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Ellen's Corner: Language for the Inward Landscape

Ellen's Corner: Language for the Inward Landscape

As I walked up the path to a friend’s home here in Vermont, snowdrops lightly iced with spring snow bordered my journey. Bees covered the delicate flowers, a sleepy cat dozed in the window, and a huge pot of boiling maple syrup beside the door sent clouds of sweetly-scented steam up into the sunshine. 

It was a small moment, but one which filled me with joy. I was meeting with a small group of Friends in the area to discuss our spiritual growth. It was something that we do once a year, and as we greeted one another and gathered around the woodstove, the love among us and the joy we took in one another’s company was palpable.

Gradually we settled into silence. Wood crackled in the woodstove and the sense of Presence grew deep. Our clerk posed a question, and, eventually, I felt led to say that, over the past year, I had felt a growing sense of Presence in our meetings, and that I had been truly humbled to have experienced a gathered meeting on more than one occasion—something that had been a rarity among our group.

My words dropped into the silence. And as it deepened, a woman who had worshipped with us for more than a decade leaned forward, looked at me directly, and asked, “What’s a `gathered’ meeting?”

Startled, I looked at her for a moment, then at the others sitting around the fire. They looked back at me steadily, understanding that it wasn’t a rhetorical question, and trusting that the answer I’d offer would rise out of the silence. And it did. But, later, as I drove home along the muddy spring roads thinking about what had occurred, I realized that the simple question had left me with a deep sense of sadness.

How was it that one of our beloved community could sit with us for so many years and not know the definition of a gathered meeting? How could a Friend whom I know to be deeply centered in the Presence—whose life richly evidences every testimony Quakers hold dear—how could she not know the words that would allow her to discuss her experience of being held as one in the Presence?

Could it be that those of us in our meeting had failed her? We rarely talk about what actually occurs during meeting for worship, I realized. We tend to leave much of that job to the Inward Teacher. But, also, I had to admit, because we’re afraid of not being inclusive or of causing dissention.

As I got out of the car, the sense of conviction was heavy. Was it possible that our fears had caused us to deny this wonderfully faithful woman a vocabulary with which to explore her own inward landscape?  And how could we rectify the situation? How could we encourage a discussion of what we experience during meeting for worship?

Days later, a copy of Brian Drayton’s new book, A Language for the Inward Landscape: Spiritual Wisdom from the Quaker Movement arrived on my doorstep to review for this blog.

To say that it was welcome is an understatement.  Brian, a recorded minister in New England Yearly Meeting and author of On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry (QuakerPress, 2005), has spent a lifetime reading and studying early Quaker manuscripts.  Now, in A Language for the Inward Landscape, he has used that study to decode many of the words that have evolved over time to give Friends a kind of spiritual shorthand in which a simple word reflects a deep, complex experience of life lived in the Presence.

He begins with a chapter on the “foundational” terms of wait, life, and light, all of which, as Brian writes, “…express something of the dynamic reality at the center of Quaker practice…”, then continues with 64 additional words and phrases that capture the essence of the Quaker experience.

Yet what Brian offers is not simply a vocabulary list with brief, knee-jerk definitions. Oh, the list is there, all right. But with each entry on that list are short, thoughtful essays, which, informed by Brian’s steadfast scholarship, ground us in how these terms were used by early Quakers, and allow us to follow the evolution of their words, along with their faith, through the past three centuries and in to the present.

“Light,” for example, originally referred to the way in which early Quakers encountered Christ among them. As Brian quotes Isaac Penington:

Q: But hath not this Saviour a name? What is his name?

A: It were better for thee to learn his name by feeling his virtue and power in thy heart, than by rote. Yet, if thou canst receive it, this is his name, the Light; the Light of the World…we call him light, because the Father of lights have peculiarly chosen this name for him, to make him known to his people in this age by, and hath thus made him manifest to us. And by thus receiving him under this name, we come to know his other names.”

Today, the Light is still understood throughout much of the world to be the Light of Christ. But over the years, we have indeed “come to know his other names,” and, for some Friends, to no longer need names at all. As Brian writes,

Sometimes the word light serves as a way to speak of the Divine in a tone that feels intimate, in the way that seeing is intimate: a very personal interaction with a Reality, which does not require us to put names on the experience, nor give an account in words…

Brian’s vocabulary list and many of his essays are rooted in the work of the late Bill Taber, a gifted Quaker minister, workshop leader, and Pendle Hill teacher whom Brian credits as the co-author of A Language for the Inward Landscape.  During his life, Bill led workshops and retreats from which he left behind over 150 pages of notes, memos, file cards, and outlines, plus one complete lecture manuscript labeled “John Woolman’s language of the inward landscape. ” 

The papers were a rich legacy. Fran Taber, Bill’s wife and a gifted teacher in her own right, shared them with Brian, who used the outline from Bill’s last workshop to build the book’s structure. He and Bill had spoken long and often about the inward landscape, and, in some sense, the book seems to have become an extension of the dialogue between them.

Now, as a result of the collaboration between these two deeply faithful men, to read A Language for the Inward Landscape is to often be touched by a sense of recognition, an awareness of God’s presence, and an upwelling of love so large and deep and expansive that it is not unlike sitting in a gathered meeting within a beloved meeting community.

We are so blessed.

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