A Response to Madeline Schaefer from a Quaker Mystic

A Response to Madeline Schaefer from a Quaker Mystic

First, I appreciate the willingness to both name and discuss the division between the Mystics and the Activists in the Quaker Community of our day.  It is an issue that is close to me, as I think of myself as a mystic and often feel, to varying degrees, alienated from the activist focus of so many Quakers individuals and Quaker organizations.

My take on this is that contemporary Quaker activism is a part of the largely political and activist focus that contemporary American religion is gripped by at this time.  In other words, I see Quaker activism as the same as evangelical activism, or the activism of many Catholics, for various causes, for various legislative platforms, and for various candidates.  For example, evangelicals and Catholics will urge participation in various anti-abortion demonstrations, and support of legislation and court action to further this agenda.  In the same way Quaker activists urge participation in demonstrations for their causes and concerns, and support of legislation and court action to further their particular agenda.  I don’t see Quaker activism as being distinctive; I think of it as simply a part of what is happening in American religion in general at this time.  Both sides see activism as the ultimate goal of their religious expression; they just disagree about the particulars of the activist focus.

The greatest difficulty I have with your post is that your view is that mysticism is an adjunct to effective activism rather than an end in itself.  For example, you wrote;

“To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.”

You see, that is not how I experience the Spirit.  I don’t experience the Spirit as a ‘call to action’.  And this is the divide between the mystic and the activist.  The activist views contemplation, gathered silence, dwelling in the light, as tools for a more effective activism.  In this way these prayerful engagements are hijacked by the activist and are transformed into means rather than ends; they become tools for the activist in the same way that making a poster, or putting up a web-page are tools for effective activism.

What the activist does not comprehend about the mystic is that, for the mystic, interior prayer, gathered silence, is the leading, is the purpose, and is sufficient unto itself.  The mystic does not view these engagements as tools, or add-ons, for a political purpose. 

From the activist perspective, this is inadequate.  As Howard Brinton wrote in his ‘Introduction’ to the book ‘A Guide to True Peace’, “This solution [of interior prayer] will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists, the two groups that dominate our age.”  This is because the activist is always outward oriented and wants to see results ‘in the real world’.  In contrast, the mystic finds the realm of interior silence to be as real, or more real, than what is found by focusing outward.  In the inward turning the mystic finds a true home.

For the activist this is to ignore the suffering and injustices in the world.  But for the mystic there is the experience, which grows over time, that the silence and stillness found by turning inward is a blessing to the whole world, a blessing which does not give rise to strife and contention.  Because this blessing is not palpable or measurable in material terms, the activist tends to dismiss this.  Personally, though, I have come to comprehend that the turning inward of the mystic is the most that I can do for other people.  Not that I have that particular motivation for turning inward.  Rather, that blessing is a consequence of the grace that such turning opens to.

In closing, again, I would like to express my gratitude for bringing up the division.  It is, in large part, I feel, unaddressed in Quaker communities these days.  I wonder if modern Quakers can find a place for those called to a mystic practice that does not involve activism.  Is there room in the modern Quaker community for something like a Quaker Hermit, or a Quaker Recluse?  I’m not sure, but it is my hope that room can be made for such a leading, for such a calling.



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Comment by Paul Klinkman on 4th mo. 4, 2014 at 1:06pm

From Jim:  "From my perspective, that is not honoring mysticism; rather it is subordinating mysticism to other functions."

From Julianna:  Worship is the point, mysticism is the means. 

I don't mind sharing this emphasis among Friends, except that I see a real-world problem.  Through much of history the Judeo-Christian religion was stuffed into this small box of "mysticism", as opposed to having any real political or social significance.  By and large, people called activists have already greatly struggled within themselves and have decided that something absolutely needs changing, no more buts or ifs.  To insist that worship is the only point and activism isn't will be difficult for these people to swallow, if they have seen too much of the empty and meaningless form of worship in their lifetimes.

I grew up with an issue of Christian words being preached with plenty of emotion, but not actually being followed.  There was a rough divorce, no violence, but rougher than most. 

Comment by Julianna Flynn on 4th mo. 4, 2014 at 1:43pm

From Paul:  "I don't mind sharing this emphasis among Friends"... and...  "To insist that worship is the only point and activism isn't will be difficult for these people to swallow, if they have seen too much of the empty and meaningless form of worship in their lifetimes."

What is a Friend's Meeting for, if not for Friends? Should we be something other than what we are at our own meetings so as not to offend anyone who might attend?  How do we attract new Friends by acting other than what we are? 

I don't mean to denigrate activism as such.  I mean to point out that activism is not worship.  If you have been following any of the latest research on the unintended consequences of charity work in the third world, you will see that our best intentions and our best thinking often do more harm than good.  

There is nothing "empty" about opening to the Holy Spirit and really connecting, really listening to that Wisdom.  If you and I were in a room talking about this subject and I was spending my time thinking about what to say next, or focused on another subject, I would not be present to you, nor listening to you, though my body and ears were present.  What is more important than our Communion with God?  What wisdom do we have that is more profound than that Divine Wisdom?  Who is fit to direct the Holy Spirit?  What is more empty than worship that ignores the very Spirit we seek?

There are many places and times where people can explore and share their hope to change the world.  There are increasingly few where we can find communion with the Sacred in this world.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 4th mo. 4, 2014 at 4:49pm

From Paul:

 don't mind sharing this emphasis among Friends, except that I see a real-world problem.  Through much of history the Judeo-Christian religion was stuffed into this small box of "mysticism", as opposed to having any real political or social significance.  By and large, people called activists have already greatly struggled within themselves and have decided that something absolutely needs changing, no more buts or ifs.  To insist that worship is the only point and activism isn't will be difficult for these people to swallow, if they have seen too much of the empty and meaningless form of worship in their lifetimes.

Those of us today who share the early Quaker experience of and faith in a consciousness anchored in and a conscience informed by the immediacy Christ's presence which is the sufficient spiritual guide in all things, experience a way of being in the world and among the worldly polity that frees them from belief and trust in outward political and religious forms. There experience is one of coming out of a "small box" of faith in outward forms and activities. This is the unique testimony of the Quaker experience. A consciousness and conscience in unmediated direct experience and communion with Presence that is both God and personal identity in the same moment. It is the self-conscious ego anchored in Presence itself ... the embrace of God and the realm of Heaven manifested individually and in gathering. Living this Life is activism outside of the small box.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 5, 2014 at 11:02am

Paul, I think I understand where you are coming from.  I grew up in a secular home, so I didn't have the kind of conflict you refer to.  It took me a long time to understand how significant such a conflict can be for people who have gone through it.  But I finally got it.  There is a lot of preaching of certain Christian ideals which does not manifest in changed behavior.  How many Christians love their enemies?, or turn the other cheek?  To ask the question is to answer it an in obvious way.  So I can understand why this kind of experience supports a more activist turn and leading.  That makes sense to me.

From my perspective, though, from my different background, what attracted me to Christianity, and to the Quaker community was the contemplative dimension of its history (both the general history and the specific history of Quakers).  I have a long history of activism, from civil rights and the Vietnam War to other causes and concerns.  And I have absolutely no regret about the time I spent in those endeavors.  Because of this I can understand the attraction of activism. 

But what I am raising is the queston of what we consider central to the Quaker Way.  I don't consider activism to be at the heart of Quaker Faith and Practice.  It can be a consequence, but it might not be.  I think of the heart of Quaker Faith and Practice as entering into the inner light, awakening to it, and over time becoming more at home there.  I think of the inner light as the presence of eternity in the ephemeral individual and it is that presence, and the path to that presence, that the Quaker community gently guides people to. 

It has been revealing to me to read early Quaker works, particularly from the period of Quietism; I am thinking of Hugh Turford, or William Shewen, or the 'Guide to True Peace'.  These works are focused on assisting people in their journey, but they have nothing, or almost nothing, to say about activism, about causes and political concerns.  This has been helpful to me in comprehending that the political focus of modern Quakers is something that is kind of a modern take and not, in my opinion, central to living a Quaker life.

I think both sides, the mystics and the activists, need to treat each other tenderly and with opennes of heart.  I think it is a good thing that the conversation seems to have started.


Comment by Paul Klinkman on 4th mo. 5, 2014 at 8:37pm

Implicit in the "mysticism first" argument is a principle that bad things never happen among Friends and neither does fakeness.   One thing that I like about activist Friends (always noting that it's better described as a both or neither question, not one or the other) is that they live their faith.  That moves people.

I value activism.  I value mysticism.  I value them both working together.  One of the benefits of the two of them both working together is that religion is harder to manipulate for less than holy reasons.

Friends have one inherent advantage over other religions -- they have very few hireling preachers and of them, none are getting rich.  Although the number of bureaucrats at the YM and FGC levels has crept up in the last 50 years, the Friends still don't have paid employees stationed at every meetinghouse door as do most faiths. Friends would have to go through a major rewrite to become some autocrat's cash cow.

I think that Judeo-Christian faith is generally good.  Most people can often tell the difference between true faith and some veneer of faith made up to make the big money.  The same goes with basic good works as opposed to good works done in a way that maximizes someone's profit.  The same goes with a honest love for other people, as opposed to the love-bombing occasionally used in Christian cult situations.  My sense is that it's easy enough to fake one of the three but much more difficult to fake all three credibly at the same time.

Paul wrote that wisdom in our churches is good, but there will come a time when wisdom fails.  Prophecy in our churches is also good, but there will come a time when prophecy fails also.  It's my nature to worry just a bit about the time when faith is fake, when works are worse, when love is lame and when the great temple has again been turned into a den of thieves.  All sorts of airs can be artificially generated in this modern world, just as the plant in the audience can be healed of her/his lameness with a touch every night on cue.

Friends aren't immune to putting on airs for money.  19th century Guerneyite and Hicksite Friends got into a fistfight at one yearly meeting session.  It seems that being a Friend was once worth something in financial circles.  That generation of Friends started reading each other out of meeting in the same way that certain 21st century First People tribes are reading each other out so that they can split the casino money into fewer pots. 

Friends also have a few non-monetary dark motivations.  I have good ears.  I've heard of a (rare?) case where a Friend beat his wife black and blue but still managed to remain a Friend in good standing.  Dr. Judy Brutz has studied Friends and knows of a number of child abuse cases among Friends.  I've heard of such stories as told by the victims and by family members.  I know of alcoholic Friends.  I know of infidelity.  I know of personal cat fights among Friends of both genders, and of a case where a fight spilled over into committee assignments at a meeting.  Some Friends are good at hiding everything, good or bad, behind their perfectly good looking mystic demeanor.  That's my problem with best possible world arguments, not that they aren't deeply considered, but there's that hole.

Comment by Howard Brod on 4th mo. 6, 2014 at 5:54pm

It appears to me that a regular and deep spiritual experience led some Christians to activism in the first century, as well as Christian Quakers in the seventeenth.  Call this deep spiritual experience "mysticism" (as I do) or call it a "religious experience" or call it being "born again" - whatever.  At any rate, it is a mindful indwelling of the Spirit. 

More routinely I am hearing Friends at my meeting say that at our core is a shared experience of worship, and everything else we might do as a spiritual community stems from it.  Since now explicitly saying this again and again, I've noticed increased regular participation in weekly worship.  Our old trend of most Friends coming to worship just once every one or two months (or less) appears to be giving way to a near weekly practice of worship by many.

And surprise!  Our regular shared worship experience (expectant waiting worship in our liberal meeting) is generating an increase of activity within the meeting.  Some are being led to minister more spiritually to the meeting community; others are being led to more involvement in helping those who are in need of peace - socially, mentally, physically, internally, and globally.  But it is obvious to me that at the core of our recent experience is a spiritual "revival" going on within our meeting.  This revival is leading to all types of interesting things, including mystical experiences.  Our previous "dryness" is giving way to a more supple and organic spiritual experience for Friends at meeting.

I am increasingly convinced that we Quakers just need to intentionally recapture the core spirituality of early Friends where spiritual realities are what motivated their lives in the world about them; eliminating overdone structures wherever possible and replacing these simply with connecting hearts. All other things tend to be added as the Spirit (not our egos) provide.

Comment by James C Schultz on 4th mo. 6, 2014 at 8:08pm

Paul:  You forgot to mention that Paul said Love never fails!  I think each meeting has to decide what it is being called to be and whether it is willing to be that.  Seekers have a right to know what is driving a meeting that they are thinking of attending.  The disagreements you reference all have one thing in common: a "Frank Sinatra" did it my way mind and heart and not the "Mind of Christ" advocated by Paul or the Agape Love he claimed in 1 Cor. 12:31 was the most excellent way.  It's the lack of the Mind of Christ and the failure to walk in that most excellent way that turns social concerns into political programs that appease voters, create bloated bureaucracies and most importantly serve as excuses for those who have two coats to keep them and not give one away.  Mysticism is going up that Mountain with Moses to see God and hear what he wants.  Friends are not supposed to be sending someone else up that Mountain.  That's why we don't have as many hirelings as other religious organizations.  If George Fox and company had started out in the US instead of England they would have been from Missouri, the "show me" state.  

Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 7, 2014 at 10:29am

Howard: I appreciate thy post and the focus on attending weekly worship.  I think part of the disagreement about activism vs. mysticism hinges on how we think of those two approaches.  You posted that the early Christians, or some of them, became activists.  But I don't really see that.  My view is that they set up a kind of counter-culture, a space where their community could function in love.  Later, many Christians withdrew from society; I refer to the desert fathers and mothers.  Again, this was to set up a counter-culture founded on love.  It is my feeling that the logic of withdrawal is not, at this time, comprehended by the contemporary Quaker community (or by Christians in general). 

I do not oppose activism; for those called to an activist presence in the world I wish them well.  What I am questioning is that Quaker Faith and Practice should be defined as a type of activism; I disagree with that.

Best wishes,


Comment by Julianna Flynn on 4th mo. 7, 2014 at 12:52pm

Comment by Paul Klinkman yesterday: "That generation of Friends started reading each other out of meeting in the same way that certain 21st century First People tribes are reading each other out so that they can split the casino money into fewer pots. "

This comment gave me a bit of a laugh, as I have ancestors who were voted out of Meeting, and some from one of the tribes in question.  I would suggest that there are other things going on in tribal disputes besides casino money, historic government moves against tribal sovereignty being one.  It is a deep, complex and divisive issue that needs more love and understanding all around.  This is my problem generally with activism: we often go off without knowing the full situation or the full consequences of our actions.  What if Spirit has a better way, but we are too busy acting to listen?  What if Spirit wishes us to retreat from whatever issue for reasons beyond our comprehension?  Where God leads we must follow; we must not make an idol of activism.

Comment by Howard Brod on 4th mo. 7, 2014 at 4:49pm

Just a point of clarification Jim.  I do consider spiritual evangelism as activism, which early Christians were engaged in. 

In my mind, when the indwelling Spirit acts within an individual, it might manifest either as some form of activism or some form of quietism (mystic devotion), or both.  When borne from a spiritual core, whether it is spiritual activism or social activism, it's from the same Source.

That core Source is what is so important for a religious society such as ours.


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