Practical Mystics

When I came to Quakers, some fifteen years ago, it was in answer to an insistent inner call, to assuage a turmoil that I did not understand, but that would not be denied. I had not been looking for a community and it was not until later that I realised that I had found one. Not wishing my social self to trample on the eggshells of something so tender and new, I didn’t engage with others for the first few weeks. But I borrowed books, and what I found amazed me. I had not realised religion could be like this. Not a dogma to sign up to, not the repeating of words written by others, but simply – and crucially – a requirement to be my authentic self. It was a dark time in my life, and a time when I was increasingly uneasy in the world of publishing in which I had worked for many years, the last fourteen as an independent literary agent. The celebrity culture and bottom-line mentality were eroding the ethos that had originally drawn me. As I gradually found a home among Quakers, it became clear that I needed to sell my business. I had no idea what I would do, and, for the first time in my life, it didn’t matter. Letting go of the need to know, allowing trust to replace control, was a new way of living. I wondered why it had taken so long. And meeting individual Quakers revived my youthful idealism. Always upset by poverty and injustice, my childish suggestions of sending tins of food to Africa by boat had been met by the insistence of friends, family and society that such things were beyond our power to change. ‘We can’t make a difference; there’s nothing we can do.’ But the people I was now meeting believed otherwise. In small, local ways, most were at work: volunteering for this, campaigning for that. And I was liberated to believe that in my own way I too might make some difference. I was electrified, released from the dead hand of hopelessness. Quakers are sometimes called ‘practical mystics’. It was a sense of the ‘mystic’ – a direct relationship with the Divine – that had called me, but the practical, in ways entirely new to me, was not long in catching up. For the Spirit we listen for, are waiting on, in Meeting for Worship is a dynamic one: its whispers are promptings to take love and truth out into the world, to heal it. As saint James wrote: ‘What good is it, my Friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it?’ (James 2:14). The relationship between worship and our witness in the world is indivisible; we all stand on a spectrum between contemplation and engagement, the balance renegotiated by each of us at different times of our lives. It is not that having faith leads us to action: each feeds the other. Indeed, it could be said that there is no separation. Prayer is action; faith is inherent in our engagement in the world. We express our faith in how we live our lives, how we are in the world, as patterns and examples. The Quaker way is a holistic one: faith consumes our lives. Jennifer Kavanagh is a member of London West Area Meeting, and the author of The World is our Cloister and The O of Home. She will co-facilitate a workshop on ‘Finding the Balance’ at Woodbrooke Study Centre over the New Year. From: The Friend, UK

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