Light, Right, and Unity

A discussion at the “One Quaker Take” blog has reminded me of another bit of vocal ministry, this one from October of 1992, that I transcribed into my journal after delivery. The message, like some others of mine from that period, is theistic in tone: in those days, I felt free more often to use theopoetic language without explaining myself, especially in my home meeting where I was well known. The message was given some minutes after a ministering Friend had asserted, as I understood him, that those who are led by the Light must oppose abortion. Considering his experience, mine, and others’, I saw that obedience to the guidance of the Christ-light of love is no guarantee that we are right or that we will agree, even on crucial issues, with others who are also obedient to that light. I know that that’s a heretical view in Quakerism, but—here’s an irony—it’s what the light of love led me to as I opened in empathy. It became evident to me that, even when we sincerely discern and respond to the promptings of love in our hearts, we can have no assurance that we’re right. We can always challenge and help ourselves and each other to clearer vision, but life is messy and morally ambiguous, and our vision, no matter how sharp and broad, is quite limited. The whole eludes us; we can judge with certainty neither self nor other. Who is absolutely right? That’s not for us to know.

In this exceedingly dark world, the light of Christ is as a candle for our all-too-finite vision—beautiful, bright, strong, and pure, but only a candle. It seems, then, that wisdom is not in seeing and judging but in walking, and walking gently, in our measure of light, always aware that any measure is finite and relative, and always open to being changed, even when we’re convinced that we’re right, as love’s fragile light expands our horizons while yet illuminating our limits. (Is that not included in our doctrine of “continuing revelation”?) Walking gently—and yes, even cheerfully—in our measure, we walk no longer in certainty but in the faith and hope of love. That’s probably as right as we can be, the postmodern perfection of the saints. Walking thus, even while disagreeing about this or that seemingly essential issue, we are, each and all and none the less, members of the one body of Christ.

Here’s that vocal ministry from 1992:

One day during Yearly Meeting in August, there was a brief but heavy rainstorm. Later, in the gloaming, I walked the damp brick paths that crossed the campus in Chambersburg, past flowers flecked with rain in the evening’s hush, and, as darkness fell, lay across a wooden swing suspended from a small tree. The tree stood near the dimly-lit doorway of a building some distance from the activities of Yearly Meeting, and there, sheltered from the sight of others, I spontaneously set thinking aside and gave myself over to feeling. I was soon immersed in seemingly contradictory feelings: sorrow and happiness; confusion and clarity; a deep longing for love more powerful than I’d ever known, and gratitude, with its implication of satisfaction, for the love with which I am blessed. As I lay there in that condition, a drop from the day’s rain fell from a leaf onto my face, and I remember that I smiled broadly and, still without thinking, felt in that pure experience a pro­found peace and serenity.

I hadn’t thought much about that experience until this morn­ing. The image that has come to me is that it was as if all of those paradoxical states I was feeling then—states that I often would prefer to think of as coming into me from outside, but which I recognize as actually being integral elements of who I am—had been distilled into a single tear, a tear that also seemed to come to me from outside, as a gift from a God who is Other, but which certainly came from within me as well. And as I thought about this, the question arose: if God’s tear was on my face, then from whose eye, really, had it been released? And immediately I recalled Meister Eckhart’s saying, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”

I believe that I have been led to a way—not the only way, of course, but a useful way—of understanding worship as that transforming event in which, whether in the darkness of solitude or, even more beautifully, in our gathered community, we give up our thoughts and opinions and lay ourselves open to feeling the heart of the universe weeping for joy and sorrow in our own hearts, such that we may say, after Eckhart, that the heart with which we love God is the same heart with which God loves us. I am convinced that in this inner unity of love, despite the diversity and seeming contradiction of our choices when seen from the outside, there can be no conflict between our wills and the will of God.

2 thoughts on “Light, Right, and Unity

  1. As part of that discussion on “One Quaker Take” I mentioned that Isaac Newton and his studies on light were contemporary with George Fox. The dispersion of “light” into a multitude of colors/wavelengths and then the combination back to white light is to a message of diversity when “listening” to the Light. It is difficult to discern the “whole” of the Light/Truth from any angle (literally and figuratively).

  2. Tom, I noted with appreciation your comments about Newton and light in that discussion. I’m not sure, but I think that perhaps my experience has been a little different. After my introduction to Quakerism, I struggled for a long time with the idea of experiencing, “seeing,” the light. Eventually, the image of light began to speak to me not so much of looking at the light but of seeing in and by it. That’s why I focus (no pun intended) in my post on vision and its limitations: even in the best light, I can see only so well and so far. (and the older I get ….) So I don’t expect ever to discern the whole of truth; I do hope, however, to remain open as “revelation” continues. In practice, I accept that such discernment is (like the ethic of Jesus or the vows of the Bodhisattva) a goal both impossible to reach and worth reaching for always. But, again, I’m grateful for your words, and I read them as complementary to my perspective. I particularly appreciate your pointing out that Newton’s experience of light was culturally conditioned. Awareness of such conditioning is, of course, an element of the postmodern — condition.

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