The Passionate Spirituality of Early Quaker Women – Speaking to Us Today
In the mid 90’s I found myself sitting in the garden at Pendle Hill retreat center with a dear friend, reading texts from early Quaker women aloud to each other. Despite the archaic language and unfamiliar patterns of writing, I felt the words and the conveyed sense and message pierce me. I wasn’t just “hearing” these words, they were pouring over me and I was receiving and responding in an embodied manner. Body, mind, spirit were all engaged in this moment. Their use of imagery, their concern for others, their passionate faith helped me feel the presence of these women, in and through the Spirit.
The year before another dear friend had been instrumental in opening me to a new, yet personally very familiar, understanding of the way in which early Friends experienced “Spirit poured on flesh,” or the Presence in their lives. As a lifelong Friend I had most often felt the leading of God ‘in my gut,’ a sensation which, despite our name of Quakers, was not present in contemporary Quaker teaching when I was growing up. The Quakerism I had been taught and seen modeled throughout my life was much more a head thing, with little to no conversation about the body as a spiritual tuning fork. Learning about how these early Friends experienced the movement (literally as well as figuratively) of the Holy Spirit in their lives validated my own lifelong experience, gave me language and a place in the Quaker narrative in ways I had not previously experienced.
In recent years I was revisited by the immediacy of that garden experience. I wanted to explore and share with others that strong sense of P/presence I had felt in and through those early Quaker women’s texts. I had felt them speak to my condition, with challenge, comfort and deeply grounded spiritual wisdom. Would they speak to others? Would others find, as I had, spiritual teaching for contemporary life? Following the promptings of this nudge I sat with the idea of leading a retreat focusing on deep and prayerful reflection on a few gems from these women’s writings. The retreat became a reality and has been presented three times, twice in England and once in the United States. In the coming year I will share lead this retreat again in England and then at Pendle Hill.
My desire and hope is to invite each reader into a time of retreat and renewal as they engage with these passages. My prayer is that through this engagement the reader will receive that challenge, comfort and wise spiritual guidance in and through the Spirit and in the comforting presence of this cloud of witnesses. It may well whet the appetite for further explorations…
What do we broadcast to the world?
In exploration of these early Quaker women, their engagement with others is motivated from a deep concern for the spiritual condition of those to whom they are writing or speaking, in addition to the motivation to seek justice for themselves and others.
In all they write their abiding concern for the immortal soul of the recipient of their admonishments is unmistakable. “I am a lover of your soul” is often the closing line. This care was extended beyond their immediate intimate circle, even unto the king and other public officials of their country.
As we face the concerns and issues of our time, this way of being in relationship with those we may perceive to be adversaries is witness to us of radical faithfulness, modeled by our Quaker forebears.
Margaret Fell was in Lancaster Prison when she wrote A Letter sent to the King in 1666, excerpts of which are seen below. She was serving a sentence for holding Quaker meetings in her home and for refusing to take an oath. Margaret Fell considered herself to be a prophet of God and, because of her status and connections, well able to plead on behalf of the people known as Quakers.
“King CHARLES, I desire thee to Read this over, which may be fore thy Satisfaction and Profit.
In the Fear of the Lord God stand still, and consider what thou and you have been doing these six Years, since the Lord brought you Peaceably into this Realm, and made you Rulers over this People. The Righteous Eye of the Almighty hath been over you, and hath seen all your Doings and Actions.
What Laws have you made or changed, save such as have laid Oppression and Bondage on the Consciences of God’s People, and that of no less Penalty than Banishment out of their Native Country? The greatest Crime that you could find with the People of God, was, that they obeyed and worshipped Christ Jesus: So that the greatest Stroke that hath appeared of your Justice, hath been upon such as you counted Offenders for worshipping of God…”
Margaret Fell goes on at length naming the affronts against the Friends. At the same time she is clear and does not shrink back from detailing what King Charles’ immortal soul will suffer if he continues on this course. And yet, and yet, her concluding sentence contains both her concern for those suffering AND for the soul of the King –
“From a true Lover of your Souls, (though a Sufferer by you) and the Desire of my Heart is, that you may take these things into Consideration betime, before it be too late; and set open the Prison Doors, and let the Innocent go free, and that will take part of the Burthen and Guilt off you, lest the Door of Mery[sic] be shut against you.” – Margaret Fell
Center into a time of quiet worship reflecting on these words and the spirit in which they were written. Consider in prayer whether or not you are feeling led to write to some public figure, in and through the Spirit that was guiding Margaret Fell and that is available to us all. Think about what concerns you would want to state. Think about how you might speak to “that of God” within the public figure to whom you are writing. Write the letter, whether or not you plan to send it.
Notice if you feel differently about this person. After writing the letter, notice your feelings about the concern(s) that you were led to raise.
In three different retreats the exercise above was offered as the last session before the closing worship. Participants worked in groups of three or four and were given a little over an hour to discern together to whom they would write and what concerns or issues they would lift up to that person’s attention. The results were uniformly astonishing in their beauty, succinctness, lack of stridency. In all the letters the soul of the recipient was tenderly regarded, in a variety of ways, but with the result that these letters felt very different than ones that we had experienced being sent out from our monthly or yearly meetings on any given area of concern.
As I have been considering my own relationship with current political leaders in the light of these readings, I have been convicted of not having a loving spirit. These Quaker women are all speaking Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies and those that persecute us. How have my responses, spoken, unspoken, contributed to the spirit of chaos, confusion, even hatred that is so prevalent in the world today?
I am helped in this by these two excerpts by Sarah Blackborrow. As Margaret Fell, she is exhorting me to love, but to also witness clearly to where I am convicted by the Truth, and to not turn away from naming actions in myself and others that are contributing to the brokenness present in the world today. There is also the clear, unmistakable message that any such offerings must be given in and through Christ’s Spirit of Love and Light. Only in this spirit of loving invitation can I be open to being changed.
“Love Truth and its testimony, whether its witness be to you or against you. Love it, that into my Mother’s house you all may come, and into the chamber of Her that conceived me, where you may embrace and be embraced of my dearly beloved one. Love is His name, Love is His nature, and Love is His life.” – Sarah Blackborow (1658)
The following passage, also by Sarah Blackborow: “From a lover of your souls, but a Witnesse against your deceits. A Love there is which doth not cease, to the seed of God in you all; and therefore doth invite you every one Priest and people to return into it, that into Wisdoms house you may come, where there is a feast provided of things well refined, and the living bread of God is known and fed upon, and the fruit of the Vine drunk of, the unity in the Spirit witnessed…”
“All of us…are diminished and dishonored when we do not meet each other half way. How can we love in truth and lovingly help one another in this? Because we must remember that truth without love is violence. And love without truth is sentimentality. We do need both.” – Muriel Bishop (British Friend) 1990
Reconciling God, help me to speak the truth with love and to share love with integrity. Guide me as I speak on behalf of myself and others, to be mindful of your presence in all with whom I have interactions. Help me to have an open and receptive spirit to your commandment to love all.
— Deborah L. Shaw, Tenth Month 2109
(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the apprentice authors, and not official statements of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) or Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) of the Religious Society of Friends.)