The Illusion of a Split

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Even though Quakers possess skills in conflict resolution (as well as conflict avoidance), a perplexing conflict seems intractably lodged in our Quaker community: a split between Quakers who are drawn primarily to the spiritual side of our practice – emphasizing silence, contemplation, and stillness over all else – and Quakers are who are committed to social action – including demonstrations, lobbying, letter writing, and various forms of political protest.

These two aspects of the Quaker experience struggle to be in unity, to be connected, to represent a meaningful interchange between spirit and action. In search of some assurance that such splits might be resolved, present-day Quakers often look to Quaker historical figures, such as the 18th century John Woolman and the 19th century Lucretia Mott, as exemplars of ways that spirit and action can be harmonized and unified.

Woolman, for example, labored lovingly with slave-holding Quakers on Maryland’s eastern shore and beyond, urging slave-holders – Quakers and others – to renounce slavery. Woolman’s approach to social action was spiritually informed. Hence, he remained open to and connected with the slaveholders, and expressed a deep sense of obligation toward them, of tenderness and love. He was never blaming, not angry. Instead, Woolman occupied the role of a humble servant and prophet, open to the Truth of God’s love as it broke forth through his body into the light of action and change.

In my book Quaker Poems (pp 54-55), I describe Woolman’s work this way:

Woolman’s footsteps
Became clearer,
Leading to his
Humble exercise:
Love was his Ariadne,
Spinning out woolen threads
To walk in the Truth
As the Wool Man and tailor
Stitched up
His pants and shirts,
Laboring with weighty slave-holding Quakers
In love,
Not writing out their wills,
Urging others
To feel
The motions of divine love
In one’s heart and
Renounce slavery.

Likewise, in a different century and context, Lucretia Mott connected the Inner Teacher with social action, acting through an outpouring of Divine Love, testifying that her actions to feed the hungry and free the slaves were already written upon her spiritual heart muscle, testifying that she felt wrapped up into the everlasting arms of the Divine Teacher as she took action. Here’s how I express this in my poem, “Hymn for Lucretia Mott” (Quaker Poems, p. 62):

Remember
Our father’s love,
Etched upon the heart muscle as it
Breaks in upon the soul,
Celebrating
The father’s love,
Listening
To the Inward Teacher
As love
Fills up all
With a glorious joy.

The second encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, is a contemporary illustration of ways that spiritual roots and political actions can be harmonized and unified, closing whatever gap that may seem to lie between a deep spirituality and an equally deep impulse to take social action on behalf of the earth, the poor, and the dispossessed. The Pope’s teachings in this encyclical connect the spiritual roots of his faith with a call to action – to change and transformation.

True to the legacy of his namesake, Pope Francis confronts the rape of the earth in a humble, meek, and vulnerable manner. The expression “Laudato Si” originated from a mystical place and was voiced in the 13th century “Canticle of Brother Sun” by Saint Francis of Assisi. As Saint Francis lay ill and blinded, he composed the text of this song, which illustrated the mystic unity between himself and the sacredness of the earth, and how all life is connected. Using the poetic refrain of Laudato Si, “praise be to you,” this song praises the unity of all creation in such lines as these:

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him …
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Windand Air …
Be praised my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious,and pure.

This canticle reflects the Pope’s spiritual, mystic roots, urging everyone to enter into a consideration of Saint Francis and open up to this spiritual power.

Near the end of this encyclical, Pope Francis teaches: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.” (Laudato Si, Vatican Press, pp. 168-169)

Quakers would do well to notice the contemplative spirit that enlivens the Pope’s arguments against the destructive excesses of human exploitation of the earth, and would also do well to realize how this spirit recalls those of Woolman and Mott – humble, mystical, and active. A benedictory prayer at the end of Laudato Si, “A Prayer for Our Earth,” exemplifies this spirit well (Laudato Si, Vatican Press, p. 178):

Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards our infinite light.

I would offer a heart-felt Quaker amen to the Pope’s message of healing unity.  ~~~

Stan Searl is a member of Santa Monica Monthly Meeting (PYM). In March, 2016, he published Homage to the Lady with the Dirty Feet and other Vermont Poems (Foothills Press) and is working on a new book, Poems of Quaker Pilgrimage.