Notes on a Quaker Meditative, Contemplative Approach to Reading and Understanding Texts
These are various notes about the practice of monthly Adult Education Reading Groups sponsored by the Adult Education Committee of Santa Monica Friends Meeting
Compiled by Stanford J. Searl, Jr., Co-Clerk of Santa Monica’s Adult Education Committee
What are the central compulsions, the tensions, the thrust and major themes about the kind of contemplative reading that Quakers do? Why is this process so vital and compelling? Why is it so moving?
I. There’s something about the process of engagement together with texts as Quakers: it feels like diving into deep waters, plunging into submerged caves beneath the water. It’s like free diving or improvised diving, but not for shellfish or anything, something elusive and yet right in front of one. I imagine stepping back onto the foundational rocks of Lake Rescue’s Red Bridge near my boyhood home in Vermont and diving, over and over again, plunging into the fresh water, with the spray dripping around my head and using butterfly strokes to get over to the forbidden raft. So it’s about exploration, searching and finding that sort of thing as well as an embodied quality of alternative ways of knowing and being.
II. This is a spiritual discipline but it’s a little paradoxical because there aren’t really any explicit, set rules. It’s very Quaker in this way. One needs to tease out the rules or the overall approach, so that one of the primary challenges of such an approach is to name it, to identify the spiritual approach. So, this approach has a number of dimensions or qualities.
• There’s a spiritual, personal and Quaker discipline of listening deeply. In this way, the silence matters; this is a form of worship after all, waiting and listening, similar or parallel to worship, in which one waits upon the Spirit. This is a layered matter in itself because while there’s a personal, inner dimension of this Quaker spiritual approach, there’s additional guidance that’s not wholly personal or subjective. This is a paradox. Quakers rely about inner guidance from what participants call the Inner Light or Inner Teacher or Guide. This is problematic and need to be clarified; yet, it’s at the heart and soul of Quaker spiritual discipline and worship.
• In these sessions, participants explore what it means to trust the Inner Light and the Inner Guide. Who are the key people to think about? What does this mean? Paul Lacey has a pamphlet and there are others. This needs to be opened up and explained.
• Another dimension of this spiritual discipline is what it means to follow the path of love and compassion in one’s responses to texts and to the depth of one’s experiences. This is difficult and complex but means that Quakers pray and intend that the Light (or Spirit or God or the Divine or Seed) show the way. Be willing to follow and submit to the Light and its ways to discern the Truth of one’s experience. It’s a mystery but best guided by prayer.
• In the midst of the layers, one of the dimensions of this Quaker spiritual discipline is the exercise of being open, becoming a vessel of reception, one that can receive inspiration and guidance. This is a version of “not my will but thine oh Lord” and means that this part of the discipline means that people are willing to let go of their egos and are willing to be guided and that Friends can submit to the Spirit.
• On the negative or critical side of this process of discernment, this discipline means that there are explicit strictures against personal arguments, an engagement in quibbles about words, the typical academic critiques of words and their meanings. Friends pray to let most of these argumentative approaches go.
• There’s a communal or group dimension of this spiritual discipline that’s revealing. Participants are willing to be carried and to carry meanings. Participants construct the meaning of the texts and of our own lives, together. This means that we use the same spiritual discipline of listening, being open and so forth to the verbal contributions of others. But, even so, the main point of the meanings is not the words, but the reality or truth beneath the words.
1. Gather the materials notes and illustrations from our actual illustrations.
2. Go back and forth from lovely (or not) texts and illustrations.
3. I Have a couple of overall arguments:
• This kind of contemplative interpretative reading assesses deep places in one’s experience, body and soul and mind, in some kind of integrative manner. People pray to be open to Inner Guidance, to the Light, the Source, and the Presence, whatever. Participants allow one’s life, guided by the Spirit – to speak. Friends bring together and allow the different Quakers readings to penetrate into the marrow of one’s life and body. Be open to these texts and are willing to have them enter fully into one’s imagination.
• These sessions are about how to live with integrity, relying about the drama and trauma of real life and laying out or being willing to be vulnerable and tender.
• Live one’s dreams and dream one’s way into life, as HDT wrote in Walden to suck the marrow out of life. God himself culminates in the present moment.
• It’s ok to celebrate these simple, small-group learnings as ways to realize what it means to be guided; we worship together in multiple ways; participants listen deeply to one another and create community; we are in love with devotion and prayer; it’s ok to go to the well of wisdom and there is such a thing as the well and of wisdom; it’s ok to hope and affirm our lives together and not be depressed and hopeless; it’s ok to be used and to get onto alternative forms of transport; we are on a spiritual journey together after all.
• It’s all sifted and sorted through the body, experiential knowing, memory, joys and sorrows and real life.
• It’s a communal or group discernment process, with contributions adding up because of deep listening and valuing of others and their contributions.
• It’s an integrative process, one that privileges heart-knowing, a Quaker distinctive.
• It’s a form of ministry and has layers and depth like in ministry.
• It’s a form of love in action.
• The texts are launching pads for explorations from each and from the group.
• Intention and prayer matter greatly. It’s ok to listen and be present to the texts and to one another. We are all exts, as it were, open to deepest yearnings.
• Participants care about community and listen to others with respect and prayerful obedience.
• There’s a focus on the here and now, open to the present moment of experience, yet connected to others and their comments/experiences as well.
• Texts are useful as springboards for experiences.
• If the texts are devotional, poetic, deeply felt as well, this encourages participants to go more deeply in their responses.
• It’s ok for the texts to flow into one’s own heart and soul and mind.
• It’s not about typical arguments or critiques or challenges of interpretation. All responses are taken in as if equal.
• Texts allow participants to be open and devotional themselves, whatever the text.
• It’s ok to forage and be on a personal, spiritual adventure.
• Dreams and musings are fine and encouraged by other people’s responses.
1. This is radical work, going to the roots of human experience: something’s potentially unified and whole.
2. We read and respond and experience about Quaker people who were willing to be guided as vehicles of the Spirit, immediately, influenced by the Divine and the Light. See the hymn, “Breathe on us, breath of God.”
3. In many instances, the texts themselves engage (or are offerings or such) participants to find their own way and to be guided.
4. Some of the wisdom teachers from a Quaker tradition offer a certain wisdom, mostly about being willing to be guided and covered in grace.
5. What are the illustrations from various texts and how do I weave these into the mix?
• Fox’s Journal of course: prophetic and of God; it’s a visionary music and prose that’s amazing and wonderful and sticks in the heart and soul.
• Brinton’s Friends for Three Hundred Years and the voice of Quaker wisdom, a group mysticism and the experience of the Divine together.
• These are passageways and portals and openings into an alternative world of Spirit and informed imagination.
• Heales and Cook encourage readers to sink down into the silence and become silence carriers.