In Quaker tradition, individual seekers are encouraged to follow their leadings or individualized spiritual guidance. If feeling uncertain about a particular leading, a member of a Quaker meeting may call for a Clearness Committee to help discern what course of action might be taken around a specific nudge from the Light.
In the 1700’s, John Woolman (1720-1772) referred to his spiritual guidance or revelations as “openings.” Woolman moved through Quaker society speaking out against slavery during a time when many Quakers still held slaves.
Woolman must have been quite a sight as he travelled wearing undyed clothing, of a natural off-white color, after being informed that dyes were produced almost exclusively by slave labor. His work as a travelling minister caused Quakers as a group to renounce slavery decades before society would move in that direction.
John Woolman’s life and work remind us that we, as modern readers and individuals, have the abilty–when we listen closely to the urgings of our hearts–to make significant contributions through our personal decisions and actions.
At a book-signing, a woman asks me how far from Canada I was raised.
“One lake away,” I respond in an amused tone. Then, I add, “You are not the first person to ask that question.”
Her inquiry reminds me about how far from “home” I have come and sometimes still feel. Yet, every relocation my family and I have made has seemed to be a carefully fulfilled and dovetailed adventure, based upon a combination of thoughtful research and the lovingly patient guidance which the hand of Grace is able to provide.
The furthest afield I have ever moved with my family is when we relocated to a mountain town in the American Southwest. And, this is how that particular story unfolds.
One September day, four months prior to our departure from our home region in the upper Midwest, while riding my bicycle across town, I cruise to a hard stop at a red light. Planting my feet firmly on the ground astraddle my snow-friendly, fat-tired bike, an overwhelming sense of you-do-not-belong-here comes over me.
In response to this sensation, I think, “Where do I belong, if not here?”
Sitting with this question over the next few days, I begin a flurry of research at the local library into other municipalities which I and my family might call home. Where do I and we belong? I consider the list of things we need in a new, home city: employment, good schools and affordable housing amid clean air, water and soil. In my heart, I consider that I would like to try living somewhere below the fortieth parallel, much further south than we have ever lived before. Yet, I feel no clear leadings to take up residence in the Southeast nor do I feel a pull to move due south.
In terms of my research, everything points to the possibility of moving to the American Southwest. This is a region of the country with which I am almost completely unfamiliar and, as “a child of the forest” the notion of barren deserts or scrubby, rocky landscapes at a high degree of altitude give me pause. Nonetheless, in faith, I persist in my efforts to downsize our household’s inventory, as I narrow the field of municipal candidates for relocation.
Finally, having selected a new city to call “home” and with a little more than a month to go before our scheduled departure, we make arrangements with a cross-country mover. We have no address, no relatives and no friends to meet us on the other end—just a very strong sense that this move will take us where we need to be.
Then, one day, while I am sorting through the few remaining items to be packed in the vehicle along with us, I choke. I choke on the entire idea of guidance, intuitive nudges, Quaker leadings and blind faith. Looking for some form of concrete affirmation outside of myself for the leap we are about to take, I try something for the first (and only) time, which a former Christian roommate used in her daily faith practice: I decide to engage in sortes Biblicae.
Scrambling to find a copy of our Bible to put my Spirit at ease, I paw through the stacks of books which have been set aside to travel with us. After some searching, I pull the book out from under several others. Then, placing the Bible on a freshly cleared window ledge facing the north side of our apartment, the lake, the arboretum and my own local “forest” sanctuary, I close my eyes and open it, being careful not to injure its delicate pages. With a solid sense of resolve, I plant my extended index finger firmly on one of the two open pages. Picking up the book, while being mindful that I do not shift my finger in a way that would cause me to lose the marked passage, I open my eyes and draw the book closer to me.
Clearly marked by my extended index finger, one line from a verse in Isaiah (40:9) stands out, “…Get thee up into the high mountain….” All tension and doubt melt away. My Spirit grows calm with the affirmation that we are on the right track.
Sacred scripture—no matter the tradition—usually counsels its readers to become more self-aware, generous and respectful toward humanity by means of teaching some form of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Yet, the cultural and historical details of certain scriptural narratives often feature nuances which lead to a great deal of discomfort and/or interpretive hurdles in terms of deriving a “modern” lesson for current application.
The other day, the story of Hagar came up in a reading from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament in The Bible. Hagar is one of Sarah’s handmaids, an Egyptian slave-girl. At Sarah’s suggestion, Hagar is used by Abraham to produce a male heir (this is prior to Sarah’s own unexpectedly late conception and birthing of her only son, Isaac).
For most modern audiences, there are aspects of this story which are highly problematic, especially in cultures where respect for an individual’s life, sense of personal choice and the sanctity of one’s volition with regard to the body are given priority. Still, in rereading the excerpt, what strikes me the most is that Hagar’s relationship with God is equal to that of Abraham’s and Sarah’s.
God does not forsake Hagar eventhough her worth and life, in the society of that time, are of little to no consequence or value. She and her body may be a means to Sarah’s and Abraham’s end, yet her relationship with God is equal–in terms of protection and guidance.
God listens to Hagar. God talks to Hagar. God reveals to Hagar her unique place in the grand plan. And, ultimately, Grace places an umbrella of protection over Hagar and her son, Ishmael, after they are cast out into the desert.
What I have learned is this: Even as the sands of a social circumstance may become like quicksand and threaten to swallow a person up, Grace is the one surety, toward which we may turn and upon which we may rely.
So, remember to get quiet, open your heart and listen, because cultivating a connection with the Light provides protection and support.
This is what I have learned regarding authentic guidance or leadings.
If we are in alignment with our highest Light and prepared to go the places the Divine hand would lead, not only are we able to unfold, but we are also able to offer a hand of assistance to others who are ready and waiting to unfold.
Everyone has a place at the head table on the dais–because it is God’s party. You are invited.
“Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is a space in our consciousness, an avenue of Light, where—when the traffic is at a complete standstill—a receptive soul is able to converse with the Holy Spirit. It is so difficult to find that hour when the traffic of our minds is stopped long enough for us to listen.
And, when we do try to listen, it can be challenging—especially initially—to discern whether or not we are hearing voices from our upbringing, shadows from our past, the growing pains of Spirit reaching for the Light or the hum of Grace itself offering us gentle guidance to move in a direction which may seem untoward and daunting.
Then, there are the concerns of well-meaning friends, family or other spiritual advisors who feel they may know best how to allocate or reallocate our precious energy.
Yet, the only person capable of coming to know our Truth sits not beside us at the table, stands not in front of us at a lectern nor does he or she even share a plot with us in some future graveyard. You and I must travel toward our Truth alone…in the stillness of our hearts and find the strength and bravery to walk our singular path.
Most people I know, who would like to garden but who do not or who would like to simplify their lives but do not, tell me that the idea of taking on such tasks seems daunting.
Truth be told, if anyone attempts to look at a large yard, with multiple garden beds, or a home of overstuffed cupboards, packed closets and bulging drawers, the perspective of affecting a beautiful, transformative change is overwhelming.
(Did you know most Americans wear only twenty percent of the clothing in their closets?)
Yet, dedicated gardeners, as well as those committed to simple living, have learned to approach each area as a discrete location of potential and extraordinary possibility. Then, with the laser like focus, granted to us through prayer or meditation, work is commenced in only one, specific location at a time.
Thus, planning, planting, weeding—and even winter, closet cleaning—are all completely doable. And, the results are always worth the effort.
Effort. The winter season begins to pick up speed. Somewhere in the space of sorting through the third closet and around the time of a top shelf, I begin thinking about spring and expanding my garden for the upcoming season.
As I approach giving away the fifth, large bag of extras, a local magazine features an article about a dedicated butterfly garden. What if I were to choose plants for this next season with, not only people in mind, but also the butterflies and birds?
Less stuff, more time to garden.
It is while there are a few, wild “everything” drawers in the kitchen yet to sort through that the sun turns its corner onto longer days. January is when committed gardeners feel the first desire to begin planning for spring.
“Yes,” I think to myself, “This year, there will be an expanded garden, one that honors more of Creation.”
In the space of my devotional practice, I place my concerns before the Light of God. A clear leading comes through, “Simplify.” In Quaker tradition, a leading is the nudge granted to us by the Spirit.
Considering this gentle command, I have to admit that, of late, caring for our household inventory has become less joyful and more of a chore. On some days, I feel like a warehouse queen rather than a spiritual being. Internally, I postulate that this overabundance of inventory is probably one of the reasons I have spent so much time in the garden over the summer. Even though I know logically that avoidance does not solve problems of excess.
As a life experience, sorting through items stored in a large closet is nothing like kneeling in a yielding, freshly turned plot of earth, where living plants will soon produce incredible rewards. After all, I have never seen a bucket list where the sorting through of one’s personal belongings is in the top ten.
Committed gardeners know that working in the soil, directly with the earth, is capable of warding off feelings of disconnectedness, as well as banishing a sense of the mundane. Overstuffed closets seem to produce the opposite emotional impressions. Yet, if the answer to my query is to simplify, then—for this winter season—closets, cabinets and drawers it is.
Approaching the process of going through our personal belongings, I decide to think of each area as I would one of my garden beds. What would I like to give to someone else, so that another person might benefit?
My heart reopens with the prospect of another and decidedly unique season of giving. I crave the experience of largesse.
So, I decide to envision each space in my home as a potentially empty piece of acreage—a garden bed, where I will be able “to cultivate” what I most desire. This approach to the work at hand prompts me to ask the question: What do I want to plant and grow in my interior, domestic life?
Sifting through the belongings in each area of our home, I feel a welling sense of joyful anticipation. The possibility of unbridled spiritual living is returning to my heart. With each donation and regifted item, given to a charitable organization, neighbor, friend or acquaintance, my heart experiences an expansion, spaciousness and a renewed lightness of Being.
Before approaching an area, I say a short prayer for guidance. With this prayer, decision making is decidedly easier. It is as if the items sort themselves.
Have you ever had one of those days when there are no definitive leadings from the Light or clear nudges coming through? On such days, I want to address the Divine directly, “Please shout something clearly, loudly and gently into my ear.”
Then, I remember that it is appropriate to take a day off. We all need time for restoration and retuning.
As we come closer to embodying our own pure Spirit or highest Light, our internal sense about our most sacred, personal priorities and desires becomes clearer.
Even as we grow in personal, internal clarity, we must continue to work on interfacing with family, friends, strangers, institutions and the community about us. A high degree of the world’s pain is generated collectively by our ofttimes unsorted, selfish, mixed-up and otherwise unclear motivations, priorities and subsequent actions.
Yet, when external confusion, staring us full in the face, meets us at one of life’s many open doors, we know—from the process of working through our internal confusion and priorities—to grow quiet, draw to center and begin asking questions of the Light. And, there are times when we must gently close the door on that place, person, group, institution or community, which is presenting itself to us in real time, to determine to what degree that door will be reopened, if at all.
When we have grown quiet enough to pick up the thread on our sustaining Light, we must begin asking questions and listening for answers to determine our very individualized and personal course of action, degree of action or non-action.
Growing quiet to come into our own knowing is part of the art of practicing spiritual invitation.
We, as moving, breathing, doing Beings possess a tremendous—even luxurious—range of living options (when our most basic needs have been met) where we may choose to honor, not only our own needs, lives, dreams and desires, but also the needs, lives, dreams and desires of the individuals and life-systems around us.
Thus, we must begin to ask ourselves daily, “Given a choice, would I invite this into my life?”
Coming to know ourselves as Spirit is a process. Every one of us possesses a complete catalogue of impressions and stories about who we think we are. This catalogue contains not only our own notes, entries and observations but also the notes, entries, marginal scribblings and stories from family members, relatives, friends—close and distant, chance meetings and a great number of sometimes unsolicited comments from complete strangers.
With all of this input, it can be difficult to come to know the Light that resides in our individual hearts, and it may—at times—seem impossible to learn to listen for and abide by the gentle nudges and leadings from Spirit.
A few years ago, as a household, we came to a point where most of our personal belongings were necessity based. We made the move toward physical simplicity in an effort to discover who we really were and to be better able to listen for guidance from the Light. We wanted to know how we would spend our time, if we were free to follow our leadings, while not being overly involved in the care and upkeep of a great number of belongings. The conscious reduction in belongings afforded us the time we needed for long, contemplative walks, prayer, meditation and devotional work.
On one long weekend, during this phase in our lives, I travelled to see a dear friend who was also in the process of simplifying her physical life. While I was with my friend, we went through various collections she had amassed over the years. One collection was particularly charming; it was a set of exquisitely patterned, English tea tins.
While assisting my friend with the sorting process, everything fell into two, dichotomous piles either “Donate” or “Keep”–until we came to the sorting of the tea tins. Then, as we began to approach the tins, my friend turned to me to say, “Why don’t you take some of these tins home for yourself to enjoy?”
With her suggestion, what I perceived to be the warning bells of excess began sounding in my head. Yet, beyond this commotion, there was a quieter, deeper and larger sense, which when given voice, came through in this way, “Julian, you are hurting yourself by not allowing beauty back into your life.”
This internal response made some sense to me, as I had been trained academically as a visual artist.
Before answering my friend, I paused to consider the myriad of other recent nudges and leadings that had appeared during my quiet time. One encouragement involved shifting from prepackaged teas to a selection of loose teas, which are available in bulk through a local health-food store. From an environmental point of view, this change seemed completely appropriate for our household, as it would significantly reduce the amount of packaging waste we would be generating on a daily basis.
“Yes,” I answered tentatively. “I would like that very much.”
Now, our sorting featured three piles: “Donate,” “Keep” and “Julian.” Selection and sorting went more quickly with this change in procedure and with my friend knowing that some of her beloved collection would be going to a good home and a good cause.
When I returned to my own home days later, I carefully unpacked the English tins. After everything was unwrapped and out on display, I was surprised by how much lighter and shinier I felt inside. And, although we technically had acquired more “stuff,” this one change-of-living habit, would significantly aid our being able to live a more environmentally conscionable lifestyle.
When I meet with friends and acquaintances, desiring to live lives closer to their hearts, the most common concern I hear is that they will be “asked” or guided to do something that goes against “the who” they perceive themselves to be. It is important, here, to remember that catalogue of notes, entries and stories. This catalogue is open to revision—complete revision—if we desire it. And, Grace will assist you, time and again, as you make life-affirming choices delivering you closer to the Light in your heart and “the who” of who you are–pure Spirit.