by Pamela Richards
I have come to Quakers at the beginning of the twenty-first century, an age when the presence of traditional spiritual support is not as common as it once was. Spiritual support, like wisdom, rarely shows up when we are not looking for it. It is not that it does not exist; but the state of readiness to receive is prerequisite. There is a process of seeking, asking and knocking on doors that demands an openhearted curiosity. In seeking spiritual support, sometimes we learn to expand our community by traveling the paths of time. I have sought spiritual support in literature, in Scripture, with Friends who have passed on, from ancestors, and from Friends who have benefited from the wisdom of twentieth century elders.
In the story of Abraham, God takes Abraham to look at the night sky, and declares that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. If an individual is represented by one star, I suggest our spiritual support system is represented by a constellation. This is how humans of all cultures have viewed the night sky—as connected in meaningful patterns that tell a story. Every culture has its own sense of the meaning of these stories. Even though I live in a hilly city, I admit I am still a skygazer: I am drawn to any visible patch of night sky again and again, scanning it like the pages of a book, expecting it to spell out a story that will bring me a message from God. A moon? What part of the sky, how long after dusk, what shape? Do I recognize a constellation nearby? Looking up into the dark at night reminds me that we have all been tossed into the same sky, but not without connections: not without context. Seeking spiritual support is much like seeking the sparks of light that have been cast into our constellation with us. It is not to our own credit that we have experienced certain relationships or learned from particular Friends. It is a matter of God’s design, and a declaration of his glory.
Surprisingly, I entered my first relationship of spiritual support after I left high school and met my first Friend on the campus of a fundamentalist Bible College founded by my grandfather. I had known no Quakers growing up, and my initial introduction to Quakers had been through the writing of Catherine Marshall in the novel Christy. I felt a certain respect for the character of Alice Henderson, a nurturing and spiritually mature woman who the author contrasted against the more rigid, legalistic evangelists portrayed in the mountain setting of the book. As the granddaughter of a preacher and teacher of preachers, I already knew everything I wanted to know about their practices. It was the Quaker who intrigued me.
This summer, while I was visiting my elder and spiritual supporter Maurine Pyle, we visited a library where we were invited to select books to donate to prisoners. There I came across Christy, and I knew I’d like to ask Maurine what she thought of it. I suggested the book to Maurine, who cheerfully made a donation in exchange for a used copy of the book. More than forty years after I had first read the book, Maurine pointed out the narrative description of a clearness process between Christy, the main character, and Alice, the Quaker. And now I could see that when I first met Maurine three years previously, I already had a prototype for the nurturing presence of spiritual support we found in our friendship.
Back in 1974 when I met my first Quaker, Richard Mullins, I do not know whether my initial reading of Christy had influenced, or prepared me for the experience of spiritual support we both gained from our relationship. It became a complex and multi-faceted friendship, but for the moment I will focus on the spiritual dynamics.
What characterized the relationship as one of spiritual support? I knew it was spiritual support, but not until re-discovering Quakers thirty years later did I learn a vocabulary to describe it. I began to recognize underlying patterns in my friendship with Maurine that reminded me of Richard’s style of listening, and I asked, and sought, and knocked. A seasoned elder, Maurine reflected all of my questions as she modeled the clearness process. She helped me recognize the underlying process of spiritual support that, by God’s plan, has been unfolding throughout my life.
First, I learned that in spiritual support there is no judgement. In 1974, I was in a clear state of spiritual rebellion against my mother’s form of Christianity that had brought me to that place, but Richard considered me in all respects his spiritual equal. Frankly, I felt like everyone else on campus treated me like a freak. They were being kind, but the underlying assumption was that I was the goat, and the rest of them were all sheep. I soon became irritated by the “salvation” scripts that some students resorted to when we were alone.
By contrast, in his actions and his conversations, Richard had even invited me to act as his spiritual support before I demonstrated a commitment to any sort of spiritual calling. It was such a relief not to face harsh judgement, I instantly relaxed in his presence. He simply believed that humans are spiritual beings, and that makes us all equal regardless of our stance toward spirituality. He modeled the kind of openness that showed me how to contemplate the possibility or, later, the reality of God without sensing the threat that triggered my rebelliousness.
During our deeper conversations, we were present for one another, but more than that, we were both in the presence of the Light. I sensed, as he told me the more difficult parts of his story, that he had more to bear than I could help him with. I began reaching out for a higher source of strength. I found myself praying for my friend as he spoke and in the silences, listening for God to speak his wisdom to us as well. I sensed Richard was doing the same for me. This is a practice of spiritual support some have called “deep listening.”
In the Jewish faith, ten members—called a minyan—are required to be in company to experience the presence of God in worship. By contrast, one of the teachings of Jesus says, “Whenever two or more of you are gathered in my name, there am I in your midst.” Of course, it cannot be denied that God touches us with His presence at times when we are otherwise alone—but that experience can be so overpowering that in the moment, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend the meaning or purpose of His presence. The value of processing such an experience with a supporting Friend in the light is that it gives our experience more depth, exposes more levels of meaning, opens more potential, and affects both of us in profound ways. The fact that it only takes two to usher in the presence renders the Light more accessible, more portable and more consistent in our lives. Sometimes it takes a fellow stargazer in our constellation to help us discern which way the cosmic wind is blowing.
Deep questions—about ourselves, about the nature of God, the meaning of suffering—surfaced, requiring a response not from the mind, but from the source of wisdom within. Sometimes the answers were incomplete, simple statements of not-knowing, but answers were not the point. The questions served as a gateway to a state of openness. In turn, dwelling in a state of openness suspended our expectations, opening the way for potential in any direction. I later learned that the process of opening to unexplored potential is sometimes called “clearing space.” It is an attitude essential to the path I am currently called to, the windblown state of responsiveness to Spirit which some call “As way opens.”
Pamela Richards is a member of Community Friends Monthly Meeting in Cincinnati, and Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting. She joined the Society of Friends in 2013. She has sought out experiences of mentoring practices of Friends such as deep listening and eldership. New to traveling ministry, she has also had the joy of supporting Friends in traveling and writing ministries. Like many of us who have undertaken a study of their ancestry, she has recently discovered long-forgotten family roots among Quakers.
Editors’ note: What Canst Thou Say? is happy to share this, the lead article in the May 2017 issue. It is published here as a teaser. There is much more in the print version which will be mailed in the next few weeks and in the web version, which will soon be available on the website <whatcanstthousay.org>.