Delusion, Quaker Worship, & Spiritual Life

“Don’t ask me now to wash away the grime;
I can’t come in because it’s too high a climb.”
And he walked away from my fleeting house.
—  from “Morning Glory,” a song by Larry Beckett and Tim Buckley (video below)

If the goal of my spiritual life is transformation, spiritual attainment, or personal improvement, then any path I walk leads back to me — that is, nowhere.

When the orientation of my spirituality is toward something that I want for myself, then I remain, unquestioned and unquestioning, at the center. While I am in that condition — which I might hide most effectively from myself — my spiritual life is a delusion: my soul is a cloistered void, a vacuum in which spirit does not breathe. My spirituality is an ornament, a possession, another “good” in a life given over to acquiring, enjoying, and exhibiting goods; even the good works I do are such goods. Ironically, absurdly, my existence as spiritless void thrives in the delusion that I can and do possess spiritual life.

It may seem, therefore, that I should try to free myself from delusion. But Quaker wisdom warns against any attempt at self-salvation. Instead, it invites me simply to be open to recognizing my delusions — an attitude that may lead to my being increasingly detached from them. Note the uncertainty and passivity. The mind of delusion cannot free itself; it can only allow itself to look when light shines on that which has been ignored or repressed. If detachment comes, it will be a fruit of that revelatory in-sight.

That mindset of openness to sobering, even painful revelation is at the heart of silent Quaker worship: the turning of bare attention, without denial or rationalization, to whatever appears as I am searched by the light that was in Jesus. Silent worship leads me into a living awareness of my delusions, beginning with that of believing that I have none. The experience of worship destabilizes my sense of self — which, after all, is grounded in the delusion of autonomy, substance, persistence, presence. In that disruption, that break in the void, spiritual life may take root.

But the receptive passivity of worship is not my natural way. Normally, I walk the path to nowhere, the path of self-as-center, believing that I am on a spiritual journey in search of truth. Meanwhile, the light that would visit me with disruptive revelation is knocking, as it were, at the door of my empty house. Indeed, I would not be seeking had I not already failed to open myself to the light. That is why Quakers have emphasized the apostle John’s doctrine that the light called Christ “enlightens everyone” but imbues with spiritual life and power only those who accept it.1

It is when I can no longer deny the futility of my “own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations”2 that I may find myself in the patient and humble waiting of worship. If I then hear the Christ-light knocking, I can do no more than unlock the door in fear and trembling.3 As light enters my house, my psyche, any attempt on my part to control the encounter will end it, probably leaving me with the delusion of attainment — that is, further from truth than before, if that were possible. Believing that I have attained something by experiencing the light, I will be confirmed in delusion even as my soul is dying of self-absorption. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to preserve her psychē will destroy it, but whoever destroys her psychē for my sake will preserve it.”4 To unlatch the door of the heart and entrust oneself to the Christ-light is to begin to destroy one’s psyche, for the normal human psyche is an interlock of defenses against spirit.

Spiritual life begins, then, with a kind of death, when defenses fail and delusions fall apart, when I see and cannot flee from my essential nothingness, when I am inescapably confronted by my own absence. It unfolds in unsolicited subtraction by the Christ-spirit — subtraction as loss of absolute value, not as addition of negative value. Loss is not a gain or attainment here; only the simulacrum of loss, the accumulation of negative value, can appear as such. That is, no technique, no regimen of detachment, asceticism, or via negativa,5 can avail; ultimately, those are economic transactions, attempts to add to myself. But by dispelling the delusion of self as center, the Christ-light delivers me from quantification, from fixation, from the fallacy of presence, easing my need for self-validation and spiritual success. In this deliverance, nothing is perfected, transformed, or improved: indeed, nothing is saved.


NOTES
[1] See John 1:9-13.
[2] “[B]e still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in thee ….” — George Fox, letter to Elizabeth Cromwell Claypole. Compare Isaac Penington’s “Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee ….”
[3] The sentence contains two scriptural references. (1) Revelation 3:19-20: “As many as I care for, I am exposing and instructing: be zealous, therefore, and of changed mind. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears me and opens the door, I will go in to them, and will dine with them, and they with me.” (2) Philippians 2:12b-13: “Make effective your deliverance with fear and trembling [quaking], for it is God who is working in you, willing and acting for good desire.” (Both renderings are mine.)
[4] See Matthew 16:25, Luke 9:24, Mark 8:35; cf. John 12:24-25. Psychē is a transliteration of the Greek ψυχή, the noun used in all four books.
[5] Via negativa is “the way of negation.” For the classic theological use of the term, see the Wikipedia article, “Apophatic theology.” For an example of contemporary self-help use, see “Via Negativa – The Art Of Adding To Your Life By Subtracting From It.”


The video below features a 1968 studio performance of the song “Morning Glory” by the original Blood, Sweat, and Tears group. The song’s text can help illuminate the theme of this post. The narrator lights his “purest candle” and places it in the window of his “fleeting house,” hoping to attract a vagabond, a character whom we can see as a Christ figure, who will enter his house and tell him stories. Presumably, he hopes to acquire wisdom as well as pleasure — and, perhaps, to be distracted from the “fleeting” nature of his “house” — by listening to “tales of time.” When a hobo is attracted by the candle’s promise of hospitality, the narrator does not inquire about the other’s needs or even offer food or drink, but immediately calls out a demand for stories: although he smiles at the man and even kneels before him, he is not really in relationship with him; his focus is on himself and what he wants for himself. Any good works that he might do, such as feeding the hobo, are contingent upon his own wants being satisfied. The hobo refuses to be used, speaking the lines that are quoted as the epigraph of this post. Apparently, he understands that the narrator’s proud self-absorption precludes real learning from a dirty vagabond — or is it the unacknowledged grime in the protagonist or his house to which the visitor refers? As the vagabond walks away, the narrator curses him, falling to his knees as he cries, “Turn into stone!” One can easily contrive to receive validation from a Christ idol, an ersatz spirit; the living spirit, however, does not bend to one’s will. The final scene is humorous but all too realistic: the vagabond gone, the narrator again lights his “purest candle” and sets it in the window, hoping again to attract a vagabond and add stories to his collection. He has not learned anything; likely, he never will. [Return to post]

Related posts include:
Quaker Worship as Act of Courage
Perfect Poverty: a Quaker’s Koan?

12 thoughts on “Delusion, Quaker Worship, & Spiritual Life

  1. What an extraordinary piece this is! It speaks with such clarity and power of the rudimentary human condition and our misaligned perspective. If ‘I am’ is the ever-present subject that is never an object even of its own awareness, then empty awareness, which is perfectly passive, is our only recourse. One does not acquire this bare awareness, because it is always already there, but one does have to set aside one’s misidentification. Thank you for this posting.

  2. One comment I wrote on 2/17/12 following your essay titled “Questioning Quakerism as Mysticism”:

    The great error in liberal Quakerism (and it’s one of pride) is the tendency to identify the best, noblest human capacities as being “that of God.” And so loving, compassionate feelings (Matt. 5:46) or avoidance of conflict (Lk.12:52) is mistaken for being God’s presence or will, while it is merely human aspiration. No one “hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven,” which is another way of saying: you can’t get there from here.

    In the apocalyptic chapters (the apocalypse being, Quakers realized, an inward event) in the synoptic gospels (Matt.24, Mark 13 and Luke 21), Jesus describes the difficult transition between carnal existence and spiritual Life as being one of utmost disruption and difficulty. He then concludes his speech by saying no one has control over when this event happens: “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.” It is not we, as agents, that can simply “turn to the life of love within us.” However, we can prepare the Way: by seeing the man of sin revealed within, by making straight the paths, by hungering and thirsting after righteousness. But it is God that delivers us, a living God who makes us anew. And, like Fox, what the Lord opened in me, I afterwards found was agreeable to the Scriptures. (The emphasis is on “afterwards.”) For Fox, revelation preceded scriptures, both for himself and also for the prophets who wrote them.

    • Interested readers can find the original discussion between us at “Questioning Quakerism as Mysticism”. In brief, Friend Dallmann interprets the phenomenon from within a theistic paradigm and therefore understands it differently than I do. While, as I hope the post attests, I am able to observe inward phenomena from various perspectives, any that attribute objective reality to a god-being are not open to me.

  3. Thanks George, letting the Light find you rather than the other way around, reminds me of Dogen on actualizing the fundamental point from the Genjokoan, below in various translations:

    “To know yourself as on a journey through the universe is delusion; to know the universe as on a journey through you is awakening.” Jeff Collins (my teacher)

    “To project your self into the world is delusion. To let the world present itself as yourself is awakening. James Ford

    “To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.” Aitken & Tanahashi

    “Practice that confirms things by taking the self to them is illusion: for things to come forward and practice and confirm the self is enlightenment.” Waddell & Abe

    “Carrying the self forward to confirm [the existence of] the myriad dharmas is delusion. The myriad dharmas advancing and confirming [the existence of] the self is realization.” Jaffe

    “Driving ourselves to practice and experience millions of things and phenomena is delusion. When millions of things and phenomena actively practice and experience ourselves, that is realization.” Nishijima

    “Conveying the self to the myriad things to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment.” Cook

    “Acting on and witnessing myriad things with the burden of oneself is “delusion.” Acting on and witnessing oneself in the advent of myriad things is enlightenment.” T. Cleary

    “It is an illusion to try to carry out our practice and enlightenment through ourselves, but to have practice and enlightenment through phenomena, that is enlightenment.” Nishiyama & Stevens

    “To train and enlighten all things from the self is delusion; to train and enlighten the self from all things is enlightenment.” Masunaga

    • Thanks, John. That’s quite a variety, not only of expression but also of conceptualization. Some of them seem to collapse the “myriad things” into one, as in “the universe,” in what impresses me as what Emmanuel Levinas might call a “totalizing” move that assimilates beings into b/Being and seems to use beings as means to an end. Others, such as Aitken/Tanahashi, allow for relational encounter with things-in-themselves (in their irreducible ipseity, which I propose is one way to understand the concept of “suchness”), and for enlightenment springing from that. While the latter suggests that enlightenment is a kind of gift given by things when they are related to directly, the former implies personal agency in attaining enlightenment — again, using the myriad things, even projecting one’s self into them. I’m not well-read in Dogen’s work (one reason being that I can’t trust the translators), so what he might have had in mind is unclear to me.

  4. I appreciate this piece and the thoughtfulness behind it. Though we may not share the same experience. “I AM the light itself in itself upon the conscience of human being, I AM the witnessing (living) presence in absence and the resolution.” (1994)

  5. Dear George

    I have enjoyed your blog and am coming at it from a Humanist perspective.

    Can you recommend any further reading for someone interesting in finding out more about the Quaker way, from a non-theistic perspective?

    Thanks.

    Steven

    • Steven, nontheistic Friends (see, for example, nontheistfriends.org) are diverse in their views of what is essential to Quakerism, what might constitute a Quaker way, and whether the historic Quaker tradition has value for them today. Because I profoundly respect the genius of that historic tradition and want to help translate its expression into contemporary thinking, I tend to work independently. I’m not aware of other resources from a similar perspective, but perhaps someone else can offer suggestions.

      • Thanks George, I appreciate that your work is unique but I’m sure you could point me to some sources form the historic tradition and some contemporary renderings that would be a good start for my consideration? Would you ever publish your faith & practice book?

        • I don’t have time to read much by other Quaker writers and don’t know what’s out there, so I’m still hoping that someone will offer some suggestions. For material by contemporary historians with theological insight, though, I can suggest Richard Bailey’s excellent New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God and Leo Damrosch’s The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit.

          If you haven’t yet read my “The Psychology of Salvation,” that might be of interest. It is based on early Quaker thought, primarily that of James Nayler. I find that Nayler was a better writer than George Fox, and his Quakerism was especially rich. (I can see why Fox may have envied him.)

          I hope to get back to work on the Faith & Practice book relatively soon. I don’t know whether it will become suitable for publishing in hard copy, but it might. Thanks for asking about it.

          • Thanks George, that is very helpful. I really do hope you would consider publishing your Faith & Practice, once completed, as it would be a very helpful resource. Thanks again.

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