A Quaker Prayer Life
by David Johnson
Review by Helen Gould
I am delighted with this pithy little book. It is full of insights into prayer and advice arising from David Johnson’s prayer practice, which is based on the teachings of early Friends. The book is worth getting just for the quotations that it includes from early Friends and the Bible. I was particularly pleased to see David’s extensive use of passages from the Hebrew Bible. Christians often ignore the fact that Judaism has its own rich prayer resources, its own sufficient Way. David also refers to Friends from later periods, to Rex Ambler’s work with the Experiment with Light, to The Cloud of Unknowing (by an anonymous 14th century monk), and occasionally to other faiths.
Quakers today must wrestle with Christian language as much as they wrestle with challenges and insights from theists, non-theists, atheists, and other churches and faiths. Don’t be put off from reading this book just because you don’t find “God-language” congenial. David explores the meanings of terms that are key for Quakers, such as “God” and “the Kingdom of God.” He writes, for example, “‘God’, for me, . . . refers to that extraordinary inner mystery of Divine Presence in all its manifestations: creating, sustaining, enlightening, pacifying, reproving, guiding, inspiring and energizing. It carries no theological doctrine or ritual requirements. It is simply a short word to convey that huge range of inward mystical feelings and understandings, most of which cannot be put into words . . . Prayer is for me an act of total turning of my being toward God, that Divine Presence, and of surrendering to it [page 4].”
The book is principally about individual worship, which is, of course, the foundation for Meeting for Waiting Worship. It will challenge those who believe that individual prayer and community worship are about thinking. Among the many quotes to this effect that David includes, here is one from William Penn: “True worship can only come from a heart prepared by the Lord. . . But how shall this preparation be obtained? I answer: by waiting patiently, yet watchfully and intently, upon God. . . Thou must not think thy own thoughts nor speak thy own words, which indeed is the silence of the holy cross. . .”
David organizes his advice into steps:
Step 1: In practice, center down; “Turn thy mind to the light;” and “Stand still in the Light.” In this section, David includes a very useful passage on manifestations of self or ego that intrude into our awareness in the guises of “the Monitor, the Reasoner or Justifier, the Doubter and the Pretender.”
Step 2: Yield mentally, and accept that true prayer and ministry are the work of God, not the human mind.
Step 3: Accept and love the Light, following Jesus’s teachings.
Most readers need help these days in understanding Jesus’s teachings. This difficulty is due, in part, to the reality that we never simply encounter “Jesus’s teachings,” but rather, what Mark says Jesus taught or what John says Jesus did, and so forth. However, the advice that David cites from Fox is sound: The key to opening up the meaning of the scriptures is the spirit of God within people. Quaker prayer definitely helps me to discover and understand the treasures within the Bible.
Yes, Quaker prayer is work. However, like David Johnson, “I choose to persist in trying to understand and practice closely what the first generation of Quakers discovered. I seek to understand and implement the advices for prayer given by those earlier Quakers, so many of whom led inspired lives.” A Quaker Prayer Life was published in 2013 by Inner Light Books in San Francisco, CA. ~~~
Helen Gould is a member of New South Wales Regional Meeting and attends Wahroonga Local Meeting in Sydney, Australia.