Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The Chasm between the Activist and the Contemplative
I can’t remember the name of the blog, but last year I read about a Meeting that decided to have a structured sharing between those who spoke often at Meeting for Worship and those who remained silent. As I recall the two groups were paired and given time to express their views of Meeting for Worship. As one might expect, those inclined to be speakers at Meeting for Worship had a lot to say, while those who inclined to silence listened politely and had a minimal response.
I believe this points to an inherent imbalance between the Activist and the Contemplative. It is an imbalance that is difficult to see. But it works like this: the Activists, inspired by their causes and commitments, feel a push, even a duty, to step into a space that might be receptive to their message, and then to present that message. Meeting for Worship, Silent Worship, is, from this perspective, an ideal setting for such messaging.
For the Contemplative, who attends Meeting for Worship in order to enter into silent prayer, it would be inappropriate to give voice to this point of view because such giving voice would obscure the silence which is the purpose of the contemplative’s presence. And in any case, the contemplative is not really disturbed by the speaking of the Activists; so there is no reason to present a different perspective.
Thus there is an inherent imbalance; the contemplative perspective is more difficult to find or to hear because by the very nature of the contemplative life, which involves an inward turning, there is a reluctance to speak. Inward silence, assisted by outward silence, is the reason for the contemplative’s presence at Meeting for Worship and this is best accomplished by embodying that silence.
From the perspective of the activist such a stance is almost incomprehensible. In the 14th century classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ the anonymous author writes, “Whenever anyone turns aside from the business of the world in order to give more time to prayer and meditation, others who do not share this interest will grumble. Family and friends will speak out sharply against what they interpret as ‘idleness.’ Because they do not observe any outward activity, they assume nothing is happening.” (Section 18, page 30, Bernard Bangley edition, published by Christian Classics) For the activist silent prayer is a means to support more effective activity towards a goal. For the contemplative silent prayer is the goal. This is the chasm which separates the two.
In the 1946 edition (reprinted by Pendle Hill in 1979), of ‘A Guide to True Peace’, Howard Brinton writes in his ‘Introduction’ that the contemplative solution of turning inwards “ . . . will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists, the two groups that dominate our age.” (Page ix) I believe Brinton is here pointing to the same chasm which separates the contemplative from the activist today, and which the author of the ‘Cloud’ commented on centuries ago.
Does this means that the gap between the two is unbridgeable? I’m not sure. But it is my view that without the contemplative foundation the Quaker tradition will simply become an adjunct to various and sundry causes of the moment. What is needed, I think, is some kind of vessel, some means, for holding the contemplative perspective and practice of the Quaker tradition; a vessel which can hold these teachings and practices and pass them on to others. I’m not sure how best to do this. Perhaps study groups specifically devoted to the contemplative perspective as found in the Quaker tradition (e.g. ‘A Guide to True Peace’), or perhaps a more monastically inclined Quaker group devoted to such faith and practice.
In the past Quaker contemplatives could count on a culture which valued its distinctiveness in terms of speech, dress, and way of life. And this distinctiveness served as a vessel which could hold the contemplative dimension of Quaker Faith and Practice. With those distinctive features almost completely gone the contemplative dimension of Quaker Faith and Practice has become, to a significant extent, hidden; almost as if being a contemplative belonged with plain speech and plain dress, so that when those were given up a contemplative dimension was given up as well.
I think the first step is to recover the writings and views from the Quaker Quietists of the past; to find out what they said as opposed to modern historians’ views of what the period of Quietism means. When I have stumbled upon this material I have found it to be amazingly articulate and clear. They really knew what they were talking about; they knew ‘experimentally’, as they would have said. Upon this foundation we can, perhaps, recover the ‘true peace’ which is the fountainhead of the Quaker tradition; a timeless spring of light nourishing all who awaken to its presence.