Wendy Fenton

Simply in the Spirit

When people approach Quakerism for the first time as adults, they are conditioned by their lives to apply some sort of method to their exploration of Quaker spirituality. Whether this approach is intellectual (scientific, psychological, philosophical, etc.), or mystical, there is usually a need for some sort of methodology. In their spiritual seeking, they go deeper and deeper into an individual spirituality, but in this exercise they may perhaps be missing a core element – the simplicity of spirituality and of worship.

Renowned Japanese violinist and teacher Dr Shinichi Suzuki, when studying the violin in Germany as a young man, and struggling with the German language, was struck by the fact that German children learnt to speak German fluently at their mother’s knee. This “mother tongue” learning was the basis for his method of teaching very young children to play a musical instrument.

In this same way, a child in a Quaker family approaches Quaker spirituality, and absorbs it in such a way as to become almost instinctive. During a secure, happy and loving early childhood she will learn to trust the Spirit. She becomes acquainted with “that which is of God in all men” as the Inner Light, and gradually comes to understand that she needs to follow the promptings of that Light, and to seek it in others.

I was such a Quaker child. I was told stories of the good deeds of Quakers in times gone by. Elizabeth Fry was my favourite story, and my Elizabeth Fry doll, lovingly dressed for me by a lady in my extended Quaker family, became my favourite possession. I was taught that I should make my life speak, without yet being aware of George Fox’s famous words. My Quaker spirituality adhered to the Testimony of Simplicity.

As time went on, this Quaker child realised that the Testimonies by which Friends endeavour to live are embodiments of the Spirit itself. Peace, Justice and above all Love are what my God is all about. I lived by the fact that the Inner Light is a reflection in me, and in everyone, and all around me, of the Spirit. With this, came the realisation that many people are unaware or in denial of their own Inner Light. As a young adult, I recognised this denial in the words of Francis Thompson, which was a significant lesson for me, as I hadn’t experienced this in myself:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes, I sped:
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
[Francis Thompson, 1889, “The Hound of Heaven”]

My father had explained to me that if I can seek out the Light of God in those who live without Faith, there is the chance that the gleam of that Light might reflect back to them, so there is always a reason to seek it.

Times of contemplation inevitably become for me periods of conscious worship, as too do times of joy, thankfulness and contentment. At other times, when I find myself “incommunicado”, I pause for what my late husband called “station identification”. Solitary worship is a time for personal spiritual contact to discover what God requires of me. I do not feel a need to try to understand God.

Corporate worship, as in Meeting for Worship, is a different experience for me. It is as if my silence is blended with the silence of those around me, so that if the Spirit moves one, it may move all. Spoken ministry is one way of making that connection within the corporate silence. This “gathered stillness”, this linking in the Spirit can also happen quite spontaneously at quite unexpected times, and in quite unexpected places.

Recently, as I was standing on the pavement, an African family walked past. The two children were running ahead, laughing, and their parents followed behind them. When they saw my pleasure at the happiness of their children, they smiled back at me, and during that moment, there was a ‘gathered stillness’ and I felt wrapped in the warmth of it.

George Fox enjoined us to seek that which is of God in all men. In doing this, we are living our spirituality outside of ourselves. We are doing so in the course of our lives, not in personal isolation with God. It is significant for me to truly seek the Spirit, rather than spirituality.

There were times in my life when my circumstances took me away from Meeting for Worship for years on end, and, living amongst unbelievers, my conscious awareness of God was diminished. Now that I am, thankfully, back in Quaker Meeting, and perhaps growing wiser as I grow older, I find that I am reverting to my ‘simple spirituality’, and it has lost none of its validity for me.

Spirituality is now a constant part of my life – every day and all the time. The Spirit is with me, it is in me, in everyone, on every leaf and flower, in the sound of the sea, in art and music, and in every breath I take. To me, it is not necessary to “work out a suitable timetable” for contemplative practices, as the Quaker Basics course recommends. Spirituality can be spontaneous and constant. God does not require us to make an appointment; this divine Spirit is always available, if we just live in it and wait on it for Leading. Then we are led into the Quaker way of letting our lives speak, to “be patterns, be examples …………. answering that of God in every one”. We are then open to meeting in “a gathered stillness”, to share simply in worship, our corporate Quakerism. We learn to respond to Leadings and to hold back if we aren’t sure we are Spirit led, and we gain the joy, comfort and direction of life in the Spirit. In its essence it is spontaneous spirituality answering to our Testimony to Simplicity.

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