This I Know Experimentally

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, June 5, 2022

I want to begin this morning with a story familiar to Friends.  It’s the story of George Fox’s epiphany.  It’s about a moment in his life in 1647 when he was at a place called Pendle Hill.  It’s the moment he realized that God could and would speak to him in the present.  It’s the story of when he came to realize that he did not need priests or preachers or pastors.  It’s the story of when he came to realize the power of the Light Within.

He had been  seeking help in his spiritual journey from various learned and supposedly wise people.  None of them seemed to be able to help him.  He was in despair.  And then he realized something unexpected and wonderful.  Here’s how he tells the story in his Journal.  Speaking of the priests and preachers and pastors from whom he had been seeking assistance, he said,

I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition;’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall prevent it? and this I knew experimentally.”    — George Fox, 1647

I think the words we mostly remember from this are these:  “I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition;’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

Those are striking words, no doubt about it.  But today it’s the last phrase that is on my mind.  “And this I knew experimentally.”  “And this I knew experimentally:”  what did Fox mean by this?

I’m not a linguist or a philologist, but I think Fox’s use of the word “experimentally” is a very early use of that word in English.  It’s a newish word when he spoke it.  We don’t yet have in 1647 ‘the scientific method’ as we know it today.  Galileo had just died, still convicted of heresy by the Pope.  And Isaac Newton was just age 5 in 1647.  We shouldn’t think the word ‘experimental’ had precisely the same narrow meaning then that it might today. But it did have a meaning roughly like the way we use it today

Broadly speaking, to know something “experimentally” is to know it “by experience.”  Fox doesn’t mean that he had conducted a formal experiment with randomized groups or controls or double-blind procedures, the way scientists might speak about experiments today.  But in saying he knew this “experimentally” he does mean he had direct experience. 

When we speak of “experience” we mean direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge.  Normally, we mean seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – knowledge we gain through our senses.  Most of us today think of our senses as external senses: they are how we perceive or experience the world ‘out there’.  What Fox is saying, I think, is that we can have internal experience.  There is another sense beyond the five we mostly count.  It’s an internal sense.  I think this is what Fox is speaking about when he says, “And this I knew experimentally.”

I felt it.  I heard it.  It touched me.  I felt it within. 

This is all on my mind because I’ve found myself thinking about what this ‘direct experience’ feels like.  What does it ‘feel like’ when God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit – however you want to name the Divine — ‘speaks to my condition?’  What do I know when I know experimentally?

Fox heard a voice.  There are some who have quite a forceful experience.  The Apostle Paul was one.  Acts 9:3-4 tells the story:  As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He saw a light. 

In 1559 (about a century before Fox’s epiphany) Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite Nun had a quite direct experience with a seraph – a kind of angel:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it … She felt a touch that pierced her. 

 Most of us don’t have experiences as dramatic as these.  So, again, what does it feel like?  That’s a question for each of us to answer.  Each of us might give a somewhat different answer. For most of us, it’s less like piercings of the heart and more like glimpses and nudges.  Over the centuries, Quakers have recorded what it felt like in journals and in letters to one another.  The glimpses and nudges are so gentle that most of us have to learn to notice them.  They can be subtle; they can be easy to miss. 

This spring, along with a dozen or two others, I’ve been in a Midweek Meditation group led by Brian Drayton.  He’s been having us read and reflect on some of the letters and essays of Isaac Penington, a contemporary of Fox who was drawn to Quakerism.  

In one, Penington speaks of the “breathings” of the Lord leaving a living presence in him. 

In the same essay, he asks, “Dost thou feel the ease which comes from the living arm, to the heart which is joined to it in the light of the gospel?”  And he asks, “Dost thou feel the life and power flowing in upon thee from the free fountain?”  The direct experience he’s talking about is a breath, now it’s a touch, and now it’s a taste of water.

What strikes me in these passages is that Penington is not saying, authoritatively, ‘This is what it feels like.’  He’s not telling; he’s asking: “Dost thou feel?”  He is suggesting; he is coaching.  He is asking, did it feel something like this? 

He is directing our attention to what it might feel like.  But it is up to us to say.  We have to figure it out.  We have to feel it; we can’t be told what we should feel. 

In these suggestions he offers – “Dost thou feel?” – he mentions all of the familiar external senses as what it might feel like internally.  It might be something we see, or it might be a voice we hear.  It might be a body touch – a nudge that leads us down a path.  It might be a lingering smell, or a taste of something refreshing that gives us guidance. 

Penington has a language for the external senses, but not really the words that communicate what it might feel like within.  Nor really do any of us.  So Penington offers a variety of analogies: it might feel like this; it might feel like that, it might feel like this. 

Penington is assuring us, with Fox, “this we know experimentally.”  We can have direct experience.  He is also telling us, the experience may be subtle; we may have to search for it; we may have to quiet ourselves and still ourselves to feel the experience. 

Nevertheless, we can do this.  This we know experimentally.  So, Friends: dost thou feel?

Also posted on the website of Durham Friends Meeting

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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1 Response to This I Know Experimentally

  1. Pingback: “This I Know Experimentally,” by Doug Bennett | Durham Friends Meeting (Quaker)

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