For the first three years of my vocal ministry among Friends (i.e., 1989-1992), I often transcribed into my journal the messages I'd given in worship. Following are selected transcriptions from the journal. The reader should be aware that my references to God are metaphorical--"theopoetic"--and not intended to convey theistic belief.
February, 1989 - Homewood Friends Meeting
May the silence continue to deepen in us until it empties us of all reliance on words, thoughts, beliefs, even virtues. May the silence take us apart and recreate us in its own image, as persons who, possessing nothing, have nothing to lose and are therefore free to love. May the Inner Light burn away everything in us that is not Light, so that we come to know ourselves for the first time in that we live now, no longer we, but Christ lives in us. And may our speech be such that it leads others to this experience of interior silence and transformation.
What I took to be the original house was a brick building with but one room on the first floor, a room with a hearth at one end and a smaller fireplace at the other. On the second floor were three small bedrooms. In the largest bedroom, which I assumed had been Woolman's, were displayed notices and mementos of past events. One such was a calendar, from 1926 I think, which offered a different passage from Woolman's writings for each month of the year. In paging through the calendar, I noticed that the phrase "living deeply" was mentioned twice. One of those passages was but a single sentence; I don't remember its exact words, but it said that it is by living deeply that we are able to place our lives under the gracious ordering of the spirit of Christ. But it was actually not until worship had ended that I explored the second floor and found the calendar.
We met for worship in the first-floor room. Fourteen wooden chairs, some with small cushions, were arranged in a broad circle, although two were behind a long wooden table which, as I discovered later, would be used for coffee and cookies after worship. I sat in a contraption that could be used as either a table or a chair, depending on how the top was positioned. This piece was made of hard, smooth wood, and since the floor sloped markedly toward the center of the room, I felt in danger of sliding off throughout the period of worship. Apparently, I was not the only person in discomfort, for there was much shifting of positions and rearranging of limbs during worship. Nevertheless, the silence was deep and rich.
Toward the end of the hour, a young Friend spoke. I was to learn later, in talking to his wife, that he and she were members of Mount Holly Meeting who had moved away to become caretakers of a lighthouse on the Delaware Bay; as she showed me photographs of the splendid isolation in which they now live, she said that their visit to Mount Holly that day was like a homecoming for them. Her husband's message concerned our need to recover a sense of harmony with the order of nature. He also related that earlier that day he had been out walking when he met a farmer for the first time. As they greeted each other, they saw a rare Cooper's hawk in the sky. Sharing a pair of field glasses, they watched the hawk soar on thermal currents; when the bird had gone, the two men felt that they had become friends through that shared experience.
As the silence deepened after the Friend's message, the image of the soaring hawk remained in my mind as a symbol of the awful beauty and mystery of nature's harmony, the same harmony that had reclaimed my friend in death. With that image in my mind, and aware of being joined in spirit with the great soul Woolman and with the Friends at Homewood who were also worshipping at that time, I recalled a passage from Isaiah: "Those who wait upon the Lord shall have their strength renewed; they shall mount up on wings, as eagles; they shall run and not stumble; they shall walk and not falter." And I knew that my own strength had been renewed, not only by the words, but more especially by the silent sharing of the Mount Holly Friends who knew neither my name nor the sadness in which I had come, and I felt that I could continue on my way in courage and in peace.
Recalling that experience..., I am reminded once again what a rare and precious gift is this silence of worship. In it we are joined in spirit across the meeting room, across the world, even across the centuries. In it our spirits are freed to live deeply, to "mount up on wings," to soar on warm currents of spirit, imagination, and compassion. "And the soul, unwatched," wrote Hermann Hesse, "would soar in free flight,/till in the magic circle of night/it lives deeply and a thousandfold." I give thanks for this silence, this "dark night of the soul" which is for us a source of light and life. May we cherish it always, and may it help us all to "live deeply and a thousandfold," that our lives may come to be more and more "under the gracious ordering" of that Spirit which leads us into harmony with nature, with each other, and with ourselves.
Today, because of the city dirt and the sun's glare, I can't see much through the window. But last Sunday was a dark and windy day, and I could see through the window very well. Although, with the windows closed, the only rustling of leaves I heard then was the turning of pages in this room, I could see the wind incarnate in the branches and autumnal leaves of that tree out there. And as I continued to look, the window with its panes became a grid, like one I'd once seen in a book by Alan Watts, that sought to impose some logical order on the exuberant chaos of the tree; but the restless, spiritual wind would not permit it. Then, as I looked yet longer, the window seemed to become a closed portcullis, a gate that sought to protect me by keeping me from something dangerous and vital.
But I need that vitality, despite the danger. In a poem about Gethsemani Abbey, Thomas Merton said that "There is a sign of God on every leaf that nobody sees in the garden." I suspect that there is also a word from God in every rustling of windling leaves that no one hears. Last week, looking out through that translucent gate, I understood that I need to see those signs and hear those words; I need to throw open the window, to go out and meet the God who encounters me in the exuberant chaos of that tree, the cold freedom of the wind, the helpless dance of the dying leaves.
It is here, in our worship, where strength is added to strength, that I receive the courage to open the window-gate and enter the awful presence of God. And if in that encounter I am chilled to the bone by the wind of the Spirit, or soaked to the skin in a rain of divine tears, I know that I can return to the shelter of this family and be dried and warmed and encouraged by loving Friends. For this is one of the many beautiful gifts we offer each other in our worship, that we strengthen and sustain each other as we seek that encounter into which each must enter alone. Blessed is this silence in which we join our hearts in love. Blessed is this silence in which we receive and share the courage to lay ourselves open to the transforming power of the God whose ways are not our ways. And blessed is this silence that opens our eyes and ears to the signs and words of God within, among, and around us.
Last week's translucent gate is a window once again, but the eyes that gaze through it have been subtly changed.
"Finally," wrote Walt Whitman, "shall come the poet worthy that name; the true Son of God shall come singing his songs." Whitman's image has led me to think of Jesus as being a poet--our greatest poet of the spirit, whose creation, the Kingdom of God, remains the highest expression of the power and beauty of what we Friends might call "that of God in every one."
I know that Jesus did not invent the idea of the Kingdom. What he called the Kingdom of God was a dream shared by the oppressed in his day, a dream that looked to the end of this world of suffering, sin, and death and the birth of a new world of tsedeq--righteousness and justice--and shalom--peace, health, prosperity, even, perhaps, immortality--everything that makes for human well-being and fulfillment. Although Jesus did not create the dream of the Kingdom, and although he seems to have shared a popular expectation of its imminent but future fulfillment, Jesus nonetheless so incarnated the dream in his life and in the possibilities he opened up for those he touched that he moved the dream from the realm of the ideal to the real. Through the power of his poetic genius and the depth of his love, Jesus reached into God's future and brought a living seed of that future back into the present--a seed that, as he described, grows in darkness and breaks forth into light unexpectedly.
Another image, a striking one, is from Albert Schweitzer's book The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer said that Jesus threw himself upon the wheel of history in an attempt to bring it to a halt, to bring this world to an end and to usher in the Kingdom of God in its fullness and power; but the wheel continued to turn, and it crushed him. Even now, said Schweitzer, his mangled body hangs on that wheel as it turns, and "this is His victory and His reign." I've meditated on this image often and over many years, and I can only agree that Jesus' sacrifice was a victory, not because it placated a vindictive God, but because by it he diverted the wheel of history onto a new course, opening up a new world of possibilities within the old.
But the wheel turns yet, and the innocent still are crushed by it. Sometimes in the silence of worship I seem to hear the voices of those who fall under the wheel in our time. They seem to be crying out for the presence of Christ, the Christ we meet in Jesus, the poet who brings the light of tsedeq and shalom into the darkness of their world. And as I reflect on their cries in the light of Whitman's query, "Who shall soothe these feverish children?", in the light of the new possibilities opened up by the poetic genius of Jesus, and, in particular this morning, in the light of our Quaker tradition, I must acknowledge in fear and trembling that the longed-for poet is I--is each of us.
For this is the central experience of Quakerism, the basis of our way of life and our witness to the world, that the spirit that was in Jesus is in us and can be the Light and Life and Power by which we live. As Paul said: "With faces unveiled, we reflect as in a mirror the glory of the Lord and are transformed, from glory to glory, into his image.... I live now, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.... We are all members of the one body of Christ; we are all members of one another."
So although I know that the turning of the wheel of time crushed the poet Jesus long ago, I take courage in the knowledge that his spirit lives on and seeks to be incarnate in us, and I pray, therefore, for our transformation. May the seed that grows in darkness and blossoms where least expected grow and blossom and flourish in me--and in all of us. May we, in the unveiling silence of our worship, be joined to the incomprehensible suffering of humanity and of all creation, powerfully typified in the crucified Christ, and in that crucible be changed into his image, made of one mind with the poetic genius that creates the Kingdom, made fully conscious and cooperating members of his universal body, that we, too, may become poets of the Kingdom, bringing songs of tsedeq and shalom for those who suffer.
O soul, thou pleasest me--I thee,
Sailing these seas, or on the hills, or waking in the night,
Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time, and Space, and Death, like waters flowing,
Bear me, indeed, as through regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear--lave me all over,
Bathe me, O God, in thee--mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.
O Thou Transcendent!
Nameless--the fiber and the breath!
Light of the light--shedding forth universes--Thou centre of them!
Thou (mightier) centre of the true, the good, and the loving!
Friends, that center appears to me this morning as Lao Tzu's mysterious female, the mother of heaven and earth--and that nameless one reveals her name as Silence. For I learn in worship that silence is not the absence of sound; silence is the matrix, the living ground of sound. Living within, silence gives each sound its unique, although incomplete, identity. Living around each sound, environing it, silence completes that identity by joining it to all other sounds in the great music of the universe. And since all things are, like sound, patterns of vibrating energy, silence is the matrix in which all things come to be, and exist, and to which they return. Silence is truly the mother of all things.
But for those of us who come to know and love her in a special way, as in worship, silence is mother in an even more wonderful way. She is the divine and virgin womb in which we are conceived as the human form of the eternal Word, the Logos, the living Christ. In her waters we are baptized, and through her we are given new birth, new life as members of the one body of Christ. Living in us, she gives us our unique but incomplete identities as individuals; living among us, environing us, she completes our identities by joining us all into one body, so that, while remaining individuals, we are nevertheless animated by one and the same spirit, one and the same heart. Thus, she teaches us to follow Jesus, not by attempting to conform ourselves to the words written about him or attributed to him by the writers of books, but by living in the same spirit as he, by being members of the same body, children of the same mother.
In worship, silence takes us to her bosom as her babes, nourishing us with the milk of divinity, filling us with light. When we go forth from worship in the spirit of Christ to heal those who suffer, to liberate those who are oppressed, and to proclaim good news to those who are poor and those who dwell in darkness, she goes with us as Sancta Sophia, holy wisdom, illuminating the way before us. Truly she is with us always, our mother silence, whose air we breathe, whose ripples hear: lave us all over; bathe us, O God, in thee, thou center of the true, the good, and the loving--thou center of what we are and what we can be. Bathe us in thee.
Looking up from the sand, I saw at the edge of the woods what appeared to be the skeletal remains of a large wooden pavilion. I walked across a grassy area, with three or four small grasshoppers leaping aside just ahead of each footfall, and discovered that the pavilion was a rotting trolley barn or streetcar depot. It was, in fact, the old Bay Shore Park Station, in use many decades ago when the area was a bathing and amusement resort. A wide pavement led me from the depot into the woods, to the ruins of a circular fountain. The fountain was surrounded by a walk with four arms that formed a kind of Celtic cross. Walking along the far arm of the cross, I soon came to its end in a low vault of trees and vines, and I reflected that here, years ago, would have been a vista of lawn, restaurant, and amusements.
I thought then of my grandmother riding the streetcar, perhaps sixty or seventy years ago, to a day's outing at Bay Shore Park. I thought that the day must have seemed full of promise for that young wife and mother as she boarded the streetcar with her family--that, indeed, her life was full of promise then. And then I thought of her as she is now, crippled with arthritis, unable to rise by her own strength, sitting all day in a small, dark room at a nursing home with her door half-closed against the incessant wailing of another resident--"I think it's the new arrivals who wail like that," she says. The television keeps her company day and night, and sometimes it seems to me that the sound of the television mixes with the wailing to create a bizarre prelude to her final scene. Yet the light of life and love still shines in her eyes.
Trite though it may be, I am struck by the relentless, irreversible rapidity of time and change, and by the paradox that time, while it sustains and supports our lives and seems to cradle them as I cradled the fragile crab shells in my hand, is nonetheless the great enemy of life, at least of individual forms of life. I'm reminded of the Hindu god Nataraja, the dancing Shiva, whose fiery dance both creates and destroys the universe, and whose hand is raised in the sacred gesture of fearlessness, as if to say, "Do not fear, for the dance and the dancer are one." The image of the dancing god recalls the marvelous passage in the ancient Christian gnostic scripture called The Acts of John, in which Jesus, at Gethsemane before the crucifixion, is revealed as Lord of the Dance. "Follow me in the dance," he says to his disciples. "Look upon me, and you will see yourselves, for the passion I am about to suffer is yours. Follow me in the dance, that you may learn to suffer, and learn, thereby, to not suffer." These images lead me to understand that it is through our surrendering to at-one-ment with the love that dances the universe that our time and suffering are redeemed.
A few days ago, I looked into the clear, steady eyes of a dear friend and received the sweet, silent assurance of love. I realized then, yet again, that it is love that sustains me, that enables me to go on from day to day in the face of the ravages of time, that redeems my time and my pain. Since that day, my heart has been heavy with the realization that there are countless pairs of eyes in this world that seek, that long for that sweet, silent word, that divine Logos of love, and do not receive it--not because they are willfully blind, but because someone like me, who has been blessed with a glimpse of the redeeming power and beauty of love, has chosen--out of fear or for whatever reason--to hide behind a wall of what George Fox referred to as "thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations." So I pray this morning that I be given the courage to fling my arms wide and join the Lord in the dance of crucifixion, learning in that dance the joy of suffering love, the joy that breaks down all barriers and opens my eyes to answer the love--that of God--in every one.
"Love is above all," wrote William Penn, "and when it prevails in us, we shall all be lovely and in love with God and one another." I am convinced that it is in worship that the process of love coming to prevail in us is perfected. In the purifying silence, our souls are stripped naked of defenses, desire, and resentment that we may give ourselves to each other as lovers in a spiritual marriage. In the imagery of the New Testament, the children of Adam and Eve, having been created male and female, were to cleave together and become one flesh. We, however, are also children of the new Adam, Christ, and the new Eve, the Holy Spirit. In Christ, as Paul says, there is neither male nor female, but all are one Body. In other words, our spiritual marriage, our union in love, is already accomplished; we have only to be still and allow the fire of the Inner Light to burn away the illusion of alienation. Then love will prevail in us, and in the stillness of our own hearts and minds we shall hear the calling of the torn and wounded hearts around us, imploring us to, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, "Love me, sweet friends, this Sabbath day." As our hearts are opened to each other, love's flower of compassion will appear, and we will take each other's hand, and share each other's joys and sorrows, and be for each other bringers of comfort and courage and blessing. Then we shall all be lovely and in love, knowing the joy of redemption in our sharing of the sweet pain of love's woundings.
I hadn't thought much about that experience until this morning. The image that has come to me is that it was as if all of those paradoxical states I was feeling then--states that I often would prefer to think of as coming into me from outside, but which I recognize as actually being integral elements of who I am--had been distilled into a single tear--a tear that also seemed to come to me from outside, as a gift from a God who is Other, but which certainly came from within me as well. And as I thought about this, the question arose: if God's tear was on my face, then from whose eye, really, had it been released? And immediately I recalled Meister Eckhart's saying, "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me."
I believe that I have been led to a way--not the only way, of course, but a useful way--of understanding worship as that transforming event in which, whether in the darkness of solitude or, even more beautifully, in our gathered community, we give up our thoughts and opinions and lay ourselves open to feeling the heart of the universe weeping for joy and sorrow in our own hearts, such that we may say, after Eckhart, that the heart with which we love God is the same heart with which God loves us. I am convinced that in this inner unity of love, despite the diversity and seeming contradiction of our choices when seen from the outside, there can be no conflict between our wills and the will of God.
Be inwardly still, Friends, and wait patiently upon the revelation of the living flame of love that burns in the hidden depths of our hearts. Place your hope in the purifying, enlightening, and liberating working of that occult flame, and rest in that hope, and trust that the secret life of love within us is itself the answer, ineffable but sure, to the unutterable longing of our souls.
Be at peace, Friends. The hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, is ours: love lives in our hearts now and always. In fact, that divine flame is our true heart. And our Quaker tradition is not alone in testifying that we can know this experientially, that we can be transformed and learn to live from our true center, the compassionate and just heart of Christ. If it seems that love reveals herself in her own time and in her own way, it is nonetheless true that in waiting faithfully and attentively upon her self-disclosure we discover that our waiting and her revelation are not two. For when we wait with devotion, discipline, and singleness of mind, our waiting becomes pure silence, and in pure silence the delusion that gives rise to our habitually and unconsciously self-centered, self-absorbed mode of being in the world is dissolved, and love alone remains, for only love, being self-sufficient, can abide in pure silence. Therefore, let us wait together earnestly and confidently upon the unfolding of the loveliness of our souls, that we may be in the world as the divine flame of love is within us, a seemingly small and obscure, yet irrepressible, enduring, and, indeed, essential, power for transformation, liberation, and peace.