Radical Vulnerability


There is an instant when the truth of your soul sears through your every fiber and the indescribable is revealed. It is the fierce light that splits you whole and reveals the poet Rilke’s words, “You must change your life.” It is an opportunity to bring one’s life into alignment, but there is sheer, holy terror that accompanies this process. When the Light cuts through your pretense and pride, you are vulnerable, the most vulnerable. The Light illuminates and clarifies our shadows and our love. To come closer to God we must be bold in our vulnerability. We must learn to dance on the edge of our unknowingness. This is when we give ourselves over to God. We are exposed.

Quakers are fond of this line from Isaac Penington, “Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.”

It sounds swell, but we worry about it. We worry about giving over in absolute trust. We fall back on the reliable structures of an established moral order. These are understood and accepted as a basis for action, which helps us avoid awkward questions and meet expectations. Following these we can do good work. But the non-negotiable mandate of the Light is simple: Give yourself over. We are called to give up our pretense of control, of knowing what is right. Not that we should give up moral responsibility or critical thinking, but we must not mistake those tools for the guiding force of the Light. We can hold onto what we think we know as a defense against fear, but in doing so we risk being guided by notions rather than true knowing. By holding onto a portion of our armor, we limit our trust in God. We are called to be unrelenting in our vulnerability and to give ourselves up to the dance.  Even so, we maintain a pretense of control, of knowing what is right.

The words ‘humble’ and ‘humility’ both trace their origins to Middle English. Following the Old French, one arrives at the Latin humilis ‘low, lowly’, from humus ‘ground’. So, to be humble, to approach a situation in humility and ready to evolve, is to keep low to the ground, to keep close to the earth. In humility we know what we cannot know. So, when we feel our fear, rather than stiffening in righteousness, we bend closer to the earth. We return to the questions we can answer: What can I seek to know in each moment? How can I be kind? Where do I feel my compassion and integrity in this moment? This is where our work is.

When the two of us began our role in 2013 as co-clerks of Young Adult Friends (YAFs) in Pacific Yearly Meeting, we both had been out-of-touch with the yearly meeting for several years. On the one hand, we were deeply convinced of the basic truths we had experienced in Quakerism and felt their practical application in every sphere of our lives. On the other hand, that sense was not well integrated with our participation in the Quaker community. Being vulnerable with ourselves and with God is only one part. We must be vulnerable with each other and with the world.

This is what we value and practice in the Young Adult Friends (YAF) community. In a given meeting for worship or even an informal community check in, one person will start the ripple. They will be bold and vulnerable. They will share deeply of their shadows and joys. In the truth of their ministry we can feel the room drop and center down. The spirit rises. In an instant the meeting is gathered. The YAF community challenges and comforts us. These Friends inspire and provide sweet respite, deepening our practice as Quakers. This is what we have to share, not just together in the YAF community, but in our Monthly Meetings, in our Yearly Meetings, and in the world. We are all called to be fierce in our vulnerability and to dance on the edge of our unknowingness.  ~~~

Elena Anderson-Williams and Kylin Navarro currently serve as co-clerks of the Young Adult Friends group in Pacific Yearly Meeting (PYM). Elena resides in Mountain View, CA, and works with high school students as a guidance counselor. Kylin serves as Resident Friend at Berkeley Meeting and also works as a program coordinator of a small non-profit.

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