The Meaning of Life in Twenty Words

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“There is that near you, which will guide you; oh! wait for it, and be sure ye keep to it.” - Isaac Penington (1616-1679)

I’ve been drawn to this quote since I first read it several years ago. It now hangs above the door to the library at Ben Lomond Quaker Center, where I work. Isaac Penington was a prominent early Friend, one of the “valiant 60.” He was a wealthy man with a large estate when he and his wife Mary joined the Society of Friends in 1658. They forfeited their estate, much of their wealth, and their place in society as a result of Isaac’s imprisonments and their refusal to follow the religious and secular customs of the time. This quotation is drawn from Penington’s letter, “To the women Friends that meet at Armscot in Worcestershire,” written in 1678, about a year before his death. In these twenty words, Penington addresses the most important questions of Quakerism, of religion, and of life.

“There is that...”  What is God? We might not be able to define God or name God. However, we can recognize something near us – Quakers would say within us – and we can point at it and say “That.” Friends have many ways of referring to “That:” the Light Within, the Seed, the Divine Principle, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Inner Christ. I have a preference for the word “God.” But “God” is a poor human word that represents a concept and an experience that we can’t fully grasp.

“...near you...”  Where is God? God is near us. There is no need to go to church, on a pilgrimage, to a beautiful spot in nature, or even to a Quaker meeting. We don’t need to go to Rome, Mecca, Jerusalem, Varanasi, Amritsar, the four sacred mountains, or the Bodhi Tree. No particular place is sacred. We can find God near us anywhere.

“...which will guide you...”  What will God do for us? God will guide us. Penington tells us that if we wait on God’s spirit, it will show us the way forward. No matter our situation, whether we are at the pinnacle of worldly success or trying to recover from horrible mistakes, God has a way forward for us. Even when the road ahead is far from clear, if we wait patiently and in humility, God will show us the next few steps. We cannot see where they will lead. But if we follow, we will be on the path we are meant to tread, the path we were put on this earth to tread. 

“Oh! wait for it...”  How are we to find God? We are to wait. Friends practice waiting worship, waiting expectantly for thoughts, plans, worries, fears, and our own false hopes to subside, and for a sense of God’s presence to emerge. Early Friends admonished one other and society in general to “Wait on the Lord.” A daily “time of retirement” was part of their practice, during which they withdrew from their activities to wait for God-given clarity and purpose. We cannot find God or notice God’s “still, small voice” if we are rushing from one task to the next. George Fox wrote in one of his epistles:

“Stand still in that which is pure, after you see yourselves; and then mercy comes in.

After you see your thoughts and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there strength immediately comes. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes. And 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...”

“...and be sure ye keep to it.”  Once we have found God’s guidance, what are we to do? We are to keep to it and not waver from it in the face of difficulty or even persecution. Isaac Penington suffered the abandonment of his friends and relatives, the loss of his estate, six imprisonments, and eventually the loss of his health, while following God’s guidance without wavering. He and his wife Mary were stoned on their way to meetings. Other Friends suffered similar persecution or worse.

Today, Quakers do not face that kind of persecution for being Quakers. However, it remains no easy matter to follow God’s guidance without wavering. We lose our way. Our contemporary world has many ways of pulling us off course. We have so many distractions! What’s more, God’s guidance calls us to change our ways. When we do, then things that we were once fond of doing may no longer appeal to us.

When we follow the guidance we receive, after we are clear about the next step or two, we might begin to seem peculiar to others. It might distress our friends and family. It might bring us into financial difficulties or cause us to risk our retirement or our insurance. It could take us off the carefully planned road to security that we have made for ourselves and our families. Early Friends faced similar uncertainties. They found security in God and in each other, and we can do the same.

“There is that near you, which will guide you; oh! wait for it, and be sure ye keep to it.”

These twenty words from Isaac Penington offer us all the advice we need, if we take them to heart and follow them. Let us learn to help each other do so. ~~~

Bob Runyan co-directs Ben Lomond Quaker Center with his wife, Kathy Runyan. He is a member of Santa Cruz Friends Meeting.