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:

http://thefriendlyseeker.blogspot.com/2014/09/corporate-witness.html

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.

 

 

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Comment by William F Rushby on 10th mo. 2, 2014 at 1:15pm

Hello, Jim!

My reaction to the "Friendly Seeker" essay is similar to yours; I questioned the way the issue was framed.  However, I couldn't put my uneasiness into words with the kind of incisiveness that you achieved.  Thanks for the insightful comment.

Comment by Robben Wainer on 10th mo. 4, 2014 at 2:02pm

Hello,

As we seem to have developed a sense based on the quality of faith, I may comment that my Quaker family has prompted me to ask these two questions that ring almost in reverse which are, am I not my Brothers Keeper, and I am not my Brothers Keeper. One question that evolves in meetings is if the Quakers are open to a diversity of faiths and backgrounds, can it be said that every time a group is held to worship in silence they are observing their faith in accordance with the values of the Friends Meetings for Worship, within the Religious Society of Friends. I ask this question not to be exclusive, but to give rise to the personal struggles each individual Quaker has with their own faith. My struggles recently have been with letting go or quite frankly breaking connections with my biological family to insure the possibility of a long term relationship with my significant other and partner. My wife and I worship one God who is Adonai. I believe my faith is deeply felt within the Quaker community. My partner says I am her intention in worship and practice. My point or question then is if the religious society of Friends is inclusive rather than exclusive, is it possible to be faithful having been mislead by our own misgivings. That is do we feel so much greater than thou that we can walk freely into any service and expect the group to accommodate, and invite us in simply based on our own merit and virtue. As circumstances would have it our struggles with faith include those who seem to have no other calling other than a subordinate release of grief  by those who have faith but question that of others.

Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 10th mo. 7, 2014 at 12:20am

To use a Biblical example, we need Mary and Martha. I believe the healthiest of us move back and forth between being active in the world and being active prayer (I make no claims to being among the healthiest). The emphasis changes as we move through different periods of our lives.

D0rothee Soelle, a German theologian, activist in both peace and ecological issues, declared that mysticism is resistance. 

Comment by Jim Wilson on 10th mo. 8, 2014 at 1:06pm

Stephanie, thanks for referencing that classic Mary and Martha story.  I don't know why I haven't thought of it before in these discussions about the activis/contemplative divide.  On a personal note, I have a long involvement as an activist and I have no regrets about that.  At this point in my life, though, it is the contemplative way that calls to me.  So I resonate with your observation about there being a kind of movement back and forth as we make our journey through life.

I'm not against activism.  What I question is the tendency these days (among Quakers, but also in the larger culture as well) to define Quaker Faith and Practice in activist terms; as if activism is a defining feature of Quaker life.  And I question the idea that a contemplative practice is only complete if it is in some way linked to overt activist participation.  I think that is a narrow view of what the Quaker tradition has to offer.

Thanks again,

Jim

Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 10th mo. 9, 2014 at 12:09am

I'm probably a bit of a stereo type. My teens and twenties were my most activist year. In middle age I find myself weary of the high volume rhetoric and much more inclined to prayer. 

I think activism would be more effective if it the had a clearer, stronger spiritual base. Read Sojourner's Magazine and you'll find a good mix of both elements. And it leaves me with more hope than most Quaker writings do. 

Was it Woolman who said "love was the first motion"?

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