We are bags full of muscle and bone. And although we can see the leather of the bags, we can only guess at the contents, the memories and desires that propel any life, including our own.
We act from mixtures of habit and intention. And although it’s never too late to break a bad habit, it requires some focused effort. The patterns and examples that we see in others’ lives can encourage us to change.
This summer, a Friend expressed some frustration to me that our Quaker meetings will readily organize study sessions around the lives of the Earliest Friends, but generally ignore the accomplishments of Friends from more recent centuries. Behind those words, I imagined a complaint: The same old Friends, still, are clinging to their power.
Between the two realities – the bags of bones that are our bodies and the mixtures of memories and desires inside – are the words that we use to link the two – names, explanations, reputations. As a body of bodies, a society has a name, a history, and a reputation. Throughout its history, the Religious Society of Friends has gathered into itself several large movements of seekers. Each new influx has altered the nature and reputation of the whole body – which in our case is the Religious Society of “liberal” “silent” Friends.
Quaker historian Rosemary Moore makes it clear that George Fox and his cohort – who were all young Friends – worked with deliberate intention and strategy to assemble the original Society of Friends. “[In] the early summer of 1652, Fox, Nayler, and Farnworth set out westwards. Their route was not random – Fox had planned the journey so that he might meet people likely to be sympathetic . . . This was a time of much economic distress . . . and the church tax or ‘tithe’ . . . was a cause of much hardship. Fox included in his journey an area where a tithe strike was beginning . . .” (2013)
Burning with an urgent desire to free themselves from the moral oppression of “steeplehouses,” the young George Fox and his young compatriots also burned with a charismatic clarity of purpose, which in 1652 they began to communicate methodically, persistently, and successfully. By 1655, groups of Quakers were established throughout the whole of England, and Friends in London had to lease a hall that would hold a thousand people – more when they packed in tightly.
This pattern of merging a charismatic message with the basic, methodical work of organizing has appeared in other phases of Quaker history. Two recent examples that touch liberal silent Friends today are these: First, Friends who were young adults during World War One worked to create organizations that allowed conscientious objectors to do relief work in Europe rather than fight there. (American Friends Service Committee was one of these.) Second, during the tumultuous 1960s, young adult Friends took their Quaker skills of nonhierarchical organizing out into the community and put them to work in the many social movements of the day. In both these examples, young adult Friends attracted non-Quaker contemporaries to join the Quaker faith.
While the majority of liberal, silent Friends in 1900 were people whose parents were Quaker, the great majority of Friends today are people who joined as adults. The oldest members of our meetings today often carry family ties to that that World War One generation. And the Boomers, whose numbers loom large in our meetings today, give evidence to the charismatic impact of 1960s activism.
Each new generation of Friends is more or less numerous, more or less activist, more or less cohesive than the generation that came before it and after it. And although we might worry about trends, really, the charismatic winds of the Spirit always blow in their own good time.
When our bags of bones bump against each other, when our memories clash, and when our desires aim off in different directions, feelings of annoyance or resentment will naturally follow. Anger can motivate life-giving change. It can also destroy.
Patience is a boring virtue, but we can’t hold together without it. Confrontation is also hard – and also essential to life. The trick is to focus our confrontations more on each other’s offensive behaviors and less on the memories and desires that we imagine to motive them. Our practice of waiting worship can help, our practice for reminding the bag of bones how to say: I am listening.