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Movings of Divine Love (review)

Margaret Kelso
On Seeds (November 2023)

Movings of Divine Love

written by Drew Lawson

reviewed by Margaret Kelso

Spiritual letter-writing is a long tradition among Quakers, and it is not surprising that the letters of John Woolman have been copied and shared ever since he first penned them in the eighteenth century. In his 2020 volume, Movings of Divine Love: The Love of God in the Letters of John Woolman, John Lawson has turned a selection of Woolman’s letters into a type of lectio divina to recount and deepen his own spiritual journey.

Lawson, who is a spiritual director, poet, artist, and retreat leader, and who identifies as both a Quaker and a Roman Catholic, combs Woolman’s letters for spiritual gems and for insights into his character. The title of Lawson’s book, Movings of Divine Love, echoes the famous opening of Woolman’s Journal, “On a motion of love . . .” The book’s subtitle, The Love of God in the Letters of John Woolman, is well chosen, for the central theme of Woolman’s life was love, which is well documented in his letters.

After brief introductory materials and a biographical section, Lawson offers an overview of the letters. He lists types of letters (messages of friendship, advice, consolation, etc.) and themes (God’s love, spiritual friendship, evil, crucifixion, obedience, etc.).

Lawson identifies three landmark letters in the collection: Woolman’s condolences to the Ely family, his letter of spiritual direction and companionship to Susannah Lightfoot, and a letter from William Tuke about Woolman’s final days and death. The rest of the volume is organized by topic, alternating Lawson’s reflections with Woolman’s letters, which are published in their original spelling and capitalization.

The rest of the volume is organized by topic, alternating Lawson’s reflections with Woolman’s letters, which are published in their original spelling and capitalization.

“Troubling, challenging and uplifting” is how Lawson describes Woolman’s letter to the Ely family concerning the death of their young son. This letter seems to have provoked questions in Lawson about the loving nature of God and the issue of free will, and it also led him into thoughts of the time when his own father died. “I have no answer and no language that has meaning outside of Silence,” Lawson writes. “Our grieving, our suffering if we allow it can be transformed into an invitation to allow God to be even more central in our life.”

Woolman’s letters reveal more about the man than his essays and journal. His journal was published posthumously and was edited by Quaker elders, which was a typical practice at the time. His letters are more revealing, including insights into Woolman’s love and devotion toward his wife. In one letter, he writes, “Though I feel in good degree resigned in being absent from you, my heart is often tenderly Affected toward you, and even to weeping this morning, while I am about to write.”

Woolman was well known for his opposition to slavery – to the extent that he would not accept hospitality from people who held slaves without paying for it. His compassion extended to the boys and horses who transported the mail. He relied on others to pass his letters hand-to-hand to their recipients. Yet on some occasions, he compromised his convictions. He sent some letters by post if he felt the contents were urgent. Lawson explains it this way. “The gap that exists between the life we profess and the way we live is a constant challenge. This gap also existed for John Woolman, and at times he was willing to compromise his principles.”

Lawson devotes a chapter to discernment, one of the themes he identifies in Woolman’s letters. The chapter begins, “Discerning God’s call relies on us knowing ourselves and the various ways in which God speaks to us: directly, through another, through the collective wisdom of our faith community, through creation, etc.” Later, he adds, “. . .the more we listen, the less loudly God has to speak, to the point that we know God’s presence even if we are suffering.” And later still, “Discernment is a way of life, not just a process to be pulled off the shelf when a decision is needed.”

This book presents the insights of the well-known John Woolman, coupled with the reflections of a gifted, contemporary spiritual director and retreat leader. ~~~

Margaret Kelso is member of Humboldt Friends Meeting (PacYM)

Spiritual Development John Woolman

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