother.”
The lives of religious are structured according to written rules, with set times for prayer, work, meals, and sleep. In addition to its rule of life, each institute has its traditions, spiritual practices, and written constitution. Those things determine the relationship of a religious to the outside world — in broad terms, where his or her institute falls on the spectrum between “active” and “contemplative” lifestyles. Active institutes require extensive interaction with the wider world; contemplative institutes allow little or none. An example of the former is the Dominican Order, whose friars preach and teach (and were major figures in the Inquisition); perhaps the most extreme example of the latter is the Carthusian Order, whose monks remain cloistered (enclosed within the monastery), praying together periodically but spending much of their time, and even taking meals, alone in their cells (private living spaces). Some institutes attempt to blend the two elements.
My primary exposure to institutional religious life was through the nuns, members of the active institute called the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who taught us in grade school. When I served as altar boy in their convent, I thought that it must be lovely to live in such an orderly, peaceful, and sacred atmosphere. I also became acquainted with life in a men’s religious institute by participating in retreats at a Capuchin Franciscan seminary, a boarding school for candidates for the priesthood, in western Pennsylvania. (“Capuchin” refers to the long hood, or capuche, worn by members of that branch of the Franciscan Order.) The atmosphere there was like that of the convent, although on a much larger scale. In addition, I read books on monastic life by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, pored over The Guidepost, and corresponded with vocation directors (recruiters) for a number of religious institutes.
I didn’t need to research the other type of priestly life: the priests I’d known at my parish were all members of the secular clergy, so I was already familiar with that. Secular priests are said to live “in the world but not of it.” They make promises of chastity and obedience to the bishop. They do not, however, promise poverty; they may have possessions and even wealth. They may share a residence with other priests, but they are not bound by a rule of life; their days can be relatively unstructured.
Weighing those two basic options, I decided to join a religious institute. The nuns and the Capuchin friars had seemed at peace; our parish priests, however, seemed somewhat unsettled. There was an aura of loneliness and even ennui about those men; somehow, priesthood alone seemed not to fulfill them. That, I think, is what led me to seek a regulated community: I wanted the fraternal support, structured life, and routine asceticism that such a community would provide.
Accordingly, at the age of thirteen I began high school at the Carmelite Junior Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts, which I had selected from The Guidepost. The Carmelite Order’s Rule of Life offered a combination of prayer and active ministry. “Each one must remain in his cell or near it,” it states, “meditating day and night on the law of the Lord and keeping vigil in prayer, unless occupied with other lawful duties.” That seemed to prioritize contemplation while providing for active ministry as well. It was, I thought, an ideal way of life.
And in many ways, the Carmelite seminary was an ideal place for me. The friars in Hamilton encouraged art, music, and the life of the intellect — within, of course, strict limits. (For example, I found a book of critical Bible analysis in our library, but the friar in charge of study hall took it from me, saying, “You’re too young for this. I’ll return it for you.”) Our freshman prefect, Father John Vianney Kelly, was a kind and generous man who understood and cared about young people. He took us to art galleries, helped us learn to draw and paint, and encouraged my interest in classical music. . . . And the consistent daily schedule, with regular times for study, physical exercise, and prayer, fostered my development.
But it was a lonely place, too. Hamilton was more than 400 miles distant from my home, and I was homesick. Further, although I was one of more than thirty freshmen living together, I had no close friendships. That was part of the program: “particular friendships” between classmates were not permitted; as a result, peer relationships were superficial.
In addition, association with students outside of one’s class year was forbidden. For a few weeks, I enjoyed conversations with a senior named Ray, who shared with me inspirational letters he had received from Father Dominic, a Carmelite friar in Washington, D.C. (Dominic, who had written of having a “manly love” for Christ, would later lose his position at a boys’ high school after admitting to sexual relationships with minors, some of them his students.) But those conversations stopped suddenly and inexplicably, leaving me to wonder what I’d done to cause Ray to avoid me. Eventually, he slipped around a corner and, glancing in fear over his shoulder, told me that he’d been ordered to stay away from me. He risked speaking to me that one last time because he wanted me to know what had happened. (During the ensuing summer vacation, Ray and I corresponded by mail. I later learned that he left the Carmelites after a year of college, and that his subsequent request for readmission was turned down. That was the last news I had of him.)
Later in the year, I was befriended by a young nun, a member of a Carmelite community that had come from Italy to work in the seminary’s kitchen. She would teach me basic Italian phrases while I helped her wash windows in the refectory. That friendship, too, lasted only weeks. One day when I arrived to help her, she told me apologetically that she’d been forbidden to spend time with me. My disappointment must have been obvious; I was close to tears. Although I was unable to acknowledge the implications, our brief friendship had assuaged a deep need for feminine companionship.
Reflexively, I turned to the Blessed Mother, reciting the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary during my free time each day. Often, I would kneel before a white stone statue of Mary on the grounds and talk to her. I found some comfort in the relationship I imagined I had with Mary through those rituals. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would notice my extra devotions, but someone did: after a while I was told that, while prayer was important, my superiors wanted my free time used for recreation or study instead. When I knelt before the statue to tell Mary that I couldn’t visit regularly, I saw as if for the first time that the statue’s eyes were unrealistically carved. Mary was no longer there for me.
As the year went on, I tried to make a virtue of loneliness in other ways, even writing a series of short stories about a hermit. Tellingly, however, my hermit had extensive contact with other people, including women, in every episode — not unlike, I would later learn, my literary mentor Thomas Merton, who lived in a hermitage but corresponded with hundreds and had many visitors.5
Merton’s books, which I had continued to read while in Hamilton, also factored into my unhappiness there. Despite the promise of the Carmelite Rule, in practice it was “other lawful duties,” rather than meditation and prayer, that occupied much of the friars’ time. It seemed to me that the Carmelites fell short of the contemplative ideal extolled by Merton, a seemingly heroic life to which I wanted to believe God was calling me. During my first summer vacation from Hamilton, after Ray and I had talked it over by mail, I decided to postpone seminary while my discernment process continued. I needed a respite from the loneliness of seminary life. I hoped that a few more years’ maturity would make that life easier.
My parents enrolled me at Archbishop Curley High School, a Baltimore day school operated by Conventual Franciscan friars. At the time, I expected that I would graduate from Curley, but I spent only my sophomore and junior years there. It was during those years, as the more obvious manifestations of puberty appeared, that symptoms of chronic depression began to emerge.
From “The Habit Covers a Multitude of Sins”
I trace the emergence of depression to a day in my third year of high school when my confessor Father Alexander — who was weak in zoology as well as pastoral theology, I would later understand — withheld God’s forgiveness from me. Although I had followed his instructions to participate in Mass and confession more often, I had continued to “abuse” myself. “That’s disgusting,” he said in the confessional. “Not even the animals do that. You come in here every week and confess the same mortal sin. [Mortal means soul-damning; I’ll discuss that further in a sidebar.] Absolution requires a sincere intention to reform: clearly, you have no such intention. I will not absolve you until you’ve stopped committing that sin, and I forbid you to seek absolution from another priest.”
The result of that abortive confession was relentless self-loathing and fear of hell as I amassed mortal sins. Despite the shame and dread, I was unable to stop “committing that sin.” Further, my transgressions now included weekly sacrilege: not wanting my parents to know of my sinfulness, I continued to receive communion when they took me to Mass on Sundays; each reception while unshriven was yet another grievous sin. God had called me to his holy priesthood, and this was my response? During that time, I wrote a short poem to express my state of mind. I called it
“Prison of Vice.”
How long must I bear
This filthy place?
Must I hide here forever?
There must be sunlight somewhere,
And fresh air; I know it.
But will I ever
Find the courage to break free,
To regain my lost humanity
And get out of this loathsome place?
It is surely significant that I can type those lines from memory over half a century later. Back then, I couldn’t see that “Prison of Catholicism” would have been a better title, that I was bound by what William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles.”7 The Church had convinced me that the sickness was in my own failure to love and obey God.
After months of despair, I revealed my situation to a young teacher whom I felt I could trust. I’ll call him Father X. “Ninety-eight out of a hundred males do that,” Father X said of the behavior I’d thought depraved, “and the other two are liars.” I was stunned.
Saying that Father Alexander must have misunderstood a settled matter of moral theology, Father X then explained the doctrine of “habitual sin.” When a person repeats a grievously sinful act so often that it becomes a fixed habit, he told me, that person is no longer able to consent fully to that act and is, therefore, no longer committing mortal sin. (The person may be committing “venial” sin, but such minor offenses do not damn the soul to hell and need not be confessed.) I just needed to confess the sin of allowing the habit to develop, he said; ongoing instances of a habitual act were not seriously sinful, and they were probably not sinful at all if the person regretted the habit, as I did. I formally confessed, and he absolved me. No longer damned and no longer doomed to repeatedly re-damn myself, I felt weightless with relief.
Although the doctrine of habitual sin was wondrously convenient, it was well-established in Catholic moral teaching. Here is an excerpt from a 1956 article in a Catholic journal of theology:
“Moral theology admits that the habit of sin, considered in itself, may be and often is completely sinless. Even when a habit of sin has been contracted deliberately and sinfully, once the habitual sinner repents of the sin involved in contracting the habit and sincerely resolves to use efficacious means to correct the habit, the habit itself is considered involuntary and sinless. This means that, hereafter, and as long as he remains in the same good dispositions, the individual acts placed under the influence of habit are no longer attributed to him in causa. This means, further, that the formal guilt of any future individual acts, placed under the influence of the acquired habit, must be judged from the individual acts themselves, i.e., according to the amount of effective control he was able to exercise in each instance, considering all the internal and external circumstances of the act.” [Joseph A. Duhamel, “Theological and Psychiatric Aspects of Habitual Sin: Theological Aspects,” Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 1956. (Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.): http://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/ctsa/article/view/2421. ]
This is a commonplace of moral theology. It is emphasized here because when the priest meets a habitual sinner, either in or out of the confessional, he is dealing generally with a sinner who sincerely repents of his acquired habit and is willing to use the necessary means to correct his habit of sin.8
It may have been a commonplace among moral theologians, but I suspect that most Catholics would be as surprised to learn of it as I was. It may be too dangerous a doctrine to be widely propagated.
Many years later, when my depression began to feel life-threatening, I consulted a psychologist. When I told him about the notion of “completely sinless” habitual sin, he said, “That can’t be right: that would be crazy! I have Catholic friends, and they wouldn’t believe crazy things.” (“But,” I thought, “you wouldn’t call ‘crazy’ the well-known doctrine that a child’s self-pleasuring merits the same eternal punishment as murder?”) I gave him a copy of a book I’d found that made reference to the concept. “It may be crazy,” I said as he read the relevant paragraph, “but it is what they teach.” He nodded, but it was evident that he couldn’t make sense of it. I was not surprised at his response: by then, I was well aware of the fundamental absurdity of the Catholic moral system.
At the time of my confession to Father X, however, the Catholic worldview, its madness cloaked by its universal acceptance in my milieu, was still my normal, unquestioned reality. Disinterested analysis was not a possibility for me then; I would not begin to think critically about religion and ethics until I stepped outside of Catholic culture after high school. Only then would I realize that the doctrine of habitual sin might harbor more than relief for adolescents possessed by hormonal demons. Even so, I did not suspect the depths of depravity that it could rationalize. It was still inconceivable that priests would rape children.
Almost fifty years after my confession to him, Father X was posthumously accused of molesting boys at Archbishop Curley and elsewhere. By that time, the myth of priestly purity had been exploded by the abuse scandal. I saw then the darker possibilities of the habitual sin doctrine — and of that confession, which had taken place not through a screen in a confessional box but face to face in an otherwise empty classroom.
The doctrine could be used to assert not only that “habitual” child abuse would not be sinful, but also that the abuser should not be held responsible for his actions:
“Even when a habit of sin has been contracted deliberately, once the habitual sinner repents of the sin involved in contracting the habit and sincerely resolves to use efficacious means to correct the habit, acts placed under the influence of the habit are no longer attributed to him in causa.”
That principle, which contrasts with secular law, may help explain the difference between the ecclesiastical and the public and legal perspectives on clerical child abuse. Given his daily prayer and sacrament, a habitually abusive priest — and his bishop or religious superior — could believe that he is already using “efficacious means to correct the habit” and is not, therefore, morally responsible for his raping of children. Perhaps it could even encourage priests — such as Father X, whose tally of male masturbators had not excluded them — to cultivate habits of sin.
Considering the accusations, I must acknowledge the possibility that Father X, seeing that I trusted him with my “sexual problems,” hoped to groom me. If he did, however, he sabotaged himself. His casuistry and absolution made it not only possible but seemingly imperative that I go to seminary, instead of returning to Curley and him, for my senior year. For the time being no longer hopelessly damned, I knew that I must “use the necessary means,” take every available measure, to overcome the vice. To fail to do so would be to fall again into mortal sin. For someone called to the priesthood, seminary life was one such means. Hoping in the curative powers of public commitment, fraternal support, and intense religious practice — that a friar’s habit would help me overcome a bad habit9 — I felt that I must enroll in a seminary without delay. . . .
[After three tries, dogged by depression, Amoss ended his quest to become a priest or monk. Then, with the Vietnam War at its height, he faced the military draft. His religious studied had led him to file a claim for Conscientious Objector status, which was rejected. After he filed an appeal from this rejection, the draft lottery began, and he drew a high number. He learned from a draft counselor that if he withdrew his appeal by the end of 1970, his draft eligibility would expire with the new year. Should he take advantage of this loophole?]
It seemed to me that the Selective Service System’s objective was to force me to choose between killing and imprisonment. When those had been my only options, the choice had been obvious: the state could incarcerate me, but it could not coerce my conscience. Now, the lottery was offering a way to avoid both. Should I take that way out, or should I continue to press for official recognition as a C.O., now solely as witness against war and conscription?
Although I had participated in protests against the war in Vietnam, promoting pacifism as national policy had not been my intention. My rejection of any and all war was a matter of personal conscience, not a political position: even when the counterculture seemed strongest, I understood that nonviolence was counter, a deviation from widely-accepted moral standards. My stance, I would later find, was similar to that of early Quakers, who in 1660 avowed that “All bloody principles and practices, we, as to our own particulars, do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever” [emphasis mine]. Those Friends, however, had thought that the peoples of the world might soon be led to a radical change of heart that would bring lasting peace. I had no such hope.
Nor had conscription itself been a target of my refusal. I had cooperated fully, asking only for “alternative civilian service,” non-military work for the common good. From the outset, I had conceived the situation starkly: I was being ordered to maim and kill, and that I could not do.
I saw, too, that as a free man I could work for human welfare in ways that were more productive than submitting to imprisonment. And without the ever-present worry about prison, I should be less depressed and anxious and therefore more able to engage in such work. I decided that I would accept the lottery’s offer of immediate liberation, but without recanting my declaration of pacifism. On December 22, 1970, still classified as 1-A, I sent a registered letter to the local board, informing them simply that I was withdrawing my appeal and was therefore subject to the 1970 lottery. Someone at the board — not Elizabeth Simmons — signed for my letter on the following day.
As that letter was being delivered, I was setting off, in the company of a young man who hoped to emigrate to Canada, for Boston. Arriving there during a snowstorm with just a few dollars between us, we learned that the person who had promised us lodging had reneged. I called a seminarian friend who was studying in Massachusetts, and he referred me to the “street priest,” Paul Shanley.
Father Paul — who decades later would become infamous in the clerical sex abuse scandal, ultimately serving twelve years in prison — arranged for us to stay with some generous people. At his Christmas dinner-Mass for runaways, Father Paul suggested that I visit him at his home for spiritual counseling. When I did so, however, I found that it was a ploy: what he wanted was sex. His “counseling” reminded me of my encounter with the parish priest in 1965, when the priest’s only interest in me had taken the form of “do you have any sexual problems?”
Saddened, I cut short my stay in Boston and returned to Baltimore. When I arrived home and saw the signed return receipt from the draft board, my relief was akin to that I had felt when Father X rescued me from hell. Although I was broke, alienated from my family, and soon to be homeless, I was free. And my conscience was largely intact, even if, as earlier with the “habitual sin” escape clause, deliverance had been attained in a way that felt too easy.
When my final draft card arrived, it bore the classification 1-H, “not currently subject to processing for induction.” “‘Not currently,’” I said as I signed the card; “they never give up hope.” But I knew that, like the Catholic Church before it, the Selective Service System had lost its power to imprison me.
Postscript: Becoming an A-theistic Quaker
After my struggles with the Catholic Church and the Selective Service System, I continued my exploration of religion. Eventually, I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends. In 1999, I described that passage in a piece called “The Making of a Quaker Atheist” for the inaugural issue of Quaker Theology. The following sketch is adapted from that essay.
As we saw in the preceding narrative, my analysis of Jesus’ attitude toward violence revealed that the Catholic Church, which claimed him as its cornerstone, had abandoned his teachings and spirit. With the stone removed, the structure crumbled. The dust settled slowly, but when it had, I found that the sanctuary had been empty. The Christian God, my God, was but a creation of the Church, a fresco on a now-fallen wall. He had terrified me at times, but he had been the heart of my world. I longed for him and for the meaning he had provided.
I turned to Buddhism, a faith born, like Christianity, in a profound reaction against human suffering. Whereas Jesus had expected that God would end all pain by creating a new world, the Buddha had taught a way to overcome suffering. Buddhism sought liberation through personal effort, but it seemed to leave open the possibility of a divine reality. Captivated, I pored over sutras, Zen dialogues, and Madhyamika dialectic.22 Joining a local group that met regularly for Zen meditation (zazen), I learned to allow my mind to become calm and detached, a practice that would later enrich my Quaker worship.
But Buddhism lacked the person and vision of Jesus. I was moved by his ideal of the Kingdom of God, a world of peace, justice, and well-being. And I sensed that the story of his crucifixion could symbolize a divine self-emptying (kenosis) at the heart of all things. Hoping to find a way to believe in his presence again, I studied the works of Bible scholars and contemporary theologians. For a dozen years, I struggled to work out both a theology of a suffering, kenotic God and an exegesis that would make New Testament eschatology — expectation of the imminent end of the world — something other than a barrier to belief. It was an effort that would ultimately fail; for a time, however, both disciplines being elastic, it opened the possibility of a return to Christian faith.
It was during that time that I began to worship among Friends at Little Falls Meeting in the countryside north of Baltimore.
That Quaker Meeting traces its founding to William Amos Jr., who resigned from the militia and became a Quaker in 1738. William was of the Amos(s) family’s first native-born Maryland generation; I am of the eighth. When, in 1975, my grandfather told me of that family connection, I visited Little Falls on a day when the meetinghouse was unoccupied. My eye was caught by a wooden sign posted by the door. It testified to a belief, “based on the life and teaching of Jesus,” in responding to evil with good.
‘WHAT FRIENDS BELIEVE…
The basis of Quaker life and practice is the conviction that there is something of God’s spirit in us all: that every soul can have immediate communion with God.
When Friends meet together, they do not rely on priests, clergy, or leaders. The meeting begins in living silence, one in which the clamor of everyday life is stilled and we can hear God’s voice. Then there may be brief passages of vocal prayer or ministry from any of those present. When thus seeking God consistently, we can at all times and in any place sense the eternal which is behind the succession of ordinary events.
This for us is the sacramental life which need not be marked by outward rites. This attitude could only be founded on the life and teaching of Jesus. It involves an attempt to accept literally the command to love God and one another. It rules out war. It recognizes evil but meets it with that active good will which outlasts it or transforms it. Such beliefs have involved sacrifice and much suffering.
Our numbers are not large. Membership is open to those who share our outlook and who in worshipping with us find themselves “at home.” That simple expression is not out of place, for the Quaker way of life leads us to think of men and women all over the world as parts of the family of God.”
Feeling in sympathy with that statement, I returned on Sunday to join the small group of Friends for worship. When I was invited to stay for their business meeting afterward, I accepted, and my life was changed.
The Friends, concerned over their dwindling numbers, were planning to renovate an old schoolhouse on the property to provide classroom and meeting space, a kitchen, and washrooms, which the place then lacked. The project seemed essential to the survival of the congregation, but one member was rejecting the architect’s design on grounds that, I thought, approached being irrational. Despite their evident sense of urgency, the other Friends labored patiently and lovingly with the dissenter. When it became clear that he could not set his concerns aside, the issue was held over for further study.
I was astonished: never before had I seen a group of people so single-mindedly put love and respect above “getting things done.”
I became a regular attender at Little Falls. As I participated in their worship and business practice, learned of their work and witness, and experienced their respect for and challenges to individual and community consciences, I became convinced that the Friends were living in the spirit of Jesus. Through them, I was able to believe – unlike, ironically, some of those Friends themselves — in the present guiding activity of Christ. That faith was strong and sure enough, I felt, to warrant belief in the resurrection of Jesus and therefore in the Christian God. I had recovered — reconstructed — my God.
Naturally, I felt that my experience of God should be much as it had been when I was young, excepting those characteristics, which I attributed to Roman Catholicism, that had darkened my life with fear. However, the Quakerism of Little Falls Meeting, although it had helped lead me back to Christian faith, was no longer explicitly Christocentric. Nor did it offer context for the exegetical and theological explorations I’d come to love. So I used my family’s move into Baltimore City as an opportunity to “visit other churches,” as I put it to one of the Friends. I soon found that the local Episcopal church, where an acquaintance served as priest, offered beautiful services and relative freedom of thought in a traditional setting. It seemed to be just what I needed, and, within three years of my discovery of Quakerism, I was ritually received into the Episcopal Church.
The sacred beauty and joy of the liturgy outweighed, I told myself, the Church’s failure to embrace equality, justice, and nonviolence. (“There is an Episcopal Peace Fellowship,” the rector told me, “but it’s not very active. You could try to start a chapter in this parish, but I mentioned it here a few years ago and found that there’s no interest in that sort of thing.”) And I took the Church’s recent decision to ordain women as a sign of a growing sensitivity.
But those things could not, I would find, quiet my concerns for long. Nor could they shield God from harsh reality. When my grandfather, who had been crippled for much of his life with a painful, degenerative disease, died of cancer, my faith failed once more. Already weakened by the churches’ complicity in injustice and violence, it could not withstand the sight of that beloved man’s agony of body and spirit. No good God would allow such things, I knew. The Christian God had once more been revealed as fantasy. Twice-dead, he would not be raised again.
After that abortive return to Christianity, I wanted to abandon religion completely. But religion had sensitized me to the dark side of life, to the violence, injustice, and pain that characterize our world; I couldn’t keep my gaze averted. And I had seen a spirit of committed and courageous love among Friends, some of whom did not hold traditional Christian beliefs, that I had encountered nowhere else.
A friend who was active in another Quaker congregation happened to call at that time, and we began a series of conversations that led to my attendance at Homewood Friends Meeting in Baltimore. As I began again to know the power of Quaker practice, I dove into reading of Quaker history and spirituality. At the same time, I satisfied my desire for broader intellectual inquiry by completing a college program of comparative religion, scripture criticism, and seminars on moral questions.
Over time, my experiences and studies came together in a synthesis that I expressed in an ancient image: “being Christ.” Jesus was not a supernatural being, I’d concluded, and his resurrection was a scripture-based myth born of desperate hope; nonetheless, in his willingness to give himself to and for the Kingdom, Jesus did incarnate a holy spirit, a deeply human spirit that dares to envision and work toward a loving world.
I knew that Jesus’ spirit could live in contemporary human beings: I’d met that spirit among the Friends, and I’d felt it stir within me in response to their “answering that of God” in me. To learn to live in that spirit, to join with others as the heart and hands of Christ in the world, would be, I decided, the finest thing any human being could do. Quakerism focused directly on that challenge, letting everything else fall away; while the churches looked for Christ primarily in ritual and scripture, Friends quietly worked to make the Christ-spirit actively present here and now.
I shared the Quaker thirst for Jesus’ Kingdom of God, found inspiration in the silent communion of worship, and experienced the power of group discernment to awaken wisdom and love. Back among Friends, I had come home. In response to my request for membership in the Religious Society of Friends, Homewood Meeting graciously received me, asking not whether I believed in God or would conform myself to a set of rules, but whether I was committed to the people and practices of that Quaker community, particularly to seeking to live in the spirit we see in Jesus. I accepted membership with joy and a sense of responsibility to contribute to the life of the congregation and the Society as best I could.
One part of that contribution would be to work at interpreting my experience of Quakerism for myself and others. I knew first-hand the power of our silent worship, but how could I conceptualize my worship directed to no God? And how understand the ability of our business practice to transcend our differences in unity of spirit?
Seeking insight into the foundational experiences of our movement, I turned to the writings of George Fox. In his journal, Fox recounted that, nearing despair at the failure of traditional Christian teachings to “speak to [his] condition,” not knowing what to believe or how to act in order to fulfill God’s will, he had been inspired to see that the divine spirit of Christ could teach him, and all people, directly. In fact, Fox had decided, only the inwardly-received leading of the living Christ could be relied upon. “There is one,” the voice of insight had told him, “even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” Thus was born the Quaker movement, which would call people to disregard human teachings and to discern and obey the leading of the spirit of Christ, the inner light, within them. Such obedience, Fox believed, would lead to love’s perfection, to the realization of the Kingdom of God inwardly and outwardly, here and now. Through faith in and obedience to that light, Friends would be the incarnation of Christ, the human face of God-who-is-love, in the world.
And there I found the key: the dynamic essence of Quaker faith and practice is nothing more or less than the actualization of love.
If some of us can no longer claim supernatural guidance, it is nonetheless true that our Quaker faith and worship continue to ground our lives in love, empowering us to live compassionately and courageously. And if we can no longer expect the arrival “in power” of the Kingdom of God, it is nonetheless true that the work of Friends for relief of suffering, equality of persons, tolerance, freedom, peace, and justice continue to make the world a better place. The lives of Friends today and throughout our history prove that, whether a supernatural Christ-being lives or not, what Fox believed to be Christ’s light within the human heart is real.
From the beginning, Friends have known that something in us seeks what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and that through our uniquely powerful practice of waiting together upon its inspiration, we bring that something, that holy spirit of human love, to the fore. Discerning its voice and living as it leads us, we become, corporately and severally, the living body of Christ. In sharing that conviction, that experience, I am a Quaker.