Message at Durham Friends Meeting May 5, 2019
I’ve been reading a remarkable recent book. It’s by Brian Drayton and William Taber, and published in 2015. Its title is a little forbidding: A Language for the Inward Landscape: Spiritual Wisdom for the Quaker Movement. Let me explain a little how this book came to be and what it’s about.
Bill Taber was a remarkable Quaker, an Ohio Conservative Friend who had deep spiritual gifts. (If you don’t know what it means to be a Conservative Friend, let’s talk about that during social hour.) I came to know Bill Taber when he was a member of ESR’s Board of Advisors. He taught at Pendle Hill for many years. He did many, many workshops and wrote a number of books and pamphlets.
He had a concern that we modern Quakers had lost touch with the meaning of many Quaker phrases that we have inherited from the first generation of Quakers. He meant phrases like “hold in the Light” or “the measure of Truth given to each of us.” He wanted Friends to understand those terms as they were first used because he thought they were important, essential even, to understanding Quaker spirituality. He did a number of workshops on these old Quaker phrases, which he called “A Language for the Inward Landscape.” He imagined writing a book, but he died before he could write it.
Brian Drayton is a member of New England Yearly Meeting, a member of Weare Friends in New Hampshire, and another person of deep spiritual gifts. After Bill Taber’s death, he drew on Taber’s notes and his own understanding to write the book Bill Taber might have written.
Our Meeting library has a copy and that’s how I came to read it. There’s an inscription on the cover page, signed by Brian Drayton, which reads “for dear Clarabel, friend and fellow worker in the gospel.” So this is a special book for us here at Durham Friends.
Why do Drayton and Taber speak of the inward landscape? Because for many, especially Quakers, our spiritual life unfolds within us, not ‘out there.’ Look around this Meetinghouse: no pictures, no statues, no stained glass, no soaring arches, no incense. No one dressed up in robes, no kneeling, very little performance. There may be people for whom a spiritual life requires that external sensory pageant. But for Quakers (and not only Quakers) the life spiritual unfolds within us as we seek a still small voice: the teacher within, or “the Light.”
Today, let me just say a little about what Taber and Drayton tell us about what early Quakers meant by “the Light” — what we’re looking for in this inward landscape.
For starters, of course there is the remarkable opening of the Gospel of John.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
About this, Drayton and Taber say “It must be emphasized that the first Friends did not start with this and other “Light” passages in the Bible, and then set out to make them part of living experience. Nor was it that these seekers read the scriptures, and found the answers to their questions, ending their search. The “light and life” passages had power for Friends because they expressed the way in which these spiritual pilgrims encountered Christ among them.”
In short: the experience of “the Light” came first: the felt experience. That helped them make sense of what it says in the Gospel of John.
Drayton and Taber quote something written by Isaac Penington, an important early Quaker. Penington imagines having a conversation with a person first learning about God and Jesus.
Hearing of the Savior, the learner asks “But hath not this Saviour a name? What is his name? “
And Penington answers “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.”
So Penington is sating we should strive to know The Light (whatever we call it) by our own experience, not from doctrines or creeds nor even, first, from the Bible.
Drayton and Taber quote Rufus Jones, a much more modern Quaker saying much the same thing. Here is Jones:
“The Light Within, which is the central Quaker idea, is no abstract phrase. It is an experience. It is a type of religion that turns away from arid theological notions and that insists instead upon a real and vital experience of God revealed to persons in their own souls, in their own personal lives….
“We no more need to go somewhere to find God than the fish needs to soar to find the ocean or the eagle needs to plunge to find the air…
“The Pioneer Quakers believed with all their minds and strength that something like that was true, that they had discovered it, tested it, and were themselves a demonstration of it.”
For these early Friends, “The Light” was a powerful metaphor, a way of referring to something so powerful that it was difficult, maybe impossible, to capture in words. They didn’t want us to know it through words; they wanted us to know it through direct experience.
For these early Friends, The Light was a illumination, it was the source of Truth, it was an antidote to sin, and it was a basis of unity.
That’s a lot, but they didn’t want us to take their word for it. They wanted us to seek to experience it inwardly, for ourselves.
Drayton and Taber want us to be careful, even self-conscious, when we use the term “Light.” So I want to read an important paragraph that ends with a few queries.
“In areas of Quakerdom in which the language about ‘the Light within’ has come to be used in the context of a great deal of theological diversity or uncertainty, it is important to ask, ‘What do we mean when we say “I will hold you in the light?”’ When the Light is identified, as traditionally, with the inward presence and work of Christ, this identification implies some expectation of spiritual experience. The Light is interpreted by what we learn of Christ in the Gospels and New Testament Letters; at the same time, the scriptural record is also interpreted by our encounter with the living Christ in ourselves and others.
“If the Light is not linked with the Spirit of Christ, then we must seek other ways to understand what in our experience is in harmony with the Light that we know, and what is not. So it is good to take some time in our meetings to ask each other with real interest such concrete questions as:
“(1) What do you mean by the Light, and is that an important way you experience God’s presence and action?
“(2) Have you experienced the Light visually? Do you know someone who has or unusually does?
“(3) What are the ways you distinguish between some prompting or teaching of the Light, and a prompting or urging from some other source?
“(4) What is the relation between the Light you experience and that which I experience?”
Many have found we experience the Light in waiting worship. So let us settle into worshipful seeking together.
- Brian Drayton and William P. Taber, A Language for the Inward Landscape: Spiritual Wisdom from the Quaker Movement (Tract Association of Friends, 2015), chapter 2, pp. 15-38.
- Isaac Penington, “Short Catechism for the Sake of the Simple-Hearted,” in The Works of Isac Penington, a Minister of the Gospel in the Society of Friends, volume 1, pp 123-4.
- Rufus Jones, An Interpretation of Quakerism,” https://www.pym.org/publications/pamphlets/an-interpretation-of-quakerism/.
cross-posted on Durham Friends Meeting website