I was raised Quaker. Since I was very small I’ve practiced sitting in silence, listening for the ‘inner light’, the voice of God within. I stared for so many hours at William Penn’s quote, framed on the wall of the building where I first learned to worship (and to read), that it still flickers over the inside of my eyelids when I am drowsy:
True godliness does not remove men from the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it.
This was the spirituality I was steeped in: to listen for the voice of what is holy, and then to tirelessly live it in the world, to preach with my life. To let my life speak. There was no dogma, no preacher or minister or intermediary. Just me and my conscience, and the several dozen Quaker political action committees that lobby endlessly the world over for an end to war, freedom for all, equality and a culture of nonviolence. I grew up believing that religion is listening to my own conscience and then working until the world around me matches what I feel on the inside. I felt no inconsistency finding God in trees, bees, bee-balm flowers, chanting, poetry, dancing, mountains. I did not realize until fairly recently how unusual this is.
This morning, as we do each week, my boys and I walked the mile or so to Quaker Meeting, crossing a bridge over a creek filled with floating maple leaves and chasing each other breathlessly through the ‘enchanted forest’ where somehow there are still cyclamen blooming. Meeting was silent. The twenty or so of us gathered there listened to our own thoughts, or dozed, or watched the sunlight flicker patterns against the wall. Then a very wise man stood to speak.
This gentle man fled Germany during the war. He is a brilliant chemist (he designed a richly complex spiral version of the periodic table), a philosophic and principled thinker, and a dedicated witness to the full spectrum of life’s cruelties and joys. He lost his wife of many decades last month. As she was dying, he said, she spoke less and less. Her voice was going. The voice is not a sense, he said. It does not come into us but rather goes out. He was reminded of what Jesus said when the disciples argued over the cleanliness of certain foods: Not that which goes into the mouth makes a man unclean, but that which comes out of the mouth.
I have been reading James Hillman quite a bit recently. In the book I am reading now he puts forth the argument that psychotherapy has enfeebled us. It directs our energies inward, causing us to channel emotions toward self-examination that would once have led to political action. We work on ourselves instead of our world. The world is alive, says Hillman. But we do not notice it dying all around us because we are absorbed in unraveling our family dysfunctions.
Philip Chard says much the same thing (I am also reading Chard, hopping from Hillman to Chard and back again)–the world is sacred and lit from within. When we do not relate to the personhood, the voice of each living thing, we do not see the aliveness of the world, and have ceased to understand the consciousness that beats everywhere. As he writes:
Once we have looked upon the earth with the cold eyes of deadness, once we have passed over to the kind of seeing that takes what is alive and, through jaded consciousness, transforms it into an inert piece of matter, a raw material for economic exploitation, then the transition is complete. We begin to experience ourselves as things, as dead, as stuff to be used up but not valued.
And once this happens, political action and personal examination become equally meaningless, and there is nowhere to turn.
Hillman and Chard have been, how shall I put this, freaking me the fuck out. I left the world of permaculture and political action to become a counselor because I saw over and over again that, until we get our internal worlds straight, we just perpetuate the same problems within a different system. And now I read that until we engage politically and get our external world straight, our internal problems will persist. I burnt out as a political activist because I was only listening to the angry and despairing voices; I fear now listening too deeply to the wise and peaceful ones, and losing my motivation to act. Now wait a minute, surely there’s a balance between the two?
Surely there is a way to live an examined life in joy and deep witness to the sentient pageant of this world, a way to act out of deep inner congruence, to keep adjusting oneself and moving forward, for one’s inward listening to be reflected in one’s outward life?
I remember, years ago, listening to another message in Meeting, one that terrified me. This time it was a young woman who spoke:
I keep thinking about human error, she said. We all make mistakes. Years ago, before the industrial or even the agricultural revolution, I bet somebody had a bad day and her hand slipped and the arrow missed the deer and shot a friend. I bet she was broken hearted. Maybe she was cast out, or maybe her family starved because she missed that deer. But what if that same woman worked in a nuclear power plant. What if she had the same bad day and her hand slipped again. This time everything dies for miles and miles and decades and decades. Our human error is the same but our technology has magnified it immensely.
Our lives do speak, and these days the word spreads so fast, so far. It seems to me that the new breadth of our reach is matched by a lessening in depth. We reach more people, but with less meaning. There are many, many clamoring voices, but the voice, that still small deep one that is the personhood of each being, is harder to hear.
I want my life to speak deeply. I want a life rich with meaning and a congruence that comes straight from my conscience into every action. I want an inward and outward life. I want to learn, as Penn wrote, the godliness that excites my endeavors to mend the world, but I want too to step back and examine my own heart from time to time. I don’t want to lose myself in the shallow flood of information that deadens me to the world. I want to see the light in everything.
I don’t think it is any harder now than it was when other Quakers measured their conscience against their safety and chose to be conductors on the Underground Railroad. I don’t think we are made any differently than Penn, or Woolman, or Mott. I know that many live still by that inner witness, quietly doing right in the living corners of the world. I do not wish to be paralyzed by the fear of my magnified human error. I do not wish to be swept away in that shallow stream of communication. This world is alive. I am alive. Do I give it voice? What is issuing from my mouth? Listen: what is my life saying?