Ann Arbor Friends Meeting
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Readings for Reflection: October 2003
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Mysticism Among Quakers

The following is excerpted with permission from “Mysticism Among Quakers,” by Marge Abbott, The Woodbrooke Journal, Autumn, 1998, vol.3

The inexorable linking of inward mystical experience and outward action is like a work by Escher, the moment you focus one way--perhaps on the birds--the focus changes and the picture is full of fish. The dual images of Friends as a peace church and a group of mystics are inexorably linked within the Society of Friends. While we might focus on one, we only have to blink and the other is still present.

Friends convey a deep understanding of what is meant by "mysticism." Friends' definitions circle around knowing God or the Spirit, the Transforming Power, a personal relationship with the Divine, a search for Truth, the reality of God's love, and a sense of guidance focused on discernment and waiting in the silence. Rufus Jones, in the early part of this century, described mystical experience as "an immediate, intuitive knowledge of God...or consciousness of a Beyond or of a Divine Presence."

[How does this experience occur?]… Two definitions stand out. A Philadelphia Friend describes mysticism as "the breaking through of God into every aspect of everyday life." Another with a slightly different bent defines Quaker mysticism as "a gradually transforming process, putting one's self in God's hand and letting God work on you."

A central aspect of our faith is knowing it is possible to be directly touched by divine power, to directly experience and be guided by God, the Inward Light, the Christ Within. Mysticism, for these Friends, is not limited to the miraculous, or "ecstatic" aspects such as visions, voices, or bright lights or with spontaneous healings. Rather mysticism within the Society of Friends is our awareness of (or belief in) God's presence, individually and in the corporate meeting for worship, an awareness which results in a changed perception of the world and a consequent knowing that we want our actions to match that understanding.

Various Friends point out that ecstatic mystical experience purely for its own sake, no matter how exciting, is not what is essential to Quakerism. For Friends, the importance of numinous spiritual experience is in its power to strengthen faith, to transform our lives, or to provide clear leadings for service when properly discerned by the individual, or in conjunction with the larger group…. Quakerism is about hearing God and bringing God’s word to the world. We cannot forget that living out the will of God is the core of our faith.

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