I have been doing some background reading for an article I intend to write. This kind of work is interesting to me for a number of reasons. In this instance one reason is one of the people I am focusing on is someone I knew, namely, Douglas Steere, a stalwart Quaker of the 20th century. I knew Douglas and his wife, Dorothy, through some mutual Quaker activities. At the time I came to know him, Douglas was already post-retirement. Although he was still very active, he clearly was aging.
Douglas was one of those people who had done many significant things in his life. It was easy for me to see this man in his “ripe old age.” I have used that line many times. When I used it as a kid, it was not usually complimentary. The connotations suggested some old guy who basically had lost it…or outlived his usefulness in life. The arrogance of youth is sometimes truly amazing! Perhaps God’s best joke on me is giving me enough years that I slowly am becoming a guy looking in the mirror as his “ripe old age.” And maybe I have lost it and don’t know it!
But Douglas was a sage---his wisdom was both impressive and evident. His experience was both deep and wide. He had participated in redevelopment work after WW II in Europe. He was an official non-Catholic observer during the Vatican II sessions. He was a mover and shaker with many major players on the religious scene in the middle of the 20th century. For example, I have enjoyed coming to know about Steere’s relatively brief friendship with Thomas Merton, famous Catholic monk who died in 1968.
I was reminded of this relationship when I was re-reading a 1975 article Steere entitled, “Contemplation and Leisure.” In that article Douglas was talking about some of the essence of the Quaker spirit. Since I am a Quaker, I had to chuckle at this description. According to Steere, Quakers “have nevertheless throughout their history been in continuous protest against an overplanned church, with overplanned programs, overplanned rituals, overplanned physical plants, overplanned creedal requirements, and overplanned authority and patterns of governance.” I laughed because I thought there are seeds of truth in this.
It seems to me any institution inherently tends in the direction of overplanniing. The overplanning often becomes part of the structure. But sometimes the structure and the overplanning begin to sap the life out of the institution. Institutions rush ahead to plan even more. Activity sometimes masks effectiveness. Just “doing it,” is not the same as “doing something important.”
Too often, individuals and groups do not stop and occasionally ask, “why are we doing this?” And if we never ask this question, probably we will keep on doing what we are doing. We will assume it is important or, perhaps, meaningful. This especially concerns me when I think about walking along the spiritual path. The real question here is whether God is leading me along in the direction I am going?
I have often told people I only have two key issues in my life: learning how to live and to love. It is easy to assume I am doing fine with these, but deep down, I know that is not a legitimate assumption. I need to test it some. Am I in touch with God and what God desires from me? Is my life heading in that vital, loving direction I most want?
Quakers have traditionally held to the notion that God is present to us and that we can know the Divine Desire for our lives. But it is not automatic. God will not text me to tell me how it’s going. I don’t go on email expecting something from the Holy One! This is where one last line from Steere was incredibly helpful.
Steere assures me and you in these words. “Of this Inward Guide, the Quakers would agree with Thomas Merton that when they are truly quiet and centered ‘we don’t have to rush after it. It was there all the time and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.’” I love this idea and want to take the leisure to practice it. I want to quiet myself and spend some centered time so that the Inward Guide will make itself known to me.
This is not the same thing as the institutional answer. It is not doctrine, much less dogma that I am looking for. I am looking for the Divine Voice itself to speak to my life. And I am willing to take the time and exercise the patience to wait for it. Don’t rush it! I realize how difficult this can be, even for me as a Quaker. And I realize how counterculture it seems to Americans who are used to instant responses.
One cannot plan the time, place, and occasion when God automatically will reveal the Divine Self to us. Certainly, one cannot overplan this event or experience. Don’t rush it. Relax and be quiet. Center and allow yourself to move from the margins of your life to the core where your soul can be touched by the Holy One. You can do it. I can do it. I will do it.