In Quiet, Waiting: Easter Faith
by NORA WALN
We do not ask Thee to keep us safe but to help us be loyal.
— A Prayer from the French Quakers
BY JORDANS door as we went in to Meeting for Worship on First Day morning the flowers were out of sight. Not a leaf or a bud showed where crocus and daffodil were hid, safe from the frost that sheathed the dooryard grass and lay thick on the graves of Isaac Penington and his wife Mary, William Penn whom they befriended when he was turned from home, and other Quakers living in this neighborhood nearly three hundred years ago.
But to me spring seemed not far off because Margaret Frawley was beside me giving me joy in her own self, bringing close my homeland for which I have been almost unbearably homesick, and shortening the distance to my French friends among whom I lived two happy years. Margaret is a member of the American Friends Service Committee who came from Philadelphia to consult with British Quakers before going into France.
We did not talk with one another or with others as we went in to Meeting. Our Quaker Discipline in Christian Practice, as approved and adopted by The Religious Society of Friends in Great Britain, is lived at Jordans. It counsels: “We earnestly advise all who attend our Meetings to lift their hearts to God immediately on taking their seats. The avoidance of distracting conversation beforehand is a great help to this end, and the walk to Meeting may often prove a true preparation.”
None can understand the practices of Quakers without knowledge of our discipline. This varies somewhat in various Meetings, yet is essentially the same; for Quakers the world over are united by a common purpose. In the present day our discipline reminds us: —
“The practices of the early Friends were based upon no code of laws, no rule of life, imposed from without. All that was of value in them flowed from the spiritual experience, individual and corporate, of immediate human converse with God; of contact through faith with the divine resources of love and power, of filial coöperation in the divine purposes.”
“The Society of Friends has concerned itself with problem after problem — worship, government, business, slavery, education, treatment of the insane, war, criminal reform, the social order — in the light of guidance obtained in quiet waiting.”
“Religion cannot be separated from life, the source of power is to be found within, the attention must be turned inwards in stillness, and we must make the conscious effort to come into touch with the Father of our Spirits, if our souls are to be enlightened, our love kindled, and our wills braced to fulfill the purposes of God.”
Jordans is ours to aid us in achieving this enlightening, kindling, and bracing. The Meetinghouse was built that we might gather here to obey that message which the young Ezekiel, walking by the river Chebar, heard God say: “Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak with thee.”
We have Jordans through Mary Penington. She and her husband were the first Quakers in this neighborhood. During their lifetime the number grew to over seventy. Without counting the cost, the Peningtons gave their fortune and themselves to the cause of liberty of conscience. Quakers of their generation put their strength into the fight for this law because they were certain that human beings must not stay merged in a mass-group but have to stand forth accepting individual responsibility to God. The freedom for which they fought was not freedom to do as one pleases. It was liberty for men, women, and children to obey God without the interference of their fellow citizens, for they were convinced that only those able to stand alone with God are able to live intelligently as friend and kin to all on earth.
The days of persecution for holding a Quaker Meeting did not end in England until after Isaac Penington’s death. While forbidden, our Meetings for Worship were held in Quaker homes, the place never secret, the doors always unlatched. Attenders knew that at any time their assembly might be forcibly broken up — as such assemblies can be in some other nations today — by constables with warrants summoning those present to appear before a justice of the peace and be subjected to confiscation of property, including their homesteads, which meant the turning out of their families and imprisonment for an indefinite period.
Not infrequently, when taken, the seventeenthcentury Quakers of England were dragged across the floor and knocked about, for this was an uncivil era; and, as the Quakers had come out of all the contending religious groups, — Protestant and Catholic, — who pressed their theories with violence, no man or woman or child struck could hit back and remain in the membership. Isaac Penington was arrested, had property confiscated, and was imprisoned, sometimes for more than a year, six times over; yet he never yielded. His last imprisonment was for twentyone months in Reading Gaol. Not being of strong constitution, he suffered severely from the unwholesome and overcrowded condition of the jails.
Mary, Isaac’s wife, survived him by three years, living into the time when liberty of conscience was agreed upon among English people. It was so that we who live after her might have a Meetinghouse in which to be still, hear God, and learn to serve Him, here in this pleasant Buckinghamshire valley where lanes from Chalfont St. Peter and Chalfont St. Giles join, that Mary Penington willed a starting sum of money to her son John, asking him to bring it about. Other Quakers of the neighborhood helped, and the plain brick building with tiled roof and latticed windows in which we worship was built, as the deed records, at their common charge, the property to be held in trust by Friends—“not for private use, profit or advantage.”
Jordans is a country Meetinghouse, set amid fields and woods. Over the Elders’ benches, which face the body of the Meeting, is a high window touched by the evergreen branches of a tall holly tree; and down one side of our meeting room are other windows well above the benches where we sit to worship, so that those inclined to wander are kept from the distraction of looking into the yard or the lane beyond. Unless sitting opposite the open door, one who comes in and would look out can see no more than a view of distant beech and oak and the brow of a gently sloping hill. In clement weather a window is left open, and through it in their season come the bleat of lambs, the song of blackbirds, the sound of the green woodpecker’s diligent hammering, and occasionally the fall of footsteps in the lane, distinct and clear through the hum and roar of warplanes passing overhead. All who enter Jordans are presumed to be here to join in silent worship, waiting with bowed heads until the Holy Spirit moves any among them to pray or preach, or parting still in the silence after the Elders have felt it to have become a living Meeting.
JORDANS MEETING is held in accord with advice which Alexander Parker, of Lees-in-Bolland, Yorkshire, sent in a letter dated 1660 to an inquirer who had asked him how to hold a gathering after the manner of the people called Quakers, where the presence of God might be expected: —
“The first that enters into the place of your Meeting, turn in thy mind and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord, and here thou art strong. Then the next that come in, let them in simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to the same light and wait in the spirit, and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light. Those who are brought to a pure still waiting upon God in the Spirit, are come nearer to God than words are; for God is a spirit, and in the spirit is He worshipped. In such a Meeting there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say to yourselves, it is good to be here, this is the end of all words and writings — to bring people to the eternal living word.”
Other advices are: “True worship is intensely active. In it we offer ourselves to God, body, mind, and soul for the doing of His will. We have a gift to bring Him as well as a grace to receive.” “True worship may be experienced at any time, in any place — alone in the hills or in the busy daily life — we may turn to God and find Him, for in Him we live and move and have our being. But the individual experience is not sufficient, and in a Meeting held under the influence of the Spirit there is a giving and receiving between its members, one helping another with or without words.”
There may be vocal offerings in a Quaker Meeting, but our discipline reminds us that Friends “highly prize silent waiting upon the Lord in humble dependence on Him. We esteem it to be a precious part of spiritual worship, and trust that no vocal offerings will ever exclude it from its true time and place. Let not the silence then be spent in indolence or vacant musing, but in eager reaching out to God, in an obedient spirit, sensitive to the slightest Divine manifestations. Silence is not an end in itself, but a means to a higher experience. It is an opportunity not only for prayerful meditation, but for the realization of the Divine forgiveness, the renewal of our wills and the upbuilding of our inward being in communion with the Divine Love.”
People from several places come to wait on God at Jordans, taking seats quietly among the English Quakers. Often an Eton master is here on the Sabbath Day. Russian and Swede, Czech and Jamaican, are not strangers in this room. The door is ever unlatched. All are welcome of every race and creed, for the Friends who first met in this neighborhood and those who maintain the Meeting for Worship now are one in holding the opinion that human beings born to life on earth are all kin to God and one another, and can be a Society of Friends living well, in mutual benefit, if they will but seek and heed God’s advice. Occasionally a foreign Ambassador sits in this Meeting with bowed head, and at times a Cabinet Minister has come.
The Elders give a kindly greeting to men in uniform. This is William Penn’s home Meeting, and it is not forgotten that he wore armor at twenty-two — armor he changed only when he found another armor more effective; and he still remained a soldier, fighting ardently all his life to better conditions for those to come to earth after him.
Jordans is a small Meetinghouse, and when the room is overfull, as happens some days, then there are Friends who rise and lead the overflow to wait on God in the near-by barn built, according to local legend, of timbers from the good ship Mayflower which carried the Pilgrims to New England. There is a deep quietness at Jordans. And there is a sweetness given this Meeting by the elderly Friends and the children who regularly attend.
But even in a Meeting as perfect as this, I do not find it easy in these days to enter into communion with God and those around me. A place among Quakers is my birthright, and my spiritual home is in a Quaker Meeting for Worship. When I was a child, and for many years thereafter, this worship was natural to me. I never felt devoid of the inner radiance, warm and living, which Friends identify as contact with God. I walked this earth unafraid. I did not then question God’s reality. I was sure I felt Him touch my hand wherever I went. In Meeting I had but to bow my head and wait a little to feel oriented to those with whom I sat, and I believed myself to be united with God and with them in a communion wherein one seems to pass the bounds of individual self and enter into something more radiant than is known in spiritual separateness. God did not ever seem far away in those days, and I felt a kinship with everyone I met — such kinship as the Christian faith of my forebears teaches.
The simplicity of heart I had is not mine in the present time. Even in Jordans it is hard to quiet my thoughts, to turn in my mind and wait upon God in pure stillness. I try, but in the silence I am off aboard the plane above us, one with its crew; in imagination I go the way they are briefed to go; I am with them through the dangers they must encounter; and I am in the place where their bombs fall, one with the people I know and love who have their homes in those towns and cities.
I wrench myself back to Meeting for Worship, and soon my thoughts carry me to visit, one by one, bombed mothers and children in England, familiar and dear to me, since I administer a Kappa Kappa Gamma fund given for their care. Rebuking this wandering, I shake my mental self and bring my will to bear on my unruly mind, truly trying to join in the eager reaching out to God, in an obedient spirit; yet I am all too often soon away again, perhaps in memory back to a hospital for wounded seamen where I was on Thursday. God does not so easily seem near now. I, born a Christian, know today what it is to ask, “Help Thou my unbelief.”
As Margaret Frawley sat beside me, I looked at her serenely beautiful face, and I saw sunshine break through the gray, frosty air, lighting up the outer world beyond my friend, and throw the shadow of the Cross into our room. This happens at Jordans in the fall of the year. I have seen it at the approach of five winters, done by light coming in through one of the high windows.
It seems to me fitting that this should be so. Our Quaker places of worship are plain houses with no heaven-aspiring steeples, no religious call of bells, no altar or communion table, no ritual of words and music to lead and guide us. We have but a clean scrubbed floor, hard wooden benches, and the hope of God’s presence in our midst. When the summer is gone, the shadow of a window frame reminds us at Jordans of the Cross.
Seeing the symbol of the Cross this day, I suddenly saw into the Gospel story of Peter as I had not done before — this happening to me when I felt the aliveness, the mystic union, the happy trustfulness that Quakers seek in Meeting. I saw the fair fields of Peter’s homeland, where harvests grew if men planted well; the olive groves and vineyards; the flat houses where people lived with no covering between them and the sky; the hills; the busy towns; the Sea of Galilee; the boat from which he fished — a boat with low freeboard and shallow draft. And I saw Peter, impulsive, warmhearted, enthusiastic, as the gentle of nature are when life is kind; not poor, healthy, able to make a living at work he liked and knew to be useful; quick to song and joke, yet withal anxious because others were poverty-stricken, sick and crippled, or troubled by political and religious difficulties.
He could respond to the call of the carpenter of Nazareth and become the disciple of this teacher, following him to the limits of Galilee and through Judea into Jerusalem, leaving off his work to do it, going along gladly and contentedly while the young prophet healed the suffering, gave comfort to the sorely troubled, showed love for little children and compassion for those who had sinned. Peter could be a scholar to this rabbi who taught in homely parables, handling with courage themes none but the scribes had dared to touch. He could listen with delighted wonder to a lawgiver who gave a fresh interpretation to the familiar religious laws, an expounder speaking as one with authority, possessed of the spirit to correct bravely the official lawgivers.
And when the people commented as to who Jesus was, some calling the carpenter “John the Baptist risen” and others “Elijah of Malachi come again,” and Jesus stopped and asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” then Peter could be the first to answer. He could so love the Jesus whom he knew until then that he could see the divine in him and, recognizing him without hesitation, say forthright; “Thou art the Christ.”
But discipleship soon carried Peter into what he failed to understand. He became confused. Near by Caesarea Philippi, Jesus took the path He must follow to teach us on earth that God’s purposes among us must be worked by us; and as He taught this, Peter’s surety gave way to bewilderment, and he was afraid. The truth glimmered and was lost, showed and escaped him; his vision was not strong enough to see with clarity as Christ showed how God’s power can be lost to us by our human unwillingness. God on earth come to defeat, Peter found unreasonable. It must have been that Peter thought that this Jesus he had left his work to follow was not the Christ after all. He, a simple fisherman, had made a mistake; the Messiah was yet to come. He followed on to the trial; he listened; and he denied discipleship in what baffled him, feeling that the Christ would certainly have overcome those that thwarted Him, and stayed on earth to use His miraculous powers for healing, feeding, and redeeming.
Peter returned to his work, leaving Jerusalem and Judea where people scoffed at the accent of a Galilean, going back to his own walk in life, taking up again tasks he could do, practical, useful work which provided needed food. But encounter with Christ causes the crisis of self-judgment in all who touch Him. The Peter who returned to fishing in the sea he loved must have been uneasy in mind, deeply disturbed, and open of heart. God in His mercy healed Peter, gave him new strength, and vision so clear that he could see Christ beyond the Cross, and faith such as he had not known that mortal man could possess.
The faith of man in God, wherever met, now fills me with awe. Once I took it for granted, accepting faith in God as I did fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink. Then I did not know what it is to stifle for air in falling rubble and mortar bombed to dust, to be parched with thirst in burning heat. I had to need air, to want water, to know aridness of soul to learn that faith is not always easily had; and before the Jordans Elders shook hands, signifying that Meeting would break up, I sent a prayer of gratitude to the French Quakers. All these troubled years they have sent messages across any barriers men have set up, brave summonses to doubting Christians in every nation: “Maintain — believe — hope.”
My own faith has not been so brave; at times it has dimmed, almost blinked out. Always when I am near to despair, looking at the flowers helps me. Making sensible use, generation by generation, of all the wisdom flowers come to possess, in quietness they grow. Year by year they bloom. Winter storm, snow, sleet, and frost do not destroy their confidence. Rooted deep, they hold fast the hard season through. By Jordans door, each spring that I have been here, have bloomed the aconite, the anemone, the crocus, snowdrop, and daffodil. Nothing has stayed them.
The aconite has pushed up through frozen soil. The frail-looking anemone thrust stones out of its way. Both have been bent in the struggle. Their stems emerged in an arch because their buds were still held prisoner below. Sturdily the plants pulled free, straightened up, and opened out their flowers. The crocus pierced hard turf. The snowdrop came out of darkness guided and sustained by an instinct toward light at which I can but marvel.
The valiant daffodil, slender and tall, has come up into the bitter winds of March, lifting golden blossoms to the sun, fearlessly. To grow into God’s Light it may be that human beings need be no stronger than a flower. Perhaps this is a part of what Christ meant when He taught that we should consider the lilies of the fields, and how they grow.