Lessons from the Past
by Linda Clarke
“We believe that the Spirit calls us to answer that of God in every person; as we do so, it unites us in a community of God.”
As you approach the entrance to our meetinghouse, you will see these words just beneath those that identify us and state that “All Are Welcome.” When I first began to attend meeting, I was awed by these words and I remain awed by them twenty years later. So when a newcomer to Quaker meeting asked me about the meaning of this quote, I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of sharing my view. So much is conveyed by these few words which refer back to our very beginning with George Fox.
Historians generally agree that the beginning of our community was with George Fox and other Seekers. It was so long ago, yet these ancestors had much in common with us today. We are not in the midst of outright civil war as they were, but our times often seem just as tumultuous, just as uncertain. Fox’s Journal is filled with anguish over, and a passion to relieve, human suffering. His quest begins with a search for relief of his own “condition,” and once he finds it, he is certain that it will help others. Early teachings about “inward light” made it possible for all to experience Spirit individually and independently, and to discover ourselves as equals. In claiming equality for ourselves we must necessarily grant it to all. This is at the very core of the call to “answer that of God in every person.”
In Fox’s life (1624-1691), social equality was clearly connected to a Spiritual equality. Some examples of social equality were seen in the acceptance of all classes of people, in Quaker preachers who were uneducated, and in women preaching. Early Quakers were notorious for asserting their own equality by exercising their consciences against authority, even though it so frequently brought great sufferings.
When Fox speaks of his “condition” most of us today can identify at least with that part that relates to politically and socially produced angst. Our lives are much more complicated but maybe we still have some things in common.
Our testimony, which contains the essence of our spiritual conviction (or faith), is often taught or described through a mnemonic device which lists some components: SPICES (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship). I believe our greatest challenges today in living up to our Spiritual conviction are around integrity and equality. The most common use for the word “integrity” refers to being honest and having strong moral principles. The secondary usage, referring to the state of being whole and undivided, is the definition that I have in mind in this discussion. While this sense of integrity is always important, it often can be keenly felt when we venture into the concept of “equality.” How can we feel whole if we are so divided among and within ourselves over the meaning and position of equality in our lives and in our very beings? How can we answer to “that of God in every person” if we cannot really see them as equals?
Early Quakers discovered a new and radical way of being in the world while remaining connected to Spirit, leaving us with a rich heritage to draw upon in our own turbulent time.