Tending to the Divine Within During Times of Crisis

by Christopher Sammond

As Quakers, we often bandy about the phrase “there is that of God in each of us.”  We often remind ourselves of this when someone in our midst is acting out in ways that are particularly challenging to that assertion.   But do we let it in, I mean really take it in, that there is that of the Divine in each of us, and that that means within me, as well?  Do we know it as a spiritual reality, and not as metaphor, not empty theologizing?

In 1990, I was a resident student at Pendle Hill.  Following a powerful leading, and way opening in marvelous ways (given that I was dead broke), I had signed up for one ten week term.  I ended up staying for two.  I was earnestly seeking something, an experience of the Living God, though at the time I might not have put it that way.  In my 35 fellow residents, there were two who I could feel had something, something I wanted.  I tried to spend time with them, curious as to what was drawing me in their direction.  In hindsight, they had what I was seeking, but I didn’t know that.

In worship each day, what I kept hearing from my inner voice, was “You need to be out of that relationship,” meaning with my girlfriend at the time.  This was not welcome guidance.  I wrestled long and hard with that, day after day.  And at the same time as I was getting guidance, guidance I really didn’t want, I was deeply, deeply spiritually hungry.  Then one day in worship I was led to offer the 23rd Psalm.  I got as far as “…I will fear not, for Thou art with me,” and my world split open.  I knew this to be the truth- that what I sought so earnestly was with me, and had been all the time.  I melted into a puddle of tears, tears of joy knowing the truth of that, and palpably feeling the reality of that Presence, that of God within.

It’s not just Quakers who have known this spiritual reality of the Divine Indwelling.  Mystical traditions across time and geography have independently found the same truth, named in different ways.  One of my favorite descriptions is from the Upanishads, the ancient pre-Vedic literature of the Hindu tradition:

Two birds sit on a branch

One eats the fruit, the other watches.

The part of us that “eats the fruit” is the part of us that moves through life, has a job, relationships, family, acquires possessions, and has experiences.  This is a crucial, good, and necessary part of who we are.  And the “one who watches,” the Witness, the Observer, is the Divine spark within each of us, present to all this worldly activity.  A seminal question is, what is the right relationship between these two parts of ourselves?  How do we navigate life, conscious of both, giving each its due?

Most of us have had experiences like the one I had at Pendle Hill.  They change us, at least for a while.  Problem is, “spiritual amnesia” tends to set in, and bit by bit, the life changing impact of those experiences fades.  And in times of deep challenge and crisis, that impact is even more easily lost.

We are heading into times of overwhelming challenge, fraught with multiple interlocking crises.  How do we stay connected to, and in right balance with, that of God within?  Etty Hillesum, a Jew living in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, a time of crisis more severe than I hope any of us ever have to endure, lived these same questions.

“Dear God, These are anxious times.  Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me.  I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing:  I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow, although that takes some practice.  Each day is sufficient to itself.  I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance.  But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves.  And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves.  And perhaps in others as well.  Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives.  Neither do I hold You responsible.  You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

                                                                                    Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life, pp.186-7

How to live out these questions, and how to tend to the place where we touch God and God touches us is one of the threads running throughout the program Participating in God’s Power: Tending the Root of Our Worship and Witness.  In future blog posts, I’ll outline different ways in which we can tend to this connection.


(Parts of this blog post draw from material I used in Southeastern Yearly Meeting’s J. Bernard Walton Lecture this Spring.)


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