Time, History and the Eternal Now

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My first encounter with Friends occurred thirty years ago in my hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. I was going through a tumultuous time, and I found the Princeton Meeting to be a place of peace and comfort. Later, as I became more involved with Quakerism, I learned about the history of Princeton Meeting and the hidden history of local Quakers, who were the original settlers there. I learned that the Quakers didn’t take sides during the Revolutionary War; that they cared for the American and British wounded equally; and that as a result, they fell out of favor politically.

This story of Quakers in Princeton was never revealed to me in my honors American history class at Princeton High School. Princeton is proud of its role in the American Revolution and of its Presbyterian college. We learned only about Presbyterians, the dominant religion of our town. Today I am fascinated by hidden histories – stories of the marginalized, the oppressed, and of people struggling for justice and peace and new ways of living.

I also love to hear people tell their own personal spiritual stories – how they found God or Christ, how they became a Quaker or a Buddhist or a Muslim, how their lives were transformed, how they are living their faith. These are sacred stories. I never tire of hearing them, and I never tire of reading them in spiritual biographies and autobiographies.  

We live on two levels (at least). On one level, we create and read stories about passing through this temporal world and call it history or biography. We share stories about this world of time – a world of joys and sorrows, love and grief, hopes and fears. The world of time imposes limits, schedules, and other pressures, including death itself – the final deadline. Time also gives us opportunities for spiritual growth.

We live on another level, too, one which gives us another way of experiencing reality. For most of us, this experience is rare and precious. Instead of clock time or calendar time, we experience the present moment in all its fullness. We observe our thoughts without judgment and let them float away, like leaves on a stream. We experience a spaciousness, an openness, a sense of something beyond time and space. We feel connected to everything around us and to something greater than ourselves. This experience may occur during times of worship, in nature, or quite unexpectedly in the midst of daily activities.

These moments touch the world of Spirit. William Tabor, my teacher at Pendle Hill, called it “entering the prophetic stream.” The Franciscan spiritual teacher Richard Rohr called it “the naked now.” George Fox gave this advice in 1653 on how we might seek this experience: “Wait in the Light for Power to remove the earthly part . . . [so] that with the Light your minds may be kept up to God, who is Pure, and in it ye may all have unity who in the Light do walk.” (See page 19 of Friends for 300 Years by Howard Brinton.)

My understanding of Quaker experience on these two levels has been strongly influenced by the life and writings of Howard Brinton (1884-1973). Brinton was a philosopher and a scientist, a Christian and a Universalist, an historian and a mystic. Though he is best known for his classic introduction to Quakerism, Friends for 300 Years (1952), one of his most important contributions as an historian was his study of Quaker journals. In his historical publications and in his own religious autobiography – Friends for 75 Years – Brinton wrote frankly about the many struggles and divisions that have disturbed the Society of Friends over time, including ones that he personally witnessed and experienced. He believed that studying history can help us understand our Quaker way of life and can help teach us how to live out our experience of the Light in the temporal world.

Brinton was equally interested in the mystical, the Eternal Now. During the final years of his life, he wrote about the Gospel of John and the mystical side of Quakerism. Like his teacher Rufus Jones, Brinton believed that the distinctive characteristic of Quakerism was its group mysticism, a collective and direct experience of the Eternal, which cannot be reduced to words.

Being a mathematician by training, Brinton liked to explain spiritual realities by using diagrams. Time can be conceived as a line moving from left to right, from past to future – the familiar time line. In the middle of the timeline, a vertical line intersects: This is the spiritual dimension, leading upward to God, and downward to the subhuman, the demonic. The point where the Eternal and Temporal meet is our human condition. This is where the Spirit becomes embodied in the temporal, where the Word is made flesh, and where we are fully alive.

For Brinton, “eternal life” is to be experienced not just in the future, but in the present. As he explains in his pamphlet Light and Life in the Fourth Gospel (1971), “The word ‘eternal’ which occurs so often in Johns’ gospel, . . . refers to a particular quality of life in the present and also to an age of life beyond the grave, which has no definite beginning or end.”

Brinton contrasts this lived experience of the eternal with “clock time.” A machine exists only in “clock time” and “continues until it is worn out.” But an organism lives in “organic time,” which includes the past and future, as well as the eternal: “An organism, because it has life, possesses the dimension of height and breadth [on the spiritual axis], as well as length [on the temporal axis], and because it can reproduce itself both biologically and spiritually, it possesses an eternal dimension extending without limit into the past and future”(p. 12).

For Brinton, the way to this eternal dimension was through the incarnation of Christ (the Logos) in history and in us. The Eternal is united with finite human beings and are reconciled through Christ, who overcomes not only death, but time itself.

The Gospels depict moments when the Eternal intersects the temporal, when ordinary experiences – like going to a wedding or drinking water at a well – become sacred events. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he was physically thirsty and asked her for what he needed – a drink of water (John 4:16). In return, he gave her Living Waters and transformed her life. Each of them was fully present to the other, and each benefited from the exchange in life-changing ways.

We, too, can experience the Living Waters that spring up from the depths. We need only take time to be fully present to the Divine. We cannot escape from the ethical demands of history – the cries of the poor and oppressed, and of our broken planet – but we can take time to encounter the Eternal, to be refreshed, renewed, and strengthened by it. These moments, when we allow the Eternal and the temporal to intersect, are the moments when we are most fully alive. ~~~

Anthony Manousos is a former editor of Western Friend. He has published numerous articles, pamphlets, and books -- mostly recently, Howard and Anna Brinton: Reinventors of Quakerism in the 20th Century (2013). He resides in Pasadena, CA, with his wife Jill Shook and is a member of Orange Grove Monthly Meeting in Pasadena (PYM). Anthonly is currently active with FWCC, FCNL, and Interfaith Communites United for Justice and Peace.

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