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Soul-Work in Community

Stanford Searl
On Normality (July 2022)
Inward Light

[This article was abridged from a far more detailed original, available at: https://westernfriend.org/media/soul-work-quaker-complative-reading]

For almost seven years, the Adult Education Committee of Santa Monica Monthly Meeting has experimented with a contemplative reading group, meeting on the third First Day at 8:30 a.m. for an hour via Zoom (but in person, pre-pandemic). Overall, we have been enthralled by expressive story-telling, whether poetry, non-fiction, or Quaker devotional writings. Our main approach has been to create meaning together, really as a form of worship sharing, urging one another to cultivate spiritually centered experiences as our main lens of text interpretation.

We encourage one another to bring our best selves to our worship together, where we reflect on multicultural writings, including songs and poems, and are open to being guided by the Inner Teacher and the Holy Spirit, broadly understood. Implicitly, my experience is that we (about six to ten participants from our Santa Monica Quaker community) explore how we might be more deeply, spiritually connected to one another as we open our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls to the worship silence, open to resonant responses. Thus, the occasion for our coming together in love and affection for both one another and for the texts means that we celebrate diverse and expressive voices, openings into contemplative experience. These words from the hymn “Holy Spirit, Truth Divine” express my feeling of thanks: “Holy Spirit, Love divine! / Dawn upon this soul of mine.”

In simple yet layered ways, we have become vessels by which to carry along the contemplative Spirit, opening ourselves to the mystery and music of the Presence. I feel blessed to explore with Friends how we can come together in love and affection, welcoming in the compelling, expressive Spirit of the living God.

We started with some classic passages from George Fox’s Journal and Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, and with some Swarthmore Lectures and Pendle Hill pamphlets. At each session, we consider a short passage, no more than two pages, double-spaced. We gather for an hour. We have developed a modified worship sharing approach to responding to these excerpts, which by now have included a wide range of poems, talks, and sermons. We have especially considered works by African-American writers, including The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, sonnets by Terrance Hayes, poems by Lucille Clifton, and excerpts from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark.

Recently, after about six years of this practice, I realized that I longed for even more depth, a sinking into the heart of the matter – and somehow doing this together with other Friends. Thus, when I encountered Phyllis Mack’s Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (1992), I found it speaking to me deeply. Even though it’s scholarly and complex – cerebral – it touches my heart.

Mack’s central point is this: “In short, the element that most separates modern observers from seventeenth-century religious visionaries is the simple but profound fact that they believed in the soul and we, in our scholarly roles as social scientists, historians, or literary critics, do not.” (7-8) In reading this, I recognized what our Santa Monica Quaker reading group has been striving for after some years: caring for our souls. Thank you, Phyllis Mack, for laying this out so clearly and for revealing the centrality of the soul in our contemplative work.

That passage from Mack challenges me. Do I cherish and include the soul in my contemplative work? At first, the concept of “soul” struck me as abstract and esoteric. But eventually, after reading more of Mack and the visionary women she cites in her book, I was led into a different understanding. I came to realize that I had left the soul out of the picture and that a connection to the soul is precisely the spiritual depth that I crave.

The prophetic ministers Mack cites from the 1640s and 1650s called for dramatic transformation, a “dissolution of the individual personality.” (150) In contrast with today’s obsession to cultivate self-expression, Mack’s Quaker visionary women longed to annihilate the “thinking self.” (142) They longed to become voices for a Divine Presence that dwelt within their souls. Mack challenges my understanding about early Friends and shows how they cared terribly about the soul and how we – ostensibly more educated and enlightened people – know very little about it.

There’s an enormous distance between myself and these Quaker visionaries. I understand the Quaker language of the indwelling Divine through metaphors of “light” and “seed,” which point me toward an understanding of the Inner Light. For these Quaker visionary women, however, such expressions are not metaphors at all. Rather, as Mack quotes Rebeckah Travers writing in 1659: “This is not ink and paper, or words . . . but it is spirit, life, and power.” (7) These so-called metaphors are actually “reality,” the voice of God speaking inside the deepest soul. (136)  These Quaker women prayed for individual will and mind to be obliterated and then filled up by the Light Within. They prayed for “God’s voice embedded in the self, which they called ‘the light’ or ‘the seed’.” (136) These transformations uncover the authentic soul underneath all self-expressions and personal desires.

When I read Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life (which carries the additional subtitle “Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World”), I found resonance between the views of early visionary Friends and Palmer’s approach to the soul. Mack highlights the emphasis on the soul that is embedded in writings by early Quaker visionary women; Palmer urges Friends – and others – to pay more attention to the soul and its needs in our contemporary search for wholeness.

Palmer summarizes the furtive, yet crucial roles of the soul in one’s quest to live an undivided life. For Palmer, the soul wants:

“to keep us rooted in the ground of our own being,”

“to keep us connected to the community in which we find life,”

“to tell us the truth about ourselves, our world, and the relation between the two,” and

“to give us life and . . . pass that gift along.”

“All of us arrive on earth with souls in perfect form. But from the moment of birth onward, the soul or true self is assailed by deforming forces from without and within: by racism, sexism, economic injustice, and other social cancers: by jealousy, resentment, self-doubt, fear, and other demons of the inner life.” (33-34)

These reflections about the soul from both Phyllis Mack and Parker Palmer speak to my own inner life, bringing glimpses of wholeness and healing. As they both note, the “soul” offers a conduit into the inner life and its meanings: the soul presents pathways to an integrated life.

Palmer urges Friends to reflect upon the needs of the soul, but doesn’t address – explicitly – the prophetic dimensions. While I am not proposing that contemporary Friends engage in a prophetic discourse when reading texts, the contemplative reading group approach borrows aspects of the 17th century approach to this soul-work.

Overall, it’s a spiritual, personal discipline of deep listening through which we can rely upon the Inner Teacher to guide our responses. We begin by clearing a space for the soul to emerge, if only furtively and indirectly. Since we continue to do this together in a small group (with mostly the same participants), we learn from one another. We create a spiritual container where we feel secure and where we can rely on our own personal, spiritual understandings. By an emphasis upon an Inner Guide, we make room for the soul and its contemplative listening. As we ponder and reflect together about a variety of imaginative writings within the worship silence, I am reminded about an observation from Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul about beauty: “For the soul, then, beauty is not defined as pleasantness of form but rather as the quality in things that invites absorption and contemplation.” (279)

Even though our group started with classic devotional Quaker writings, more recently, we have focused on voices and writings by African-Americans and other traditionally marginalized people. We have considered American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes, poems by Lucille Clifton, and Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb.” We have considered Tunisian-American poet Leila Chatti (writing about the Virgin Mary), American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and poetry by Native Americans such as Sherman Alexi, Esther Belin, Joy Harjo, and Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Such works are especially effective in expressing awareness of the soul. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, expresses how African-Americans are “born with a veil” and a “double-consciousness.” In The Souls of Black Folk, he writes: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (6) This psychic, emotional, and racial conflict has great resonance.

In our worship sharing, Friends reflected about how, on the one hand, the mystical experience appeared to be individual, inward, and quite personal. On the other hand, one Friend observed that groups can help discern the prophetic value of a mystical insight: “See the example of James Naylor, riding into Bristol like Jesus [on a donkey into Jerusalem]. Should he have done it? Together, we can choose the rightness of an action. Ask for the Spirit’s help and assistance. After all, we are both alone and together in this world.”

I draw several conclusions from such comments. Firstly, these contemplative sessions encourage Friends to do some deep imaginative and analytical dives into the heart and soul of the matter, whatever the particular subject. Secondly, these reflections and conversations about the passages allow for multiple voices to be present and cherished. Thirdly, this is counter-cultural work, pushing back against assumptions that we must agree and come to some pre-ordained “right” answer. Lastly, it’s okay to be instruments upon which the Spirit may write. As Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, “Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tablets of stone, but in fleshy tablets of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3).

In these contemplative reading groups, Friends pay attention to meanings beneath the surface of ordinary consciousness. I pray that our work continues to deepen our spiritual understanding about what it can mean for a small group of Friends to be together and invite the work of the soul into our lives. It seems worthwhile to be open to the Holy Spirit’s influences as we cleave to the Inner Teacher and grope our way toward this work of the soul and its embodied wisdom.

Stanford Searl is a poet and essayist. As a recent Carroll Research Scholar at Pendle Hill, he studied the meaning of gathered worship. He is a member of Santa Monica Friends Meeting (PacYM).


spiritual deepening reading group Early Friends

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