By George H. Tavard.
In this paper I will take the words, mystic, and mysticism in the sense they have in the Catholic spiritual tradition. Over the centuries there have been innumerable believers, lay or ordained, who have been given access to the presence of God in them in ways that are unsuspected or at least not experienced by the average church member. Many of them admittedly have been frowned upon by episcopal authority, others have been actively persecuted and even, in the unhappy times of the Inquisition, “abandoned to the secular” arm and, like Marguerite Porete (c.1250-1310), burnt as heretics for their doctrines or what the Inquisitors understood or misunderstood of what they held to be the truth.
Others, however, like the Italian Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380) or the Spaniards Teresa de Avila (1515-1582) and Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591), have been declared Doctors of the Church and recommended as masters of authentic spiritual life. One may say, in broad generalization, that the officials of the Church tolerated or encouraged the Catholic mystics when their life and sayings did not openly criticize the Church, demean its hierarchy, or deny its authority. They frowned upon mysticism and mystics when mystical behavior and writings included implicit or explicit calls for a structural reform of the Church (which seemed to deny the divine institution of it) or excessively denounced those bishops and popes whose lives were less than edifying. The condemnation of Pierre Waldo and “the Poor of Lyons” by Lucius III in 1181, because as laymen they claimed the right to preach, falls in the first category; that of the Friar Preacher Savonarola (1452-1498), who denounced pope Alexander VI as the Antichrist, in the second.
In view of the ambiguous history of Catholic mysticism one could ask the hypothetical question, Would the Inquisition have found George Fox guilty of heterodoxy or heresy if he had lived in Catholic lands?
No simple answer, however, can be given, since the sentences pronounced by the Inquisitors on authentic Catholic mystics were not infrequently influenced by political opinion. The most notorious case was that of Jeanne d’ Arc (c.1407-1431), condemned to the fire by a Catholic bishop who was in the pay of the Duke of Bedford acting for the child king of England, Henry VI. The Church has at times, though rarely, denounced the misjudgements of Inquisitors, as happened posthumously to Jeanne, who was officially rehabilitated in 1456, when her trial was declared illegal and unjust, and the sentence pronounced by Bishop Pierre Cauchon officially annulled.
I nevertheless suspect that, like Savonarola, George Fox would have been condemned because of his strictures against the institutional Church and its ordained ministers: He made a practice of entering churches, that he labeled “steeple-houses,” and interrupting sermons.
The deeper question, however, and in the long run the only important one, is quite other, namely, Should George Fox be considered an authentic mystic in light of the Catholic mystical tradition?
A Catholic Critic of George Fox
In his book of 1950, Enthusiasm1, Ronald Knox gave an interesting evaluation of Fox from a Roman Catholic point of view. He did not, however, look at the founder of the Quaker movement in the light of what he himself would have considered the authentic experience of Catholic mystics. What he mentions of traditional Catholicism is the protection from the delusion of being oneself Jesus or God, for, as he says, “we know that the union of the Divine and the Human in our Lord was a union of two Natures under a single Person2…”
If however there truly was a “Quaker neglect of theology” and a repudiation of “the distinctions of the schoolmen,” this hardly affected George Fox’s conviction about the Incarnation. When in 1646 Dr. Cradock of Coventry asked him “who were Christ’s father and mother,” he answered what any unschooled Catholic could have said: “I told him Mary was his mother and that he was supposed to be the son of Joseph, but he was the Son of God.”3 It was not the absence of scholastic distinctions that characterized George Fox’s Christian convictions. It was the positive assurance of the truth of faith. Lots of Catholics also have ignored the distinctions of the schoolmen. These have never been identical with Catholic faith and doctrine, even if these remain useful to theological reflection.
Rather than allow for the perfectly traditional formulations of Fox’s Journal regarding the Incarnate Son of God and the Holy Trinity, Knox compared the man and his movement with numerous sectarian groups of the period. There was a plethora of religious sectarians. Some of them had started much earlier, like the Familists, founded in northern Germany by a certain Henry Niklaes (born c.1501 in Münster), the Adamites, originally connected with the Hussites, the Seekers and the Ranters, who took their cue from the gospel saying, “The Kingdom of God is within you”4 and others still. Native to England or imported from the Continent as a side show to the settlement of religion under Queen Elizabeth, they were related to the Anabaptists, and some of them could trace their pedigree back to the Brethren of the Free Spirit in the fifteenth century.
While most of these groups had vanished or gone completely underground under the rule of James I and Charles I, they came back to life in the general anarchy of the Interregnum. Besides the dominant Puritans, themselves divided in Presbyterians and Independents, diverse religious groupings emerged alongside new political factions like the Levelers and the Diggers. Such were the Third Monarchy men, who took the Puritan Revolution to be the beginning of the end of the world, the Muggletonians,5 and eventually the Quakers themselves. Knox compared the Quakers also with the Lollards and finally with the Montanists. Undoubtedly there were affinities between the Seekers and Ranters on one side, Fox and the first Quakers on the other, though the exact relationship is practically impossible to establish.6 Fox had been a seeker, though probably not in the formal sense of the term. Many former Ranters did join the Quakers, and henceforth denounced Ranterism as an abomination.
Compared with these groups, George Fox, in Knox’s opinion, cuts indeed “a giant figure.”7 The radiance of his figure, however, is singularly dimmed when Knox presents Fox’s actions and words as triggered only by a succession of eccentric symptoms which, not being Catholic, he had no way to submit to the better judgment of an experienced spiritual counselor! His Calvinist critic Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was on surer ground than Knox when, in light of his own theology, he compared Fox’s teaching with the central ideas of the Reformation: the Word of God written, the doctrine of justification, the ministry. Not unnaturally Baxter found Fox’s doctrines deficient.8
Fox in reality was closer to Calvin than Baxter admitted. His discussion in London, in 1648, with an unnamed Jesuit who belonged to the retinue of the Spanish ambassador is especially revealing. Fox’s objections bear on monasteries, “praying by beads and images,” crucifixes, laws on eating and marrying, putting heretics to death, the eucharistic presence. As remembered by Fox, the Jesuit gave the standard answers that could be found in the controversy theology of the times. He argued from the written and unwritten word of God, identifying the latter with traditions handed on from apostolic time and preserved in the Catholic Church, the principle of which he tried to draw from Scripture.9
The Jesuit might have done better if, instead of arguing each point, he had asked what George Fox meant by “the purity and virginity of the practice of the primitive Church” and what made him think the Friends had effectively restored it. It is ironic, in view of this encounter with a Jesuit, Jesuits, along with Franciscans, were suspected of disguising themselves as Quakers. This was Baxter’s unbelievable contention: “Many Franciscan Friars and other Papists have been proved to be disguised speakers in their assemblies…, and it is like are the very soul of all these horrible delusions.”10 And a certain Prynne colorfully called one of them, John Auland, who presumably had some French connection, “a quaking quack, Jesuitical Romish Franciscan Frog…”11
Recovering a primitive golden age, as though nothing that had happened in the Church since the Apostles could have been led by the Spirit, had in fact been a Calvinist utopia. And the main point in Fox’s reading of Scripture derived from Calvin’s insistence – which no Catholic could deny – that Scripture must be read in the same Spirit in which it was written, The Word and the Spirit go together, and the person who reads Scripture in faith has the interior “testimony of the Spirit.”12 The testimony, however, is not a revelation, which it tends to become in Fox’s forceful assertions of what the Scriptures mean.
An Anglican critic
Another English critic of George Fox and Quakerism, the Anglican Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872), understood the movement much better than Msgr. Knox, and described their life and doctrine with more sympathy. Quite well did he point out that the heart of Quaker doctrine is not the immediate divine guidance to do a particular action, though such guidance may frequently happen. It is the belief, first that within every human being the Creator has placed an Inward Light that leads to do good and to resist evil, and second, that “Our Lord came to bring in a universal Light, to establish a perfectly spiritual Kingdom, and to encourage men to seek a perfectly spiritual life.”13 Maurice’s critique was not founded on the belief that “the Quakers have carried their principles to an excess.”14 On the contrary, their basis was too slim:
In other words, had they followed the logic of their principles to the end, they would have recognized the highest fulfillment of them in the Church Catholic, which is marked by the most effective “signs of a universal and spiritual society.” 15
Taking a New Look
Looking today at George Fox’s career, writings, and doctrine with an ecumenical concern means seeing him, not as what he did not claim to be, a theologian, but precisely as what he claimed to be, one who, in his language, had numerous “revelations,” or, in the more accepted vocabulary of the history of the Christian experience of God, as a mystic. I do not mean by this a natural mystic who builds an interior world out of the contemplation of nature. I mean a Christian believer who is led by a series of divine graces to profound insights into the mystery of Christ. From this point of view, I would say that all the major points of George Fox’s experience are shared with recognized mystics in the Catholic tradition. I will select three points for special attention: his restlessness, his tenacity of purpose, his doctrine of the Inner Light.
The first impression one gets in reading his Journal may be one of restlessness. From the time he leaves home in 1643 at the age of nineteen to the year 1684 when he made his abode in London for the last six years of his life, he is an itinerant preacher. He moves constantly from place to place, often of course driven out by local hostility of the people or the magistrates, more often however pushed or pulled by an inner urge to go. He spends nights indifferently in an inn, a farmhouse, or the open air. He eats what he can when he can, seemingly indifferent to food, regular hours, comfort, health. Even granted he had an unusually powerful constitution, he pushed his body to extremes. There is an uncanny similarity between the tirelessness of his evangelical journeys and that of the great preacher John Wesley, one century later.
Fox’s frequent incarcerations, some of them several months long in horrible conditions, the beatings he was subjected to, never altered his desire to go. And even his marriage in 1669 to Margaret Fell (1614-1702), the widow of his protector and friend Judge Thomas Fell, did little to make him settle down. Inspired by heaven though both of them believed their marriage was, they did not truly live together. She simply remained at home in Lancashire in peace and quiet while he was away on his strenuous evangelical journeys. These took him, not only all over England, though chiefly to the Midlands and to London, but also to Scotland, Ireland, the colony of Pennsylvania and Barbadoes, and finally to the Netherlands and northern Germany.
Restlessness can of course be given a merely psychological explanation. I find it more significant, however, that medieval antecedents were not lacking for the kind of itinerant life that Fox led. He was similar in this to some of the great preachers of the late Middle Ages, Once he was disappointed with life at the highest levels of the papacy of Benedict XIII in Avignon, the Spanish Dominican St. Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) preached incessantly for twenty years, in Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, and the Low Countries, seldom remaining, his biographers tell us, more than one day in one place. Like Fox he preached sin, repentance, and salvation through Christ. Like Fox also he gathered disciples who often accompanied him. And when many of them turned into Flagellants, their behavior was quite as bizarre as that of several among the early Quakers.
For centuries also pilgrims had been constantly on the go, toward Compostella, or Rome, or Jerusalem, or any one of numerous local shrines, many of them starting a new pilgrimage as soon as one was over. In terms of not caring for personal comforts, however, and leaving everything material and spiritual to God’s will and providence, it is a later saint who comes to mind. Benedict Labre16 (1748-1783) lived a century later, and he never had the urge to preach or to criticize anyone, the clergy the least of all. The Trappists did not want him when he tried their way of life. In fact nobody wanted him to come near, for he wore rags and he looked and lived like a beggar, neglecting himself to the point of being covered with lice. This, however, he did not regard as slovenliness but as respect for life.
Labre wandered from northern France to Rome, where he lived homeless for nine years. He spent the days walking from church to church, remaining in prayer for hours, and the nights on the street or under a porch or a bridge, wherever he happened to be. He ate whatever he found or was given. Meanwhile, he conveyed to everyone who saw him an impression of total happiness, Next to Labre, Fox seems to be a bourgeois, though a bourgeois driven by a compelling vision and relentless in pursuing it.
Pursuing the vision with a steadfastness that no obstacle can weaken is also a standard feature of the life of Christian mystics. Once she was launched on her reforming career in the Order of Mount Carmel, Teresa of Avila never stopped raising new communities in central and southern Spain. Hers of course were cloistered, and they took for granted the militancy of the growing Counter-Reformation. Yet the reformation that she sought for each person was a conversion of the heart. In this George Fox was very much like her. The Kingdom that she longed for was truly interior even though it was to be lived in small communities of like-minded women.
George Fox, caring little for anything established, whether in religion or in politics, never slowed down proclaiming the interior Kingdom of Jesus, though the fall of the monarchy with the beheading of Charles I at Windsor in 1649 turned his imagination toward other scriptural symbols, chiefly the Light and the Seed. Led by the Light of the Spirit even when he alone could perceive it, he never ceased disputing with opponents, inspiring small groups of disciples to live the true Gospel in their homes, villages, and towns, bearing every persecution and beating with forbearance as he used his enormous physical strength to control rather than to defend himself, creating peace and tolerance among those who listened to him.
At times George Fox sounds excessively self-assertive, He is certain of his call and needs no confirmation of it from men. But he is not more assertive than Jeanne d’Arc was and when she flatly stated to a military man, Jean de Metz: “No one in the world, neither kings nor dukes or daughter of the king of Scotland17, or others, can recover the kingdom of France, and there is no help except from me… I must go and I will do it because my Lord wants me to do it,”18 and when she informed the king that she was sent by God to save the kingdom of France, and when she told the theologians who questioned her at Poitiers that “there are more things in the books of Our Lord than in theirs19,” and when she warned the bishop who was bent on finding her guilty of heresy: “You say that you are my judge. Be careful what you do, for indeed I have been sent by God and you put yourself in great danger.”20
Moreover, Jeanne and George are quite similar in their serenity in adversity, their heroic fidelity to the principle of non-retaliation, and, paradoxically yet truthfully in the case of Jeanne d’Arc, a leader of soldiers in a war of liberation, their rejection of personal violence.
The Inward Light
Undoubtedly George Fox’s preaching was one-sided insofar as it was entirely focused, as Kierkegaard might have put it, on “willing one thing.” The focus, that he urged everyone to look for and, once found, to keep, was the divine Light within the soul. The notion of course came from a biblical source. It was “the true Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world,” as in John 1:9. That God is the Light and the divine Word is Light from the Light, lumen de lumine, was confessed in the Nicene Creed.
The metaphor of the light had been extensively developed in St. Augustine’s doctrine of illumination, which based the certitude of knowledge on a divine illumination from the Eternal Word of God. Medieval theology and mysticism had gone further. The doctrine of the Inner Light was in good standing in medieval thought, especially in the Franciscan theology of St. Bonaventure. Called “synderesis,” the Light within was identified, in the Bonaventurian tradition, as that highest level of the soul that remains untouched by sin and constantly urges the person to desire and do what is good. The scholastics in fact, even those who, like St. Thomas Aquinas, simply equated synderesis with the conscience, indulged in extended disquisitions regarding the creation and the nature of both the terrestrial and the celestial light. In Commentaries on the Sentences this was the usual topic of Book II, Distinction xiii.
Faith itself was also understood to be a light, lumen fidei, freely given by God, apart from which there can be no true knowledge of the revelation. This was, and still is, standard Catholic teaching, as one can see by looking at the many references of Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) to the metaphor of the light.
George Fox understood the Inward Light as an impression of the eternal Word of God, who abides in every human being from the very moment of conception. It is “the divine light which Christ the heavenly and spiritual man had enlightened”21 in all the people. In terms of Redemption, this Light reveals to believers their “sins and how they were in death and darkness and without God in the world.” Positively, it enables them “to see Christ whence it came, their Savior and Redeemer…, who was their way to God, their truth and life.”22
Since he himself was not directly acquainted with scholastic theology, one can trace the heart of his constant conviction regarding the divine Light within to John Calvin’s insistence that the Scriptures can only be understood through the interior “testimony of the Spirit.” That this principle was shared, though in widely divergent ways, by many sectarian groups in the seventeenth century in England is hardly surprising. Under Oliver Cromwell the Calvinism of the Synod of Dort (1617-1618) provided the standard of orthodoxy. And those who criticized the Protector’s religious zeal could share, even while distorting, some of the fundamental notions of the Puritans. This, however, is hardly a reason to dismiss George Fox’s doctrine as untheological and simply to blame it on an “illuminist temper.”23
Whatever the illuminist temper may be, it cannot account for all the remarkable insights that abound in Fox’s Journal. All authentic Christian mystics would have shared the conviction that a true believer is one who is “born of God and passed from death to life.”24 To the Scripture and tradition of the Jesuit with whom he disputed, Fox should have opposed, not the Scriptura sola of the Reformers, but his own practice of pairing Scripture with interior revelation: “Though I read the Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not but by revelation as he who has the key did open, and as the Father of life drew me to his Son in his Spirit.”25
Claiming such a twofold principle would have opened Fox to the Jesuit’s critique much as it was to open him posthumously to that of Richard Baxter: “They [the Quakers] make the light which every man hath within him to be his sufficient rule, and consequently the Scripture and ministry are set light of….”26
Between reading the Scripture and experiencing the divine Light within, George Fox opted for predominance of the latter because the Light given today cannot contradict the Light given to the inspired writers. As he did so, however, he included a limiting principle within the appeal to experience. For the Light as he describes it is the Light of the divine Word, which presupposes and implies the experience of the Three Persons. In fact, the allusions to Trinitarian doctrine and to the Incarnation that are featured in the Journal are perfectly orthodox by the old standards of orthodoxy. The experience of the Trinity in turn opened George Fox to a very delicate awareness of the attributes of God. God leads “gently,” through a love that is “endless and eternal, and surpasseth all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can get by history or books.”27
On this conviction of God’s gentleness, which is inseparable from knowledge of the Trinity of Persons as one Essence, George Fox’s advocacy of non-violence was founded, and by it was justified. For he was led in this, as he professed, by the Spirit of Christ. The Declaration of 1660 is quite clear:
That the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know and so testify to the world that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world.28
One may of course at this point ask what made Fox so convinced that he was led by the Spirit? The question, however, legitimate as it is in theological investigation, is meaningless to experience. The Spirit testifies to the Word, who is the Word of the Father, and in this witnessing carries his own justification and the assurance of the divine presence. St. Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591) had expressed this in his analysis of “locutions” that devout believers often hear within themselves. All of them, the Mystical Doctor declared in The Ascent of Mount Carmel II, ch.3l, should be ignored, except the ones that cannot be ignored, the “substantial locutions” which effect what they say, changing the heart of the person who receives them.
A Christian Community
Among the Christian mystics George Fox stands out for his remarkable achievement in organizing a Christian community on the mystical principle. It was not entirely new. Some of the Spiritual Reformers had attempted it in the sixteenth century. They had only limited success, since in the face of Lutheran and Calvinist opposition they felt the need to ground the principle of Christian experience sacramentally in baptism and re-baptism, and to embody it in creeds and other doctrinal statements. These institutional factors eventually nourished the self-awareness of the communities more than the experience itself did.
What saved the Society of Friends from a similar fate was precisely the radical logic of George Fox’s project. Following the paradigmatic example of Christ, the eternal Word made flesh, the experience of God in the Inner Light or Seed that is given to every human creature is enabled in the believer by the Holy Spirit. If this is truly experienced in oneself, then neither the sacraments, even if instituted by Christ or the Spirit, nor the institutions and initiatives of the Church can add anything that would be missing to the believer.
On the one hand, since union with God is not created by what any creatures do, but is the intended fruit of what God does in them – called grace in traditional theology – true worship is not the regular performance of ritual actions. It consists in actively waiting for the Lord to institute his invisible kingdom within, and in therefore trusting that God who has so acted in the past is still acting in ourselves.
Thus did the author of De Imitatione Christi pray to Christ: “I will hear what my Lord will speak in me. Blessed is the soul that hears God speak in itself and receives the word of consolation from his mouth.”29 One does not receive anything without being opened to it. The process of self-opening has been described in spiritual literature in many ways, some more ascetic, others more meditative, some action-oriented, others centered on introspection, some promoting the works of mercy and charity, others seeking the exterior silence of noiselessness and the deeper, more interior quieting of the faculties of thought, imagination, and feeling.
At heart, in any case, the opening of the self to spiritual vision does not consist in doing something but in letting God, or, in Trinitarian terms, letting the Spirit, do it.
Thus Teresa of Avila described her experience at the fourth mansion of the spiritual castle as a “prayer of quiet,” when “the important thing is not to think much but to love much.”30 The contemporary mind, that has been largely shaped by movies and television, tends to think of love as something that is done, and it seems normal that the mass media, that rely on visual evidence to communicate their message, would show movement to retain the viewers’ attention.
Being as such, however, cannot be seen. What is seen is the outside of being, namely the body, and the motions of the body show that being is at work. A motionless body, at rest, would not retain spectators very long. Movies are, as they used to be called, “motion pictures.” This, by contrast, points to the wisdom of those who seek the silence within themselves.
As Simone Weil (1909-1944) rightly perceived, the fundamental quality of prayer is attente, waiting in expectation, an attitude that is closely related to attention, the focusing of the mind on a chosen subject. Attente, she said, is the passivity of thought in action. [It] transforms time into eternity,”31 in keeping with the Gospel’s promise – in the NRSV translation– “They will bear fruit with patient endurance” (Lk. 8:15). The Greek formula is richer: µ , that the Latin Vulgate happily rendered, in patientia. Prayer consists is putting one’s soul in an attitude of attention that implies expectation and, possibly, anticipation.
As was written around 1346 in the anonymous Book of the Poor in Spirit, that was long attributed to Tauler, “the noblest gift that [man] can give is himself. And when he gives himself he gives all, for man is himself in all things, and for this reason it is not necessary for him to give anything but himself.”32 The medieval notion of the human microcosm, a summary of the whole cosmos, endows the offering of oneself to God with universal value. This offering is made precisely in prayer and meditation, when the devout present themselves to God as available ground for the manifestation on earth of the divine glory.
This is in fact the reason for liturgical rituals. The ritual acts as a ladder, private or public, up which the worshiper ascends toward God in adoration. In the absence of an interior ascent that may well be impeded by the actual conditions of the self, it also acts as a substitute for the real ascent of Jacob’s ladder. It has been the Catholic practice to urge participation in the Church’s liturgies precisely in order to help the faithful place themselves in a fundamental attitude of expectation and desire before the grace of God.
St. Bonaventure had said that there are three books that one must read, the Book of Nature, the Book of Scripture, and the Book of the Soul. Johannes Tauler (1400-1461), the great Alsacian mystic who was close to the Friends of God, did not hesitate to contrast the reading of man-made books with the reading of the Living Book: “Great doctors of Paris read ponderous books and turn over many pages. The friends of God read the living Book where everything is life.”33 Anything that hinders such a reading is an idol. And unfortunately everything can become an idol, even the dogmas and laws and rites of the Church. The most popular idol, however, is one’s own self.
On the other hand, the true worshiper, although in a sense alone before God, is not left in dangerous isolation, where he or she would be tempted to self-absorption and self-contemplation. Fox did believe that the Devil is constantly looking for every opportunity to sow evil in and among the faithful. The Devil’s project, however, is neutralized by the mutual support of the true disciples of Christ, of all those who are also expecting the revelation of the divine Light in themselves.
In the fourteenth century along the Rhine the “Friends of God” were informal groups of devoted faithful, nuns, friars, priests, who gathered together in the meditative worship of God. The term was also used of individuals unconnected with any group, who nevertheless regularly practiced meditation and sought the devout life. Some of the best-known mystics of the area, Meister Eckhart (c.l260-l328), Tauler himself, Heinrich Suso (1295-1366), were particularly close to them and frequently gave them advice.
Tauler in fact used the metaphor of the Light as signifying the divine presence on the soul, in a sense that was close to that of George Fox.34 The appellation, Friends of God, was seldom used after 1410, no doubt because the accusation of heterodoxy that had been aimed at the béguines and béghards, notably by the General Council of Vienne in 1312, was extended to the Friends of God after the condemnation of one of them, Nicholas of Basel as a béghard.
While George Fox must have been unaware of the history of the Friends of God, he renewed an impressive tradition of Christian mysticism when he chose the expression, Society of Friends, for those who accepted his message. For him indeed the true Church exists, but it is necessarily invisible to those who recognize only an established Church, whether in a presbyterian, or an episcopal, or a papal form. What else could he have thought, in view of the chaotic state of the Churches in England under the Commonwealth?
If it does exist, and is invisible, the true Church is a utopia. It is and at the same time it has no locus where one can travel to. It is, like Christ in Mk. 13:21, neither here nor there. But since it is certain at least that Christ is present when “two or three” are gathered together in his name (Mat. 18:20), those who thus get together anticipate the true Christian society among themselves. They are indeed Friends, friends among themselves, because first of all friends of God. It is normal for them to constitute a society, since, as had been written in The Book of the Poor in Spirit, “where there is friendship there is union, for a friend is another self….” 35
The early Quakers went to what many consider extremes when they practiced “going naked for a sign,” a practice that had George Fox’s approval, even though he does not seem to have indulged in it himself. This is more shocking to modern readers than it would have been in the seventeenth century, and still more than in medieval culture.
Already in the ancient times of Greece and Rome public nudity had more than one meaning. The Romans may have seen it as a sign of being, like slaves, less than fully human; but they also used the nude artistically, as in the villas of Pompei, to decorate their homes. Greek art, like Greek sports, celebrated the esthetics of the nude human body. In Sparta nudity had even been a mark of equality between males and females. Among the ancients and through most of the Middle Ages being barefoot was believed to have special efficacy in prayer.
It is hardly surprising that, theologically, Christian thought has been caught between contradictory interpre-tations of the symbolic meaning of nudity: Must it be a sign of the shame of Adam and Eve, as in Genesis 3:10-12? Can it not be lived as a testimony to the pre-lapsarian innocence that humankind hopes to recover, as a return in the grace of God to Paradise before the awareness of shame, as in Genesis 2:25?
In the early Church the nudity of baptism signified the recovery of innocence by the baptized, as Cyril of Jerusalem explained it in his Mystagogical Catecheses. Something of this may have been in the mind of the Priscillians, if it is true that, like some Manicheans, they practiced liturgical nakedness.36 In the fourteenth century, however, Jean Gerson (1363- 1429) had denounced the nudism that seems to have been a common practice among a group of béghards that he called the Turlupins.37 In England itself the Adamites were said to do everything naked.”38 The recovery of baptismal innocence seems to have been one reason for nakedness.
Another reason was prophetic. Among the Anabap-tists “going naked for a sign” had been done in Amster-dam, and even, strikingly enough, in the month of February!39 In fact there had been somewhat similar incidents in the life of Francis of Assisi. In the month of August 1207, as he repudiated the mercantile way of life of his family, Francis shed all his clothes and stood naked in front of many witnesses, including the bishop. Later Francis ordered Brother Rufino “to go to the Cathedral of Assisi wearing only his breeches, and preach in this manner;”40 and then “he stripped himself of his own habit” and followed Rufino to the cathedral.
That the telling of this episode is extant in several early versions that do not entirely tally may suggest that the story-tellers tried in diverse ways to conceal the fact that Rufino and Francis were without clothes. In these and similar cases chosen nudity or near-nudity had a prophetic intent. As in the title of a pamphlet by John Toldervy, it signified “the Naked Truth laid open,”41 as well as total self-abandonment in the hands of God.
A third possible reason does not seem to have motivated such movements. This is the radical poverty of those Jain monks who do not wear clothes because they have renounced the appropriation of any thing whatsoever.
Whatever the more or less equivocal antecedents of “going naked for a sign,” it requires nakedness of self to be covered by the mantle of faith, nudity of spirit to receive all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, total self-abandonment to life in the Father’s all-embracing love. Only the eyes of a pure mind can look at the woman in heaven of Revelation 12:l: she was “clothed with the sun,” that is, she was nude.
The question that George Fox and Quakerism pose to Catholic theology is not whether orthodoxy of doctrine can be shared without the adoption of a formal creed: It obviously can. The question is rather whether it is legitimate, in the special circumstances of an high experience of the presence of God, to dispense with external forms and rituals that have been sanctioned by apostolic tradition.
This, I believe, was not the choice that lay before George Fox in his formative years. Eschewing the official or quasi-official positions of Presbyterians and Independents in the chaos of the Interregrnum was the best part of wisdom. More than a century after Queen Elizabeth the Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation was not a realistic option for him, even though a lively and solidly theological Recusant tradition still tried its utmost to remain in the public eye.42
A Catholic theologian ought to recognize that a dilemma is posited by the very existence of the mystical tradition in the Catholic Church: Can the highest experience of God in oneself be such as to make it legitimate entirely to spiritualize the Catholic liturgy and to dispense with the Catholic structure?
The question is not whether it can be right so to oppose the invisible and the visible, the spirit and the letter, as to denigrate the visible Church and its life and teaching. It is rather whether an authentic access to the spiritual realities opened by divine grace can authorize dispensing with the services or the formulations of the visible Church.
At one time or another, it seems to me, most of the great Catholic mystics have done that. The dilemma has lost nothing of its poignancy. For if indeed the creed does insist on believing the Church no less than believing in the Father…, in the Only-Begotten.., in the Holy Spirit…, who can gauge the depths of another person, or dare pass judgment on the indwelling of the Invisible One in the soul of another?
The audacity of George Fox was to build a system of life and devotion that was entirely focused on the ultimate purpose of the institutions of Christianity rather than on their traditional place and process. His project was thus centered on faith alone and grounded in the deepest experience of God in the Christian soul as it had been faithfully recorded in the mystical tradition. As Fox stated it in a paper he wrote in 1650,
Stand in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the author of the true faith, and mind him… So mind the faith of Christ and the anointing which is in you, to be taught by it, which will discover all workings in you, and as he teacheth you, so obey and forsake, else you will not grow up in the faith nor in the life of Christ, where the love of God is received… Keep in the faith of Christ. Oh, therefore, mind that which is eternal and invisible, and him who is the Creator and mover of all things! for the things that are made are not made of things that do appear; for the visible covereth the invisible sight in you. But as the Lord who is invisible doth open you by his invisible power and spirit… so the invisible and immortal things are brought to light in you.43
1. Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm. A Chapter in the History of Religion, with special reference to the XVII and XVIII centuries, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950. The Quaker movement is examined pp. 139-175.
2. Knox, Enthusiasm, p.159.
3. The Journal of George Fox, Revised ed., by John Nickalls London: Religious Society of Friends, 1975, p. 6.
4. Jerome Friedman, Blasphemy, Immorality, and Anarchy: The Ranters and the English Revolution, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1987. p. 67.
5. Lodowicke Muggleton (1609-1698) believed he was one of the two witnesses of Rev. 11:3, his cousin John Reeve being the other; in their manifesto, The Transcendent Spiritual Treatise (1652), they denied the Trinity and affirmed the materiality and the crucifixion of God. William Penn (1644-1718) refuted their doctrines in The New Witnesses Proved Old Heretics (1677).
6. All of these sectarian conventicles have been studied. Extensive bibliographical references on all of them will be found in Friedman, Blasphemy, op. cit.. George Fox and the Quakers are discussed pp. 272-281.
7. Knox, Enthusiasm, p.142.
8. The Autobiography of Richard Baxter (Every-man’s Library,n. 868), London: Dent and Sons, 1931, pp.73-74
9. Journal, p.343.
10. Baxter, Autobiography, p.74.
11. Quoted in Knox, Enthusiasm, pp.149-150.
12. Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (translated by Henry Beveridge), Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994, p. 68.
13. Frederick Denison Maurice, The Kingdom of Christ, or Hints to a Quaker Respecting the Principles, Constitution, and Ordinances of the Catholic Church, London: SCM Press, 2 vol., 1858, vol. I. p.47.
14. Maurice, Kingdom, I, p. 58.
15. This is the title of chapter IV of The Kingdom of Christ.
16. Joseph Richard, Le Vagabond de Dieu, Saint Benoit Labre, Paris: Editions SOS, 1976.
17. The Dauphin, future Charles VII (1403-1463), had just been engaged to a Scottish princess.
18. Quoted in Tavard, The Spiritual Way of St. Jeanne d’Arc, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999, p.10.
19. Tavard, Spiritual Way, p.108.
20. Tavard, Spiritual Way, p.116.
21. Journal, p.225.
22. Journal, p.226.
23. Knox, Enthusiasm, p.159.
24. Journal, p.7.
25. Journal, p.11.
26. Baxter, Autobiography, p.74.
27. Journal, p.11.
28. Journal. p. 399-400.
29. Tiburzio Lüpo, ed., De Imitatione Christi, III, I, 1-2, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1982, p.133.
30. The Interior Castle, 4th mansion, ch. 1 (Otilio Rodriguez and Kieran Kavanaugh, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Washington: ICS Publications, 1980, vol. II, p.319).
31. Simone Weil, La Connaissance Surnaturelle, Paris: Gallimard, p.47.
32. C. F. Kelley, ed., The Book of the Poor in Spirit, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954, p.109.
33. Quoted in Rufuf Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, London: Macmillan, 1909, p. 276.
34. This is noted by Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, p.296.
35. Kelley, The Book, p.105.
36. Henry Chadwick, Priscillian of Avila. The Occult and the Charismatic in the Early Church, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976, pp. 140, note 1.
37. On the Turlupins, see Knox, Enthusiasm, p.88. Knox suggests that their persecution in Flanders in 1460 and 1465 “formed the transition from heresy-hunting to witch-hunting.”
38. Friedman, Blasphemy, p.284.
39. Knox, Enthusiasm, p.l36.
40. Theodore Maynard, Richest of the Poor. The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Garden City: Doubleday, 1949, p.119-120.
41. Journal, p. 229.
42. George H. Tavard, The Seventeenth Century Tradition. A Study in Recusant Thought, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978.
43. Journal, pp.58-60.