Tuesday, January 31, 2012

This Life or the Afterlife

A good friend of mine posted a blog a couple of days ago in which he floated the idea that to achieve an afterlife you have to "nurture and exercise your potential immortal soul to enable it to survive the death of your body," in much the same way that you have to make the effort to learn algebra in order to solve quadratic equations. (http://blog.american.com/2012/01/a-policy-free-post-on-life-after-death/) In short, an afterlife doesn't just happen, you have to work at it. The souls of atheists would become extinct at death (epic fail on the final exam), and so, presumably, would those erstwhile slackers who undergo deathbed conversions (only to realize at the last minute that they really should have attended class). Neither, according to my friend's theory, would people who have merely lived good lives - but never actively exercised their "God muscle" - get a free pass when they shuffled off their mortal coils. Folks, however, who had done the necessary "soul work" would "graduate" to Whatever Comes Next.

It's an intriguing idea that pretty much trashes some of Christianity's most fiercely-held doctrines, from the predestination of the Calvinists to the John 3:16 formulic approach of evangelicals and fundamentalists to the Extreme Unction-get-out-of-jail-free pass of the Catholics. For Quakers, however, it's not an entirely unreasonable theory. For starters, unlike most other religious traditions, Christian or otherwise, we spend very little time either imagining or worrying about the afterlife. We're much more concerned with what is happening in the here and now and tend to work very earnestly towards achieving the peaceable kingdom in this life. We're reluctant to define "God" but strive very hard to be in His/Her/Its presence. Most Quakers of my acquaintance cheerfully acknowledge that they just don't know what happens next. No seventy-seven virgins for us or Pearly Gates, or, for that matter, hellfire and brimstone. Personally, the furthest I am prepared to go is to claim that whatever the afterlife consists of is utterly beyond the very limited comprehension of our earthbound selves, but that there is a "rightness" about it that totally transcends the picayune worries and concerns and preoccupations of our individual pre-death selves. In fact, I would be deeply disappointed if in my current very limited human state I could imagine anything close to whatever it is.

Interestingly, I believe this seemingly feckless disregard as to the final landing place of one's soul is not a modern outcome of the secularization of liberal Quakerism, but has its roots, ironically, in the apocalyptic beliefs of early Friends. When George Fox had his revelation that "Christ has come to teach his people himself," it meant much more than that people could dispense with priests and doctrine, because humanity now had the ability to interface directly and unmediated with the Divine. Fox and the early Quakers believed they were experiencing the unfolding of the Second Coming and the thousand year reign of Christ was at hand, with themselves as the vanguard. With enviable fervor, they set about establishing, quite literally, "the Kingdom of Heaven on earth," and it was in this extremely fertile growing medium that Quaker testimonies began to take root. Practice - living the "Kingdom life" - superseded what they saw as the now redundant doctrine and ritual, much of which was done "in remembrance" of Christ, because Christ was now with them.

Of course, as time passed, early Friends had to readjust their expectations regarding the end times, but the essential idea that we are called to help establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth remains to this day. While our language and descriptors may have changed, and while some modern Quakers may be uncomfortable with the Biblical language implied by "the Kingdom of Heaven," the concept runs like a golden thread throughout the 350 years of Quaker history. Even after Friends embraced a more mystical interpretation of "Christ among us," they sought (admittedly in their flawed human way) to make Quaker meetings and communities templates for the Kingdom of Heaven. The most ambitious of these projects was William Penn's Holy Experiment - the founding of Pennsylvania - in which Friends succeeded to a remarkable degree (at least in Penn's lifetime) in establishing a peaceable kingdom. Yes, it was far from the ideal Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but it was a brave attempt.

I think this visceral belief in the presence of Christ in the here and now, whether an individual Friend uses traditional Christian language or not, remains at the very heart of the Quaker experience. We do not live in a state of anticipation of either reward or punishment. We do not imagine some eventual day of reckoning. We accept the mystery that is our existence and our relationship with the Divine, and are content to know that living the faithful life while we are on this earth brings its own reward. Perhaps, as my friend surmises, our efforts in the here and now will qualify us for the afterlife, but isn't it a relief to simply greet each day as a new opportunity to live a with God life? Whatever happens after death is as it should be.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Stilling the Howler Monkeys

For my first 15 1/2 years at Quaker meeting, I endeavored mightily in silent worship to suck the incessant internal chatter out of my head in order to create that perfect "vacuum" that God, presumably, was eagerly waiting to fill. I tried all the usual techniques - mantras, short prayers, visualizations (candles, light, waterfalls), stern imprecations ("Shut up, brain!"), pep talks, etc etc etc. Needless to say, very little of this was particularly effective. The howler monkeys in my head continued to swing from tree to tree, cackling rudely at my efforts. Occasionally, I would crack an eyelid to see how everyone else was doing (hard to tell from the poker faces arranged in the pews) and also to sneak a peek at the clock tick-tocking on the meetinghouse wall. If no one offered any vocal ministry, I would feel anxious on behalf of visitors, and would begin in unQuakerly fashion to anticipate with irritation the person who at rise of meeting would feel moved to share how much he or she "loved the silence." Because, chances are, I hadn't loved the silence. Over the years, I've been bored by it, oppressed by it, longed for someone to break it and felt envious of those souls who were clearly snoring through it.

Fortunately, in the midst of all this internal struggle, God saw fit on occasion to shove me and my ego aside to let me know that He/She hadn't given up on me yet. And, fortunately, such is the nature of God that a very little bit goes a very long way. Every now and then I would receive intimations of the extraordinary power for transformation - indeed, "resurrection" - that is both the challenge and promise of a life of faith. Everything that happens in church or temple or mosque or synagogue or Quaker meeting - or any other venue where we humans conduct our spiritual lives - is either explicitly or implicitly aimed at achieving that transformation. To get there, we need to learn to see the world and ourselves anew: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks in his cavern." (William Blake)

It has only been in the past year that it has truly dawned on me that silent worship should not be a passive weekly process, but one fed by active daily engagement with the Divine. This requires not an emptying of the mind to allow God in, but a focusing towards that which is already there. Over the years, like all good Quakers, I have talked about "the Christ Within" and "that of God in everyone," but in my silent worship I have subconsciously worked on the assumption that God is "out there" somewhere, fighting for an opportunity to squeeze into my cluttered and overactive brain. During the week, I kept God on the boundaries of my "real" life and I would arrive at Quaker meeting on Sunday hoping that I could perhaps conjure the Divine promptly between 9:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. Is it any wonder the howler monkeys were laughing?

Earlier generations of Quakers understood better than we modern Friends the need to totally integrate the spiritual life with the rest of life. "Profession of truth, without the life and power, is but a slippery place, which men may easily slide from," was Isaac Penington's rather pointed observation. Meeting for Worship was firmly rooted in the daily lives of Friends; what happened in worship on First Day was a direct outcome of faithfulness the rest of the week. It was not merely a nice quiet weekly break from the busy-ness of daily life, neither was it just a place for the family to go on Sunday that enabled parents to check the mental "spiritual life" box located somewhere after "academic achievement" and "healthy eating habits." I think one reason why modern unprogrammed Friends meetings have struggled to grow is that silent worship demands so much more of people than programmed church services that provide an external focus. In times past, to become a Quaker meant a radical reordering of one's whole life and adherence to an explicit Discipline that was designed to create the conditions earlier Quakers felt were necessary to nurture a deep, life-changing relationship with the Divine. Inevitably, official Disciplines fell out of favor as they became more a means of control than a structure to support spiritual growth. And as Quakers ceased to maintain their "peculiar" identity and adopted the habits and mores of "the world," the compartmentalization of "spiritual life" and "daily life" became complete.

Modern Quakers take great pride in being "doers." If we are not careful, Meeting for Worship can became the space between committee meetings. In the words of Thomas Merton: "...if prayer, meditation and contemplation were once taken for granted as central realities in human life everywhere, they are so no longer. They are regarded, even by believers, as somehow marginal and secondary: what counts is getting things done." There is nothing wrong with 'getting things done," but if the doing crowds out the deep prayer and meditation that lies at the heart of any spiritual path, we soon find ourselves and our egos back in the driving seat with God once more pushed to the boundaries.

In today's Religious Society of Friends we no longer need fear a visit from grim-faced Elders come to point out the error of our ways, and to that I think we can all shout, "Hallejulah!" However, we are called to impose our own Discipline on ourselves and our lives. Over the years, I have been deeply privileged to meet great souls - both within Quakerism and without - who have truly integrated the Spirit into all aspects of their lives. They are not exempt from the troubles of life, but they are able to perceive the daily through the eyes of the eternal. They may not be "doing" the most, but they bring a peculiar grace to everything they do. This is what integrity means - not just speaking the truth but living the Truth, acquiring the daily habits and practices that create the necessary space for the Divine to be present and visible in us.

Since trying to live more faithfully by incorporating prayer, meditation and certain habits of thought into my daily life - in the words of George Fox, to keep close to that which is pure within me, which leads me up to God - my experience at Meeting for Worship has been qualitatively different. The howler monkeys are still there, of course - they are not easily dismissed - but they are now usually just squatting on the branches of my peripheral consciousness, rather than demanding center stage. By turning my mind and heart daily to that Divine Center, God is able to show me the parts of my life - those habits, resentments, prejudices and ego-centered ambitions - that are acting as "stops" to my ability to experience that abundant and Spirit-filled life that is the reward of faithfulness. Progress is slow, but I am increasingly aware that I live what Ben Pink Dandelion describes as "an accompanied life," and that when I sit in Meeting for Worship I don't have to go looking for God.

As Thomas Kelly so beautifully expressed it, "Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it...Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all."