Recently I had the occasion to return to some readings that I did long ago. Because of an article I am writing, I needed to go back to my Quaker roots for some ideas and Quaker way of putting those ideas. I returned to one of my favorite Quakers of last century, Douglas Steere. I knew Douglas as an acquaintance, but not well enough to call a friend. He was a long-time professor of philosophy at Haverford College in the Philadelphia area.
In some ways Douglas Steere became a role model for me. He was one of those seasoned veterans who come along early in one’s career. Douglas was an academic---a good academic. But he also was a man of the Spirit and a man of the world. Douglas was involved in the ecumenical movement long before most of us knew what the word meant. He read Catholic literature, much of which today we would talk about as the Catholic spiritual literature. He chose to spend a month in a European monastery and that shaped his own Quaker Christian spirituality.
Douglas was involved in Quaker peace work. This was especially noteworthy in Europe after WW II. This peace work continued through the Vietnam period when I came to know him. Not only did he want to work for world peace, he wanted to work for peace among the Christian churches and the various religions that span our globe. I was fascinated by his stories of being an official non-Catholic observer during the sessions of Vatican II in the late 50s and early 60s.
I turned to his little volume called, Together in Solitude. This book contains a number of different speeches and articles Steere delivered on the interior life. One of the chapters is called “Spiritual Renewal.” At one point he turns to the Grand Canyon to illustrate how time and experience weather a person. The Grand Canyon is deep and amazing because of all that time has brought it. The same can be said for the deep, mature person of the Spirit. He calls these people Grand Canyonites! As he says, “They never seem to be spared from troubles, but only to look at trouble through different eyes.”
Steere then uses the African Christian group, the Kikuyu, who experienced martyrdom for the faith at the hands of the Mau Mau tribe. They said, “Oh Lord we ask Thee not to be safe, but to be faithful.” That prayer hit me like a brick in the head! I immediately sensed the audacity of this prayer. It had a power and poignancy that I knew I was not yet capable of mustering in my own spiritual life. I could pray that, but it would be a lie. I am not yet a Grand Canyonite.
Right now I feel fortunate because it is quite likely I am not facing martyrdom. I am safe---safe at least from that kind of ultimate harm. I know there are Christians in other places in the world who do face this kind of ultimacy. They may well be Grand Canyonites. To use a baseball metaphor, I am still a minor leaguer. It remains to be seen whether I am even capable of playing at the major league level.
Clearly, I still need instruction, practice and more experience. Probably we have to be tested---and maybe tested in very significant ways---before we even know whether we are capable of playing big. What I know now is that I want to be instructed, I want to practice and I want to gain more experience. I can want all of this without necessarily wanting to be martyred. No sane person should desire to die for his or her faith. The history of the Church is clear we are not to provoke martyrdom. But we are not to shy away or run away if it comes to us.
I will continue pursuing instruction. That can come from books and from what other, more spiritually mature folks can share with me. Certainly, I need practice more than I do now. Grand Canyonites must have more than a spiritual discipline. They have found a way to live in the Spirit. Their spiritual practice must be deep and daily. I have a long ways to go here.
Finally, I can continue to welcome the kinds of experiences that will chisel me spiritually. This is where the prayer of the Kikuyu comes back into the picture. I want to be able legitimately to pray to be faithful, not safe. I hope to be safe, for sure, but I want more to be faithful. I know those are easy words. I also know the deeds are all that counts.
Steere ends that small section in his book by saying Jesus’ followers were promised three things. They would be “absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble!”