Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
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.