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Readings for Reflection: December 2011
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

A Near Sympathy

As some of us have been living closely with writings by and about John Woolman this autumn, we offer as this month’s Reading Michael Birkel’s Introduction to A Near Sympathy, his perceptive little volume on the wisdom of Woolman, published in 2003. Friend Michael speaks our mind.

This moment in history feels chaotic to many people. One by one, illusions of security have slowly been whittled away. The financial market has become unstable. Many people fear they cannot count on their planned retirement income. Neither old nor young are secure: escalating violence in our schools means that many of our children are not safe. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are the epitome of our turmoil: if ever we were secure, we no longer are. Fear threatens to envelop us, but in this crisis lies an opportunity to be transformed. Sadly, the response of the United States for the most part to this chaos has been to grasp for ever-tighter security, to keep things as we prefer to believe they once were. In a crisis that invites us to deep change, our society is spending vast resources to try to stay the same. At such a moment, we need models of courageous people who took risks to move beyond fear in order to love others who were outside their immediate circle or culture. We need to listen intently to those voices of people, past and present, who can teach us about the inner work that liberates us from our fears and who can point us to a vision of a world transformed.

Although he lived in eighteenth-century New Jersey, in the little town of Mt. Holly, the colonial American Quaker John Woolman speaks eloquently to our moment. He ministers spiritually to our insecurity. His activism shows us we can change society. His life gives guidance for discovering the areas that are ours to work on, and he shows us ways to find hope and inward peace around issues that are not our particular responsibility. Although – and in fact, because – he lived fully present to the needs of his historical situation, his wisdom transcends that era and reaches out to ours.

This book is an invitation to a conversation with John Woolman on the inner life. The words of this abolitionist, mystic, and gentle, yet radical, social reformer strike a chord in the heart of readers, crossing the barriers of time, culture, and the changes in the English language that separate him from us. He lived his faith with an integrity that opens his readers to new possibilities for their own lives. His writings explain the courageous ethical stands he took, many of which jarred his contemporaries into realization of the injustices they were perpetrating – for example, when visiting a slavekeeper, he insisted on paying the slaves for their services. John Woolman tells of his outward activities and reflects on the way the world is and the way it could be. He models what he calls “a near sympathy,” which is a way to engage in love those whom we would otherwise be tempted to regard as different and threatening. His Journal records his profound religious experiences. By example, his earnest self-examination gently invites readers into reflection on their own lives. By its gentle honesty, the Journal breathes a kind of hospitality for the reader. We feel beckoned to the spiritual life.

Reading As an Act of Friendship
Some of my most cherished friends are people who lived long ago. Since my training was in the history of ancient Christianity, some of my friendships cross boundaries not only of centuries but of millennia. I still turn to these people, including John Woolman, for guidance, and I feel cared for by them in a way that I call friendship.

It is one thing to admire a long-dead author, but by “friendship” I mean more than admiration. I am referring to an experience of feeling known by each other. A text can befriend us when we see it as psychologically and spiritually true to our own deepest personal experiences. John Woolman’s teachings on simplicity have this ring of truth for me, and they have changed my life. His reflections on suffering have strengthened me to endure the death of loved ones, and they have enabled me to find meaning amid life’s pain.

To call someone who died over two hundred years ago a friend is an act of imagination on our part, but the imagining makes something real happen. This act of imagining mediates yet is at the same time mediated by divine presence. Early Quaker George Fox says we come to “know one another in that which is eternal.”* To use an expression from John Woolman, we can say that his words “reach the pure witness” in us. They appeal to the Inward Light that verifies them. And what better thing can a friend do than bring us in touch with God?

Another great thing about having friends is that they introduce you to their friends, and the circles of friendship widen. Because John Woolman is my friend, and because he introduced me to his friend, the ancient prophet Jeremiah, I have come to know Jeremiah in a new way. When John Woolman read Jeremiah, he felt known by him in that same way I feel known by John Woolman when I read his words. Jeremiah described John Woolman’s condition and spoke to it. His words mediated divine presence to John Woolman.

John Woolman is my friend, but I do not expect a friend to be in full agreement with me on every matter. Nor do I emulate John Woolman as some people do their heroes. But John Woolman has influenced my life dramatically. Because of my friendship with John Woolman, who spoke eloquently for moderate labor and for a simple life, I have chosen to work less than full time, to leave time to be with my family and to cultivate my spiritual life. His words on simplicity have led me to limit the impact of the media in my house. His encouragement to live “in accordance with the design of creation” has inspired me to eat low on the food chain and to conserve the earth’s resources. His words on worship have deepened my experience of Quaker worship in powerful ways. John Woolman has taught me to read scripture in a way that opens me to the presence of the Spirit who gave them forth. He has shown me the power of imagination as a spiritual discipline. John Woolman has opened to me new meanings of the cross, inviting me to participate in divine purpose. His integrated life challenges me to integrate the inward life of devotion and the outward life of the activist for justice and peace. My gratitude to my friend from Mt. Holly is profound.

Still, I neither try to copy him, nor do I go to him for approval in everything I do. I wear dyed clothing. I have used the English postal service. I also sing in a chorus, and I gained great spiritual benefit from singing the Brahms Requiem recently. Singing Brahms’s gorgeous musical setting of biblical texts on death, the frailty of life, and divine comfort was nothing less than a transcendent experience. It brought me to grief and through grief to a sense of triumph over death through God’s grace. Yet, for all his openness to other religious traditions, I suspect John Woolman was too much a product of his times to approve of a fellow Quaker like me singing in a symphony chorus. But this does not trouble me, nor does it endanger our friendship. We have come to know one another in that which is eternal. To use his expression, I feel “a near sympathy” with John Woolman.

* George Fox, Letter 149, p. 114 in The Power of the Lord Is Over All: The Pastoral Letters of George Fox, introduced and edited by T. Canby Jones (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1989)

Michael Birkel, A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman (Friends United Press, 2003)

All Readings for Reflection
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