Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The Activity of Prayer
Martin recently featured a post on the ‘Spiritual/Activist’ divide amongst Friends. It is from a blog by Lynn, a birthright Quaker whose blog, ‘The Friendly Seeker’, is thoughtful and insightful. Lynn’s post is called ‘Corporate Witness’ and it can be found here:
Because I find myself on the ‘spiritual’ side of this divide, and because I have written about this before, I thought I would make a few comments on Lynn’s perspective. These are off the cuff, conversational, and are not meant to be systematic or definitive.
The overall impression I get from the post is that a truly integrated Quaker spirituality will naturally include activism as a component. This is expressed in the opening quote which includes, ‘The unfortunate tendency among some Quakers is to separate prayer and action rather than to integrate them.’ And this continues through the post, right into the last paragraph where Lynn highlights the idea of ‘activism as a species of worship’.
My first feeling about this is that the post seems to me to be from the perspective of activism rather than from the contemplative perspective. Why do I say this? Because prayer is not seen as an activity; rather contemplation is seen as something that needs to be justified by activist application. For example, in the opening quote it says ‘Sometimes those who pray do not act, and those who act do not pray.’
What I want to suggest is that prayer is an activity; it is not doing nothing. This is something which the dominant activist view among Quakers today finds difficult to acknowledge. When the activist argues for ‘doing something’ what they are actually arguing for is doing something in particular; such as joining their group, advocating for certain legislation, joining a demonstration such as the recent action on climate change, etc. Notice that none of these activities include the activity of prayer. Again, prayer is doing something. I would argue that prayer is the best that one can do in any situation.
What I am getting at is that activists have a constricted sense of what constitutes ‘activity’ and ‘doing something’. I think this is why there is a sense among contemplatives that when they talk to activists there is a lack of comprehension, an inability on the part of activists to comprehend the contemplatives’ perspective. When the contemplative withdraws and enters into prayer, the contemplative definitely feels that they are doing something. It does not feel like an evasion. And it doesn’t feel like something that needs to be ‘integrated’ with overt activism. For the contemplative, a life of prayer feels complete and does not need additional justifications.
What I feel is lacking on the part of activists is a sense of ‘calling’. Paul talks about spiritual gifts which come in a variety of talents or callings, what Quakers might call ‘leadings’; that some are gifted with preaching and some are gifted with a prophetic mission, etc. Paul’s openness to individual fields of expression, I feel, would be helpful here. If the contemplative has a calling for withdrawal into prayer, then it serves the whole community to hold that calling and honor it, rather than undermine it by insisting that it take on specific activist forms.
In closing I want to say that I am grateful to those who speak openly about the spiritual/activist divide. I would like to see both of these perspectives given more space to flourish.