Interpreting Our Past – Part 3

 The Logic of Withdrawal

 The period of Quietism is marked by a sense of withdrawal from the social sphere.  This should not be exaggerated as Quakers did continue to be involved in various political causes and concerns, notably the abolition of slavery.  Still, relatively speaking, Quakers in the period of Quietism became more inward, more contemplative, and less engaged with the specifically political. 

 I’m not a very learned Quaker historian, but there seem to be two factors which encouraged this relative withdrawal.  The first was the passage of the acts of toleration in England which removed the worst of the legal threats to Quakers in England.  These were passed in 1689.  It is true that Quakers were still barred from various professions and higher education, but the threat of mass imprisonment and the most overt types of persecution had come to an end. 

 The second, which happened some decades later, was the withdrawal of Quakers from the legislature in Pennsylvania, and other colonial governments.  This happened due to Quaker concerns with how political involvement would make it difficult, or impossible, to live their lives in accordance with their religious principles.

 I believe there is a parallel in Christian history that applies to the inward turning of the period of Quaker Quietism.  I am referring to the period of the Desert Fathers, which took place after the Christian Church was freed from persecution when Constantine granted Christianity legitimacy.  The parallel here is intriguing: the lifting of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire lead to a flight to the desert among some Christians who sought to retain the primitive and devout nature of early Christian practice.  In a similar way, the inward turning of Quaker Quietism happened after the persecutions of the Quaker people in England were lifted and a Quaker presence was tolerated.

 There are other similarities.  Both the Quietists and the Desert Fathers developed a concern with ascetic behaviors and practices.  Though the specifics of these practices differ, I sense a common, unifying focus in each case.  The worldly is to be avoided because it is corrupting.  Quakers eschewed music, games, alcohol, dancing, novels, fashionable clothing, etc., because they wanted to maintain an inward focus on the Divine.  The ascetic nature of Quaker Discipline at that time functioned as a kind of lens to keep that focus.

 In a similar way, the Desert Fathers rejected worldly involvements and physically withdrew into the desert so that they could retain their focus on the Divine. 

 There are differences between the two groups.  The most obvious is that the Desert Fathers practiced celibacy as part of their program of renunciation.  In contrast, the Quaker Quietists were family-centered.  This is a significant difference, yet I don’t think this difference should be overemphasized.  There is an underlying ‘logic of withdrawal’ from the world which, when one compares the two movements, is surprisingly congruent.

 What is that logic?  I would like to suggest a possible mode of interpretation for understanding this impulse to withdraw from worldly concerns.  If one understands that the purpose of religion is to awaken to that which is eternal, if one understands the presence of Eternity as the primary focus of faith and practice, then the logic of withdrawal makes sense.  It makes sense because nothing in this world is eternal; everything that we perceive will pass away.  There are psalms that speak to this.  And the Book of Ecclesiastes is also, in part, an extended meditation on the ‘vanity’ of the world.  ‘Vanity’ in the sense that nothing we will do in the world will, ultimately, last.

 If one thinks of God as having characteristics that one can contemplate, and that contemplating these characteristics brings us closer to God, a primary characteristic of God is His eternity.  God is eternal.  Yet nothing in this world is eternal, and because of this to draw closer to God requires us to turn away from the things of the world and to turn to the presence of eternity.

 I would like to suggest that the inward light that Quakers speak of is the presence of eternity in the ephemeral individual.  That is to say the inward light is the grace of this eternal Presence freely given to the passing shadow known as human life.  And it is this Presence which gives our lives meaning and worth.

 I believe that both the Desert Fathers and the Quaker Quietists share this underlying understanding.  As it says in Chapter 1 of ‘A Guide to True Peace’,

 “We must retire from all outward objects, and silence all the desires and wandering imaginations of the mind that in this profound silence of the whole soul, we may hearken to the ineffable voice of the Divine Teacher.”

 This is a view that the Desert Fathers would have readily understood.  This is a view that the Desert Fathers would have accepted and advocated.  And it is a view and perspective which, I feel, is at the heart of what it means to be a Quaker.


Views: 456

Comment by Keith Saylor on 6th mo. 9, 2014 at 6:28pm

Hello Jim,

First, thank you for your first three installments. I have read them with interest. I wonder whether you would be willing to explore further your quote from "A Guide to True Peace."

“We must retire from all outward objects, and silence all the desires and wandering imaginations of the mind that in this profound silence of the whole soul, we may hearken to the ineffable voice of the Divine Teacher.”

I'm interested your experience and testimony of Being that is retired from all outward objects and a mind silent to desires and wandering imagination? Would you affirm that the Voice is detectable, that is gleaned or gathered inward, even in unretired circumstances wherein the individual is saturated with outward objects and wandering imaginations coming to him or her from other individuals and their own imaginations? In other words, would you affirm or open to the inward Voice experienced even in the midst of a crowd of outward happenings; so that Being that is retired from outward objects, desires, thoughts, and feelings is not necessarily retired physically, but is, in fact, right in the midst of it all and knows and experienced the gatherings and callings of the Voice in the midst of a crowd and in all circumstances and situations whether retired or unretired?

BTW, I'm going to spend time this evening reading "A Guide to True Peace." 

Thanks again,


Comment by Keith Saylor on 6th mo. 10, 2014 at 10:13am
I'm speaking to Being that is retired from the outward while still physically immersed in it.
Comment by Jim Wilson on 6th mo. 10, 2014 at 10:29am

Good Morning Keith:

Your question is a good one.  My response is going to be a bit complicated.

As an ideal I think that it is possible to be aware and grounded in the Presence under any circumstances.  And as an ideal I think it is a wonderful thing.  The problem is, I am not able to live up to that ideal.  And my observation is that most people are like me.  By that I mean that the ordinary distractions of the day, problems at work, the everyday stresses and distractions, pull one's (my) attention away from that Presence.  It is for this reason that most of us need to set aside specific times and occasions to reconnect with the Presence.

Now, there may be a few Saints and Sages who are able to maintain that sense of presence under any and all conditions.  I believe that is the case; but I am not one of those Saints or Sages.  Books like the 'Guide' are not written for Saints and Sages.  The 'Guide' is written for ordinary people living ordinary lives.  Ordinary people who know their own limitations and that their abilities in spiritual matters are not as expansive as an abstract ideal.  I think that is why the 'Guide' was so popular for over 100 years (and continues to have a wide audience). 

One of the difficulties in talking about this is that the tendency is to speak about this kind of practice in terms of cause and effect.  The prayer of inward silence does not cause our awareness of Presence.  The 'Guide' speaks to this point.  The Presence cannot be manipulated or coerced into presenting itself.  And there will be times when the prayer of inward silence seems dry and unproductive.  An entire chapter is devoted to this.

But the virute of turning inward is that as long as one is fixated on outward forms and concerns, no matter how noble they may be, those concerns will tend to mask the Presence.  I think this is because the Presence of the Light is subtle.  My view is that the Light is the Presence of Eternity; but for something to be eternal it cannot be a visual manifestation because all visual manifestations are impermanent.  It cannot be a sonic manifestation because all sounds disappear.  The Light is 'beyond any affirmation or negation', as Dionysius says.  It is utterly transcendental and utterly simple.  Yet, at the same time, elusive and omnipresent.

So my overall view is that as an ideal, resting is the Presence is possible 'in the midst of a crowd and in all cricumstances and situations whether retired or unretired.'  But as a practical matter, though I have tried for many years, I am not able to accomplish such lucidity.  That is why I go to Meeting for Worship; for the support that gathered silence lends in re-engaging with that silence and Presence.

I hope this is helpful.

Best wishes,


Comment by Keith Saylor on 6th mo. 10, 2014 at 12:43pm

Thank you for your thoughts Jim. Presence illuminating consciousness in all moments of the day is open to all people in all circumstances. The more it fills the emptiness of Being and replaces disciplines and becomes Discipline in itself, the more natural the inward Light becomes in the shining in all moments.

Presence is the natural birth right of human Being. When the remnant of unnatural outward discipline and codes is replaced with that of Discipline itself this the natural state of human being is consumated.

This morning I had things to do in town so I rode my bike and gave it over to Presence. T one point I purchased a breakfast sandwich greeting all I met in the presence of Christ. While sitting near a busy rode Christ's presence was so strong with me that even the multitudes of semi-finals rumbling past could not dim the inward Light. It is such a blessing to know Presence even in the cares and conerns of the day. It isn't saintly to me ... it just is a natural way of Life.

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 6th mo. 10, 2014 at 2:34pm

The hoped for progression from self-imposed discipline to the living law of Presence is recognized in Scriptures in the character of John the Baptist, who is the ascetic, moving toward the state of Christ Jesus, who is the fulfillment. The verse that I think most simply and clearly shows this intended movement is John 3:30: "He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease." Although John is referring to his work and place in society, his statement might also apply to us who recognize and desire the ideal of receiving Christ Within but receive him only intermittently.

Comment by Keith Saylor on 6th mo. 10, 2014 at 4:42pm
I know I pushed the envelope. Sometimes I am so enraptured by the grace of Presence. It is so wonderful to experience and feel the Life permeating throughout the whole of my day to day activities. It is being in Meeting almost perpetually.

Yours words are valid. I respect the caution in them.
Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 6th mo. 10, 2014 at 5:08pm

I didn't intend to caution you, Keith. Your witness of being in the Presence rings true, as I've said before. And George Fox also spoke of coming into the state of Christ Jesus, "a more steadfast state than Adam's in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus, that should never fall." One of the images that the first Friends used was "the refiner's fire," which conveys the purification of consciousness that must occur, and does occur when our intention is to be grounded in truth for the love of it alone. It's this awful forgetfulness that both the desert fathers/mothers and early Quakers identified as the problem preventing the unity in the Spirit. Thanks, Jim, for writing of the similarities between the two groups.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 6th mo. 11, 2014 at 10:22am

Good Morning:

Kieth, thanks for your thoughtful reply. But most people have a different experience with the Presence.  Most people are more like Paul who struggled with his experience which seems to have ebbed and flowed.  Paul talks about seeing 'through a glass darkly' and how he is pulled to do that which he would not do.  And I think this describes most of us; we see the Presence dimly.  Sometimes we have strong experiences of clarity, but then that sense of Presence fades.  And sometimes we see dimly, approximately, as through a fog.  The 'Guide' addresses these periods of dryness, where we sense the absence of the Presence.  Chpater 6 'On Spiritual Dryness' in particular explores this.  And I think this is very wise becaues for most of us that is the reality of how we engage with the Presence in our lives.

Patricia: Ascetic theology is rooted in a number of sources, particularly the life of Jesus and those episodes where He goes off into the desert to pray.  And scriptural references such as 'My kingdom is not of this world' also support an ascetic stance.  John's Gospel and Letters (e.g. 'do not love the world') are also rich resources for ascetic theology.

Best wishes,


Comment by John Potter on 6th mo. 11, 2014 at 10:47pm

It is important to recognize that separation from the world and connection with God are joined together.  They work as a bond, not separate.  Both movements, the desert fathers and Quietism, make that distinction.  Many faiths will emphasize the first and ignore the latter. Doing so cheapens the journey and leaves one desperately seeking something other than Christ for a connection.  

Comment by Keith Saylor on 6th mo. 12, 2014 at 7:10am

Would you expound further on what the phrases "separation fron the world" and "connection with God" mean to you in your daily experience?


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