Mind the Oneness: The Mystic Way of the Quakers PHP #463 Rex Ambler
Mysticism as Mystery
The word mysticism comes originally from the Greek word muein, which means “to close the mouth” or “to close the eyes”. From there, the word mustikion came to mean “secret,” as something that you either would not or could not speak about. It was a gesture of a finger to the mouth. Or perhaps a hand to the mouth. If the finger says “Do not speak about this,” the hand to the mouth says, “We cannot speak about this.” Remember what Job said to God when he encountered him directly for the first time: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4, ASV). There is nothing he can say that will match what he has experienced. That sense of something that cannot be spoken about lies behind that other Greek word that derives from muein, musterion, mystery. From the very beginning that word has been used to refer, not just to strange or difficult things, but also to things which are inherently beyond our grasp: the mysteries of life and death. Yet some of these things are very important to us. That simple fact has bedeviled human beings for a very long time. In a world that is full of uncertainty and danger, what can we ultimately rely on? And when we suffer, as we inevitably do, what meaning or purpose can we find in our lives? These are questions that elude us. Yet sometimes we get insights into these things, maybe flashes when it all becomes clear, and those become makers that can guide us on our way. But how do we recall such moments? How do we tell others or even ourselves, what exactly happened and what it means? Words are inadequate. Words couldn’t get us to the insight, and they can’t convey it either. So we “close our mouth.” It is mu, it is a mystery.
Some ancient Greek philosophers used the word in this sense. Parmenides and Plato made it clear that the important truth of our life, the reality we most need to get in touch with, is elusive and hard to find. When we do discover it, we find that it is really something disclosed to us. It is given; our hard work in trying to get to the truth is merely a preparation for the decisive moment in which it just happens. “All of a sudden,” said Plato, “we see.” And when we see we recognize it as something we always somehow knew. There is already, deep within us, a connection with this ultimate reality we need to know. So this gives us a sense of who we are and where we belong. A light deep inside shows it to us. If we then live in that light we are connected with reality and live a good life, and we can do good to others.
The following are all from Howard H. Brinton’s “Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience Among Friends.”
Mary Penington’s Journal . She wrote this when she was about thirteen:
I was unable to sit at my work, but was strongly inclined to go into a private room, which I did, and shutting the door, kneeled down and poured out my soul to the Lord in a very vehement manner. I was wonderfully melted and eased, and felt peace and acceptance with the Lord: and that this was true prayer, which I had never before been acquainted with.
In “Finding the Tail of Life”, Rufus Jones describes family meeting in his home before he was old enough to go to school:
The silences, during which all the children of our family were hushed with a kind of awe, were very important features of my spiritual development. There was work inside and outside the house waiting to be done, and yet we sat there hushed and quiet, doing nothing. I very quickly discovered that something real was taking place. We were feeling our way down to that place from which living words come and very often they did come. Someone would bow and talk with God so simply and quietly that He never seemed far away. The words helped to explain the silence. We were now finding what we have been searching for. When I first began to think of God I did not think of Him as very far off.
Elbert Russel (1871-1951) wrote in his journal:
On this particular Wednesday evening there was nothing unusual. It was hot and sultry. The kerosene lamps were dim in the south or men’s meeting room. There were not more than a dozen present, men and women about equally divided. These meetings were largely silent. I do not recall any preacher present or spoken message. “Sammy” Spray very often prayed at these meetings and invariably ended his prayer with the words, “Throughout the ceaseless ages of a never-ending eternity.” I always hoped he would add “forever” and make it complete.
On this evening a sense of the seriousness of life came to me, and under it I reviewed my conduct and found it unsatisfactory. I saw that the ideals our group of young people were following were unworthy; I had no emotional conviction of sin, but I resolved to turn over a new leaf and occupy myself with worthier things. It marked a stage in my growing up. I tried to behave like a young man and gave up acting like a child. As I look back on this experience, it seems strange to me that there was in it no deep sense of God’s presence nor reproaches of conscience. I just put away what had suddenly been revealed to me as wrong.
Alfred Garrett writes in his Journal:
While sitting in our Friends’ Meeting for Worship in Germantown, there seemed to come out of the silence a quite new and distinct realization of the love of God. I remember considering whether this meant that he loved me or that I loved him: I felt that I had loved him a good deal in the past, but here was something new, something better, stronger, fresher; in fact, that at that very moment God was really loving me. I can now see that this was quite fundamental, if God was really making himself known to me as Love. In fact, might this not be interpreted as a beginning of “revelation”–a mystical perception of the Divine? Many years after, I began to call experiences of this sort, “the discovery of the Divine Love,” and to regard them as the most important thing that could befall a human being.
David Ferris reported this dream:
One night I dreamed that I saw a large, spacious building, in an unfinished state; and the master builder, who appeared an excellent person, came to me as I stood at a distance, and desired me to go and take a view of it; to which I agreed: and as we were surveying it and examining the particular parts I observed that among the many pillars, erected for the support of the building, there was one lacking. I queried of him, what was the cause of that vacancy. He replied, it was left for me; and that I was specially designed and prepared for the place, and showed me how I fitted it, like a mortise is fitted to its tenon. So that I saw in my dream that all he said was true. But, notwithstanding all this, I objected to my capacity and fitness to fill the vacancy, and was therefore unwilling to occupy it. He endeavored, by the most convincing reasons, to remove all my objections, and to demonstrate that I was fitted for the place. He further told me that they had not another prepared for it; and that the building would be retarded if I did not comply with the design. After he had reasoned with me a long time, and I still refused, he appeared to be grieved, and told me it was a great pity that I should be rendered useless in the house by my own obstinacy; and then added, “But it must not be so; for it though wilt not be a pillar, though shalt be a plank for the floor.” He then showed me how I might be flattened and prepared for that purpose. But I refused that place also, on the ground that it looked to diminutive to be a plank to be trod upon by all that came into the house.
The book Hidden In Plain Sight: Quaker Women’s Writings 1650-1700 contains a tract by Katharine Evans & Sarah Chevers in which they shared their struggles while traveling in ministry. In this account, Katharine is being held and interrogated by a Catholic “Fryar” [friar] of the Spanish Inquisition who told them if they would convert to Catholicism, they would be saved.
Now the Lord said, Fear not Daughters of Sion, I will carry you forth as Gold tryed out of the fire. And many precious promises did the Lord refresh us with, in our greatest extremity, and would appear in his glory, that our souls would be ravished in his presence; I had the Spirit for Prayer upon me, and I was afraid to speak to the Lord, for fear I should speak one word that would not please him. And the Lord said, Fear not Daughter of Sion, ask what thou wilt, and I will grant it thee, whatsoever thy heart can wish. I desired nothing of the Lord but what would make for his glory, whether it were my liberty or bondage, life or death, wherein I was highly accepted of the Lord.