Ellen's Corner: Our Life Is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey
The winds blowing in off the Pacific Ocean at Serra Point were wild. Hummingbirds, their feathers gleaming in the morning light, made short hops from flowering shrubs to nests high in the surrounding trees. Tiny lizards ran belly-to-the-ground from rock to rock. Thirty-foot box elders waved their branches, and the sun, which was directly overhead, baked the sandy path on which I stood, eyes half closed, totally relaxed, and deeply centered.
I’d come here to a Franciscan retreat center in the hills above Malibu for a few days of quiet contemplation, and to read the manuscript of a new book by Marcelle Martin, a former teacher of Quaker Studies at Pendle Hill.
I’d met Marcelle some 16 or 17 years ago when we’d both participated in the School of the Spirit’s program on Contemplative Living and Prayer. Our lives had touched here and there over the years, and I knew Marcelle had felt led to write a book for some time.
Now, here it was, in my hands.
Smiling, I sat down on a bench tucked away from the wind and began to read Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey.
The book takes its title, I quickly discovered, from Isaac Penington’s simple but eloquent description of Quaker life in 1667:
Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand…[until that love and peace and tenderness is reflected] in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.
For early Quakers, Marcelle writes, the life Penington describes was a reflection of the radical transformation that began from the moment an individual felt the first stirrings of a longing to know God. Among contemporary Quakers, she adds, that longing is just as compelling today, although for some it’s identified simply as a longing for spiritual truth, or even simply as a “…dissatisfaction with the ways of the world and a vague sense that we are meant to live in a better way.”
But after studying the lives of early Quakers and traveling among Friends today, Marcelle has come to understand that, however that first step is characterized, the Quaker spiritual journey to a life of profound love travels along a well-trod path of awakening, convincement, and faithfulness that is identified by 10 hallmarks that she describes, chapter by chapter. They include:
- A longing for God or spiritual truth.
- The earnest seeking of a deeper spiritual life—sometimes through social action, other times through an exploration of nature, or through the exploration of deeper experiences within a current religious tradition.
- The impulse to turn within—with the expectation of encountering God’s Presence.
- The experience of an “opening,” or a revelation of truth directly from God—sometimes found in the “… profound experience of divine Love or Presence…[or] sometimes in the courageous strength to speak or act in faithful or prophetic ways…[and sometimes] as a quietly growing conviction about how God wants one to believe, speak, and act…”
- A willingness to be changed by the “refiner’s fire”—to stand in the Light and clearly see all the hurts, angers, fears, and ego-centered needs that give birth to the ambitions, expectations and actions that can stand between us and God. To strip them away and emerge, transformed, as an individual who lives in God’s love and shares it freely.
- The collective experience of God’s Presence in a Quaker community, frequently during meeting for worship, often with an awareness of being gathered into a single body, and often with a sense among those newly attending that they have come home.
- A sense of God’s love and the gentle but persistent tugs, or “leadings,” of the Spirit in one direction or another to specific actions.
- The willingness to, as 17th century Quakers termed it, “live in the cross,” a concept that today means, as Marcelle suggests, a willingness to follow leadings that can involving suffering, such as those experienced by civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who was jailed and beaten, or Christian Peacemaker Team member Tom Fox, who was killed in Iraq.
- Abiding—a state in which we live in the Presence even as we talk with friends or tend to the 101 chores of daily life.
- The achievement of “perfection,” which refers to the sense of wholeness that we experience when, as Marcelle writes, “…God becomes the active force in a person’s life and any goal other than loving faithfulness has fallen away.”
Using these hallmarks to structure Our Life is Love is an effective way to look at a complex subject whose very nature demands simplicity. Equally helpful is the fact that the book is written in measured tones, with great clarity, and with story after story of both early and contemporary Quakers—an approach that allows Marcelle to extricate the spiritual elements of our common Quaker journey from the complexity of our schisms and the heartbreaking divisions that run throughout our history.
The brief but well-crafted stories of 33 early Quakers like Elizabeth Hooten and James Naylor evoke powerful, piercing images that offer concrete examples of spiritual journeys from which to extract valuable lessons, as do the 62 stories of more contemporary Quakers such as Richard Taylor, Eva Hermann, and Thomas Kelly.
What also makes Our Life Is Love far more accessible than many books on Quaker spirituality is that Marcelle does not write, as Carole Spencer, an associate professor at Earlham School of Religion, points out in the book’s foreword, “…as a detached historian, analytical theologian, or objective outside observer, but as an intuitive, empathetic fellow traveler [who] shares their spiritual DNA. She enters into their story with empathy, thus parting the veil for the modern reader to cross the threshold into the profound realm of [even] those early Quakers who lived a life of holiness and perfection.”
As a result, and particularly if one or another of its chapters is read in the meeting community and accompanied by reflection and discussion, Our Life is Love will help each of us recognize who we are as a people, where we’ve been, where we are, and—as Way opens—where we’re being led.
It’s an amazing journey. And we are so blessed to be on it.
Ellen Michaud is the editor-at-large for Live Happy Magazine, and the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, which was named the #1 spiritual/inspirational book of the year by USA BookNews. She is also an alumna of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer, a past writer-in-residence at Earlham School of Religion and the former book review editor of Friends Journal.