13 October 2006

Is There in Truth No Beauty?

I've found myself thinking of the idea that the Inner Light and the original Quakers were focused on sin and redemption. And certainly they made their blog posts decrying the sinful natures of towns and churches and politicians.

There's plenty of fuel for modern Friends who want to blog on the errors of others, on the moral decadence of our culture, on the failings of our Meetings, and so forth. Criticism is an easy game, and self-righteousness such a comfortable trap.

I find myself thinking, though, of George Fox's charge that we walk cheerfully over the Earth, answering that of God in everyone. That does not sound, to me, like the voice of a man eager to find fault in his fellows. Instead, it sounds like a person who sees the good -- the God -- in everyone, and speaks to what is finest in them.

I find myself thinking of the letters that early Friends wrote, reminding one another to hold to the Seed of God, to treasure it and to abide by it. They don't write as if they're engaged in a grim duty, but as though they are drunk on the beauty of the Holy Spirit.

Often, after Meeting, I am drunk on the beauty and love of the Holy Spirit. In my Joy, I am one with the Divine. Ecstatic with the mystic touch of God.

In that space, there is no room for semantic games. No place for one-upmanship. No room for sin. The Spirit has filled me up, and the Light has left no room for evil.

The word "surrender" comes from the French se rendre -- to give one's self up. It seems to me that the early Friends were talking about giving themselves up to God, that they were talking of the ecstasy that comes of walking in the Light and surrendering themselves to the Truth that comes inwardly from God.

They wanted to be Christ's disciples, the Friends of Jesus Christ. Not the followers of the words written in the Bible or of the path set forth by the church, but comrades who eat with God and sleep with God and wash dishes with God. Right now, this minute, in my mundane existence, what is it that God asks of me?

In the blogosphere, we must use words, but words are great deceivers. They can lead us from unity into semantics, from the living flesh of God to the empty icon used to represent him. It is too easy to mistake the symbol for the reality, to cleave to the empty shell rather than the living Light.

Let us sit together in silence, Friends, and welcome that which is eternal.

13 comments:

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hello, Heather!

You write, "I find myself thinking, though, of George Fox's charge that we walk cheerfully over the Earth, answering that of God in everyone. That does not sound, to me, like the voice of a man eager to find fault in his fellows."

Perhaps this is because you have forgotten the context in which that passage appears?

Here, for the record, is the context. I have bolded the part you remember, and bolded and italicized the portions where Fox calls upon Friends to confront the wrongdoing of others:

"Friends,

"In the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life, and heaven, and earth, dwell, that in the wisdom of God over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread, answering that of God in them all, spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with God. Let all nations hear the word by sound or writing. Spare no place, spare not tongue nor pen; but be obedient to the Lord God and go through the world and be valiant for the Truth upon earth; tread and trample all that is contrary under.... Keep in the wisdom of God that spreads over all the earth, the wisdom of the creation, that is pure. Live in it; that is the word of the Lord God to you all, do not abuse it; and keep down and low; and take heed of false joys that will change.

"Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground.... And none are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him which he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then the planting and the watering and the increase from God cometh. So the ministers of the Spirit must minister to the spirit that is transgressed and in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; whereby with the same spirit people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, and do service to him and have unity with him, with the Scriptures and one with another.

"And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God, be patterns, be examples in all your countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.

"Spare no deceit. Lay the sword upon it; go over it; keep yourselves clear of the blood of all men, either by word, or writing, or speaking. And keep yourselves clean ... that nothing may rule nor reign but power and life itself, and that in the wisdom of God ye may be preserved in it.

-- George Fox , "Exhortation to Friends in the ministry", 1656, reproduced in his Journal

Chris M. said...

Heather -- I looked for an "emoticon" to show me sitting here in silence, feeling centered after reading the words on your blog, but I couldn't find one. Oh, well! The words will have to do. Thanks for yours.

-- Chris M.

Heather Madrone said...

Chris,

I will be happy to meet with you in silence any time -- either in reality or on the blogosphere.

Marshall,

I'd be curious to know what meaning you take away from this passage.

Reading the longer passage does not change my impression much. Fox still seems drunk with the Holy Spirit, and wanting to pass the cup to everyone. I do not hear him castigating any person (although he did so at other times, and other early Friends definitely did). This passage just seems so full of Light and also of Lovingkindness and Love of the Truth to me.

And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God, be patterns, be examples in all your countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.

Taking the parts you have italicized,

be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread,

What wonderful swashbuckling words those are! "Be a terror to all adversaries of God." Do you think he smiled just a little bit when he said that? Do you think that perhaps he wanted Friends to be less timid, to be greater advocates for Truth?

And taking a slightly longer version of the second passage:

answering that of God in them all, spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with God.

This does not seem precisely like confronting wrongdoing to me. Confounding deceit sounds like it might be helping people to see the truth. Gathering up out of transgression into life sounds like spreading the good news, encouraging people to turn over a new leaf, that sort of thing.

Spare no place, spare not tongue nor pen; but be obedient to the Lord God and go through the world and be valiant for the Truth upon earth; tread and trample all that is contrary under....

"Speak the truth even when it is difficult, and show deceit for what it truly is."

Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground.... And none are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him which he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then the planting and the watering and the increase from God cometh.

A farming metaphor. There's nothing destructive about ploughing; it's necessary to bring in the harvest. Plough them up so they can share in the good things that God brings.

Anyway, I get several things from this passage. One is that we should be unyielding servants of truth, and the other is that this precious gift of communion with God needs to be shared.

Anonymous said...

Dear Heather,

I'm delighted by your interest in discussing the meaning of Fox's letter.

I take many understandings from the letter, too many to put into a single posting to a blog site. I'll focus here on those things I take from it that seem most pertinent, but I hope we will all bear in mind that this will leave other very important things out.

You see in this letter a Fox "drunk with the Holy Spirit". I do not. Fox was a Puritan in a Puritan age, engaged as so many of the passionate Puritans were with the moral reform of himself and the world around him. One of the key watchwords of the New Testament is the injunction to "be sober and alert" (e.g. Mark 13:33-37 / Matthew 24:42-44 / Luke 21:34-36; I Thessalonians 5:6-8; I Peter 5:8; c.f. Matthew 24:45-51 / Luke 12:41-48; also Mark 14:32-42 / Matthew 26:36-46; there are similar teachings elsewhere), and reading Fox's Journal and letters I personally get an impression of great sobriety and alertness.

Coming to the injunction, "be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread," you remark, "what wonderful swashbuckling words those are!" and invite me to imagine him smiling as he said them. This sounds as if you are asking me to believe that he didn't really mean "terror" and "dread".

But Fox's whole life shows that he himself really did become a terror and dread to God's adversaries, confronting them so uncompromisingly that they shied from him. Priests were often genuinely afraid of his appearances, appealing to their fellow-churchmen for help against him; and judges, despite their positions of power, were at least nervous. In fact, priests and professors would sometimes duck and run when they heard that he was coming, or would fail to show up when Fox challenged them to debate.

"And I would ask them, 'Have you any faith?' And they would say, 'Yes,' and that they were Christians. And I said, 'What faith is it? Will it give victory over sin and over the Devil, and purify your hearts, and bring you to have access to God again and to please God, which faith is held in a pure conscience?' And they could not endure to talk of purity or victory over sin and the Devil here on earth." (Fox, Journal, entry for 1650)

-- This really was the sort of treatment Fox gave "God's adversaries" himself, and the sort of treatment he expected other Friends to give such people as well.

You say, there's nothing destructive about plowing. But of course, one of the primary deliberate purposes of plowing is to destroy the plants already growing in the soil, so that the seed sown in the field will have no competition. So in that sense the purpose of plowing is very destructive indeed. (Plowing is also profoundly destructive of topsoil, but that is not a destruction the plowman intends.)

Fox was a country boy; he knew perfectly well how plowing is employed to destroy the weeds that crowd out the good crops. He employed his own speech to the unconvinced in similar ways, to carve through and overturn his hearers' habits and assumptions just as the plowshare carves through and overturns the weeds and their roots. The quotation I provided two paragraphs back illustrates his technique. So does the following quotation:

"...The Ranter said to me that he had a vision of me: that I was sitting in a great chair, and that he was to come and put off his hat and bow down to the ground before me, and so he did; and many other flattering words he said. When he had done I told him it was his own figure [i.e., doing this was his own idea, not God's direction]: and said to him, "Repent, thou beast." He said it was jealousy in me to say so. Then I asked him the ground of jealousy and how it came to be bred in man.... I told him he should give me an account of things done in the body before we came to discourse of things done out of the body. So I stopped up his mouth that he could say no more.... (Fox, Journal, entry for 1651)

Fox was a strong man that way, and that is part of the reason why he brought so many thousands to repentance.

So getting back to the original point on which I posted here -- you had written, "That does not sound, to me, like the voice of a man eager to find fault in his fellows." "Eagerness" may not be the precise right verb, but Fox was always alert and ready to point out the departures from truth that others engaged in, to their very faces:

"'Why,' says he, 'when Major Ceely and I came to you when you were walking in the Castle Green, he doffed his hat to you and said, 'How do you, Mr. Fox? Your servant, Sir.' Then you said to him, 'Major Ceely, take heed of hypocrisy and a rotten heart, for when came I to be thy master and thee my servant? Do servants use to cast their masters into prison?'" (Fox, Journal, entry for 1656; the Castle Green referred to was attached to the Launceston gaol, where Fox was being held prisoner after refusing to tender a loyalty oath, the Oath of Abjuration, to Major Ceely.)

-- Marshall Massey

Heather Madrone said...

Friend Marshall,

For certes, Fox could be a fierce adversary to those he judged unGodly. He had issues with authority (and, being a Berkeley girl, I share those issues to some extent). Fox's staunch stand for Truth and Justice is something we would all do well to emulate.

In this passage, however, Fox is not speaking to magistrates or hireling clergy. He's speaking to his fellows, his brethren, those on the same Godly path. Fox could be both tender and sympathetic to his friends.

When I read the "terror and dread" passage, I got a vivid image of an avuncular Fox, clapping a timid younger man on the shoulder and encouraging him to go forth and fight the foe. A smile and a swashbuckling image to send the young Friend on God's business.

Tone does not come forth well in words, but Fox seems to have been a charismatic fellow (if a bit of a thorn in the backsides of the authorities), and he was a champion and protector of the lowly.

I read this whole passage as softer than you seem to, especially the paragraph containing the part I originally quoted. Help your fellows out of the misery of sin into the Light. Set your plough to the earth and reap God's harvest. Do good work, and be an example to all.

When I hear a story of a person lost in drug addiction or gambling or war or some other form of evil, I don't imagine that they're happy with the life they're living. They'd like to be shown the way out of their darkness into the Light. (Well, okay, not always and not immediately. Denial is a very powerful force, and humans have a real talent for self-deception.)

Anyway, Marshall, why do you think Fox instructed people to walk cheerfully?

In appreciation,

Heather

Marshall Massey said...

But he didn't instruct people to walk cheerfully, Heather! He said that when they followed his instructions to "be patterns, be examples ... that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them", then they would come to walk cheerfully.

In other words, the cheerfulness Fox was writing of was not to be a deliberate, affected practice of Friends. Rather, it was something that would come of its own accord when the work was completed -- when the patterning and exemplifying, the trampling down of all that is contrary to God's will, and the humbling ("plowing up") of all who had transgressed, had had their due transformative effect upon the world.

Go back and re-read the text, and you will see that this is so.

Moreover, this cheerfulness that would come at the end, would not be just any old cheerfulness; it would be the specific cheerfulness that happens as one "answers that of God in every one".

Again, go back and re-read the text, and you will see that this is so.

And what is "that of God"? As is clear from Fox's words in many places elsewhere in his writings, it is the voice of God in each person's heart and conscience, the voice that rebukes us when we do wrong, but approves us when we do right.

When we have the approval of that voice in other people's hearts and consciences, this makes us cheerful, natch. And the way to have the approval of that voice in other people's hearts and consciences, Fox was saying in this letter, is to be proper patterns and examples, and to confound deceit, and to tread and trample down all resistance to that voice, and to plow up those hearts that are full of weeds that choke out the seed.

Fox is not "clapping timid younger men on the shoulder". Friends in 1656, when this letter was written, were not timid younger men; they were people who'd already proved their mettle in combat throughout England. Fox was in fact one of the younger men in the movement! Many of his fellow believers were literal veterans of combat in Cromwell's New Model Army during the Civil War -- often former officers, who had led their men into battle; most had already gone about their towns and villages preaching the Quaker gospel and being beaten or imprisoned for it, or had suffered persecution and distraint of goods for their faithfulness to Quaker principles. Fox was therefore not encouraging the young or timid here, but addressing seasoned warriors senior to himself, whose courage and commitment was not in any doubt.

Fox's purpose, as the letter itself shows, was to exhort these old warriors to follow a particular strategy of world-change -- one which, to get back to my original point, did indeed involve finding fault in sinners.

Liz Opp said...

Heather, it's taken me a while to make my way to your post. Despite the back-and-forth that you and Marshall have been having, I wanted to affirm the sense of wonder, the experience of being so close to the Living Presence, the joy of being faithful that you describe so well here.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

James Riemermann said...

The context cited above does not change the loving and generous meaning of Fox's most famous words in the least. George clearly wants us to "walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you." The clear implication is that by being loving and generous with every single human being, we will influence others to be loving and generous. It's really not complicated at all.

Albion said...

Dear Friend Marshall,

Thanks for preaching the REAL George Fox and the Way, and the One that he pointed to.

I'm not sure that your being heard, but keep up the good work!

Blessings, Albion Guppy

Marshall Massey said...

Oh, Lordy -- I'm not trying to foment a religious war here!

Heather, my apologies for bringing things to this pass.

Heather Madrone said...

Marshall,

Thanks for trying to keep peace among Friends. Dialogue means that we listen as well as speaking, and I appreciate your ability to hold onto that.

Thanks also for your thoughts on George Fox. Your scholarship goes deep, my Friend, and has generated a lot of thought about my relationship to Fox's ideas.

Love and appreciation,

Heather

Albion said...

Marshall Massey said;

"Oh, Lordy -- I'm not trying to foment a religious war here!"

Nor was I..........sad, I comment about what you said, and I'm seen as "trying to start a religious war".

Liberal Friends must be real woose's to take things so seriously.

I said exactly what I mean't, and it was an observation, and that's it.

See, this is why I stopped blogging, Liberal Friends always try to make Christ Centered Friend's out to be Right Wing religious fundamentalist's.

When we simply state an opinion, it's like we're seen as "trying to start a religious war".

Lame.......very lame.

Regards, Albion Guppy

Heather Madrone said...

Albion,

"Yup, what lame wusses you liberal Quakers are," you say as you put your muddy feet up on my couch.

I'll just put the troll food out of reach here.