A Response to Madeline Schaefer from a Quaker Mystic

A Response to Madeline Schaefer from a Quaker Mystic

First, I appreciate the willingness to both name and discuss the division between the Mystics and the Activists in the Quaker Community of our day.  It is an issue that is close to me, as I think of myself as a mystic and often feel, to varying degrees, alienated from the activist focus of so many Quakers individuals and Quaker organizations.

My take on this is that contemporary Quaker activism is a part of the largely political and activist focus that contemporary American religion is gripped by at this time.  In other words, I see Quaker activism as the same as evangelical activism, or the activism of many Catholics, for various causes, for various legislative platforms, and for various candidates.  For example, evangelicals and Catholics will urge participation in various anti-abortion demonstrations, and support of legislation and court action to further this agenda.  In the same way Quaker activists urge participation in demonstrations for their causes and concerns, and support of legislation and court action to further their particular agenda.  I don’t see Quaker activism as being distinctive; I think of it as simply a part of what is happening in American religion in general at this time.  Both sides see activism as the ultimate goal of their religious expression; they just disagree about the particulars of the activist focus.

The greatest difficulty I have with your post is that your view is that mysticism is an adjunct to effective activism rather than an end in itself.  For example, you wrote;

“To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.”

You see, that is not how I experience the Spirit.  I don’t experience the Spirit as a ‘call to action’.  And this is the divide between the mystic and the activist.  The activist views contemplation, gathered silence, dwelling in the light, as tools for a more effective activism.  In this way these prayerful engagements are hijacked by the activist and are transformed into means rather than ends; they become tools for the activist in the same way that making a poster, or putting up a web-page are tools for effective activism.

What the activist does not comprehend about the mystic is that, for the mystic, interior prayer, gathered silence, is the leading, is the purpose, and is sufficient unto itself.  The mystic does not view these engagements as tools, or add-ons, for a political purpose. 

From the activist perspective, this is inadequate.  As Howard Brinton wrote in his ‘Introduction’ to the book ‘A Guide to True Peace’, “This solution [of interior prayer] will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists, the two groups that dominate our age.”  This is because the activist is always outward oriented and wants to see results ‘in the real world’.  In contrast, the mystic finds the realm of interior silence to be as real, or more real, than what is found by focusing outward.  In the inward turning the mystic finds a true home.

For the activist this is to ignore the suffering and injustices in the world.  But for the mystic there is the experience, which grows over time, that the silence and stillness found by turning inward is a blessing to the whole world, a blessing which does not give rise to strife and contention.  Because this blessing is not palpable or measurable in material terms, the activist tends to dismiss this.  Personally, though, I have come to comprehend that the turning inward of the mystic is the most that I can do for other people.  Not that I have that particular motivation for turning inward.  Rather, that blessing is a consequence of the grace that such turning opens to.

In closing, again, I would like to express my gratitude for bringing up the division.  It is, in large part, I feel, unaddressed in Quaker communities these days.  I wonder if modern Quakers can find a place for those called to a mystic practice that does not involve activism.  Is there room in the modern Quaker community for something like a Quaker Hermit, or a Quaker Recluse?  I’m not sure, but it is my hope that room can be made for such a leading, for such a calling.



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Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 27, 2014 at 1:26pm

I agree that a person can well be "called to inaction" as well as to "inaction." A person's gotta do what a person's gotta do -- and not at all what some other person might find a more desirable outcome.

There is continual interplay between "inward" and "outward" [or how else could contemplatives be here interacting?]

There was a 'mixed' couple here in San Diego; he was demonstrating with/for local homeless people and she was (besides serving a regular food line) meditating with him outside City Hall on the same occasion. One night a policewoman insisted she couldn't sit and meditate, but had to "keep moving or we'll arrest you." Being told of this, the next night I was there with my cushion... [and a very strange series of events that led to... ] Anyway, after I'd been arrested ("Take him in for 'tarrying'!") and found 'not guilty' I felt called, much later, to repeat the experience. This was a combination of inward experiences, prophetic sign, and means of providing temporary sanctuary to quite a few homeless people who used it as a cover for sleeping unmolested.

Once a policeman said that if I wanted to influence the City Council I should come during the day, when they could see me. I was given an immediate response to him: "I want to be in their dreams!" Not literally what I had in mind... but this practice was not just an influence on outward events, but a means of spiritual connection for me. As in Daniel Snyder's [later] title: "Quaker Witness as Sacrament."

And since then I have felt strongly called to political inaction. "Pay no attention to Caesar; Caesar doesn't have the faintest notion what's really going on."

Comment by James C Schultz on 3rd mo. 29, 2014 at 6:20pm

Activism without love is politics.  Mysticism is an infilling of love that eventually will overflow the recipient.  In this country there is too much politics and not enough love.

Comment by Isaac Smith on 3rd mo. 29, 2014 at 7:28pm
What we're looking for here, I think, is ministry, something Steven Davison has been banging on for a while now on his blog. Ministry is the outward expression of an inward concern, the realization of those leadings that may come to us in prayer and worship. The paradigmatic example of this is John Woolman and the Indians: prompted by love ("the first motion", as he put it), he went out to meet with them, see how they were living, and thus see how to forge better relations between them and the colonists. But ministry may take many forms, political direct action being one of them. The important thing to remember is that the work of ministry is simply putting the commandment to love one's neighbor add oneself into practice, which you should be doing anyway, no matter your persuasion. Mystics should be as interested in the condition of their brothers and sisters as the activists, even if they approach the situation differently.
Comment by James C Schultz on 3rd mo. 30, 2014 at 9:07am

It's not a question of being interested in the condition of their brothers and sisters so much as it is in being transformed into a "new creation" who by living as that new creation enriches his or her brothers and sisters.  In some churches "Ministry" is defined as "serving God" which subliminally is linked to serving the "Church" in it's narrowest sense - the building, the congregation - as a pastor, usher, choir member, etc.  But we should think of ourselves as bees coming out of our cocoons.  We don't decide to bless the world by pollinating plants.  We will pollinate plants as we go about our  natural lives as new creations in Christ.  A lover loves everyone he or she meets.  If you don't do that. don't worry.  Life and mysticism is about teaching you how.  The problem for a Mystic is withdrawing from life for more than an appointed time.  Eventually bees have to leave their cocoons to become who they were meant to be.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 3rd mo. 30, 2014 at 10:09am

James: Thanks for thy comments.  I found them illuminating and helpful.  I would add that there is a minstry that speaks to the world through silence and reclusion.  And my feeling is that this ministry does assist in healing the world through love.

Isaac: Thanks for thy thoughtful observations.  John Woolman seems to be the archetypal activist and in my reading of activist Quakers he is referenced more than any other Quaker.  That makes sense.  For the hermit or recluse, there are other models, the oldest being Anthony of the Desert.  In many ways Anthony embodied a Quaker spirit of simplicity, peace, and the other virtues of the Quaker Way.  I know that Anthony precedes by many centuries the Quaker presence; yet I would still put forth the possibility of Anthony as an embodiment of our Faith and Practice.  And I wonder if, in Quaker history, there might be uncovered those who emobdy a more contemplative understanding of the Quaker Way.  My suspicion is that there are such people and that they are hidden in our history.  I suspect we can find them if we look.

Best wishes,


Comment by Keith Saylor on 3rd mo. 30, 2014 at 10:56am

A personal witness.

Mystic Experience: Entering into the rest of God which is held in direct faith and direct experience of the mystery of a new consciousness and pure conscience.

Coming into this experience is not a cocooning. It is, in itself, the shedding of the cocoon ... entering into a new and different way of  Being.

Lichens are very special life forms. Simple put; they are the result of the symbiosis between two different species ... fungi and algae. Under the right conditions, these two come together to form a new species that is sufficient in itself.  

To me, those who know the mystery of faith held in pure consciousness and conscience, through the power of the presence of Christ, are Being which is different and sufficient unto themselves. In the mystery, they have become what they were meant to be.

Mystics are like Lichen. They are a new species; formed in the nursery of duality but no longer needful of it.

Lichen Species - Cladonia bellidiflora

Comment by Robyn Josephs on 3rd mo. 30, 2014 at 12:57pm

Pray is action in my hermitage .

Comment by Johan Maurer on 3rd mo. 31, 2014 at 2:48am

I love this conversation! I plan to follow it up in my own space (my blog) at some point, but for now I just want to say that my ideal Friends church would have both Madeline and Jim in it.

I'd agree with Jim that the activist is not the right person to define the role of the mystic. Since we can't all know everything spontaneously and simultaneously, nor all be at the exact same level of spiritual maturity, there is no possibility of some kind of utilitarian coordination of mystics and activists. The linkage must be in love, patience, and--what's crucial to me--intercessory prayer. How can our church bless an activist who is confronting the powers and principalities without bathing that person in constant prayer? It's not that such prayer is "assigned" to the mystic; it comes naturally in the divine economy of love.

The practical requirement that flows out of this division of labor is patience. The mystical imperative is immersion in awareness of God; silence is our spiritual oxygen. The activist (to risk a stereotype) translates love into action, and the oxygen is meaningful contact with the community, rarely a silent process. It's no wonder that they will sometimes get on each other's nerves, as I've witnessed myself countless times.

One of our most experienced and eager Friends here in Moscow can't endure more than 40 minutes of silence (she says) while at the end of an hour I feel as if we're just getting started. The pragmatic "Russian solution," if I can call it that, is for people to arrive at various points during meeting for worship, corresponding to how much silence they feel they need--something that would get on the nerves of most English-speaking Quakers I know, mystics and activists alike! In any case, patience is not optional.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 3rd mo. 31, 2014 at 10:03am

Good Morning:

I want to expand on one point I touched on in my original post.  I stated that 'I do not experience the Spirit as a call to action', but I didn't elaborate on how I do experience Spirit.  I would, tentatively, refer to my experience of Spirit as the experience of 'Dwelling'; that is what I meant when I said the mystic finds in the inward turning a true home.  I do not really feel 'at home' in a political or activist context, but I feel very much at home in gathered silence and prayer.  This, of course, is a metaphor and has its weaknesses, but I thought it a good idea to open up a little regarding this kind of experience.

Keith: I like the comparison to lichen; it's down to earth and simple, easy to relate to.

Johann: I like the pragmatic solution of allowing members to join the gathered silence at the point which they find needful.  I have sometimes observed that newcomers find a full hour of gathered silence to be quite a challenge.  And I'm thinking this pragmatic approach might be just the thing for those who are new to this Way to slip into it.  I look forward to your further observations.


Comment by James C Schultz on 3rd mo. 31, 2014 at 4:50pm

I don't think this is one of those esoteric topics that we can look at as just fascinating or fun to discuss.  I think this is a topic central to survival of Quakers as a worthwhile spiritual expression.  I wrote and submitted an article for the next issue of NYYM's "Spark" which addresses this issue.  I believe it is imperative that Quakers establish themselves as Mystics, the reasons for which I go into more fully in the article.


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