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Of Will and Ministry

Posted on Thursday, May 11, 2006 at 10:15PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments4 Comments

The early Friends were convinced that the things we do because we choose to do them — or because we want to do them — cannot possibly take us to God.

Why not? Because our will and our desires are aspects of our selves, and being part of ourselves, we being creatures, they too are creatures: they are part of the creation, not of the Creator. We find from experience that the things we do because we choose to do them, all too often look shabby to us later on, or mistaken, or hurtful, or just downright wrong.

Of course, this criticism of what we do in our own will would mean nothing if it could not be contrasted with something else, something better; and Friends found that something better in the intuition within each one of us that shows us a better and finer way than the way we want to follow. That intuition, they called Christ within. They wanted to follow it, not their own wills.

And of course, Friends weren’t the first to arrive at this insight. Long centuries before, the apostle Paul had articulated it in his letter to the Colossians. He described the outward means that people used in their own wisdom to try to make themselves better and more pure: “philosophy … after the tradition of men” (Colossians 2:8); and “ordinances [such as] ‘touch not, taste not, handle not’” (2:20-21). These philosophies and ordinances, he wrote, “have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship” (2:23) — but nonetheless they fall short of the true way.

“Will worship”! The Greek word that Paul used here was ethelothrêskeia, which is a compound of the word for pious or fervent religion (threskeia) with the word for choosing or preferring (thelô). So he was talking about religion that people choose and really get into: religion that they throw their heart and soul into, and yet … is from their own choosing.

This sort of religion, Paul was saying, is false, and must be transcended. And he had a quite personal basis for saying this, because he had not wanted or chosen Christ — he had wanted the religion of the Pharisees, which he had been in love with since childhood — but Christ had overwhelmed him on the road to Damascus, and left him no option but to yield.

The best of the early Christians picked up on this same idea. For example, the Desert Fathers of Egypt, who were the first Christian hermits and monks, used to tell this story to their students:

A new monk came to Joseph, a leader among the desert monks of the late fourth century, feeling somewhat dissatisfied about his practice. “Father,” he said, “as far as I am able I keep my rule and my fast; I pray, meditate, and practice inward stillness, and as far as I am able, purify my thoughts. Why can’t that be enough? What more can I do?”

Joseph stood and stretched his hands out to heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire. “Why not become all flame?” he said.

This story sharply contrasts the religion we choose for ourselves (“I keep my rule; I pray and meditate”) with the religion that comes from beyond and overwhelms us.

This insight, that there is in fact a religion beyond the path of doing-it-as-we-choose, and that this beyond-religion is the one kind that can set us genuinely shining, was enormously important to early Friends. They looked at the mass of religious people around them, and what they saw everywhere was will-worship: people following religions that they had freely chosen, rather than obeying a Spirit that had chosen and overcome them. And they saw no true life in that freely-chosen sort of religion.

“The free-will and will-worship are out of the light which is Christ,” George Fox wrote in his book The Great Mistery. Fox himself had had his free will overcome by Christ, who had made it impossible for him to simply fit into the world and live in any ordinary, comfortable way, had literally driven him out into the wilderness as a seeker, and had then revealed himself to him as the One Being who could answer his spiritual need. After that revelation, when Fox had come to the religion that was utterly beyond his will, he passed through Cambridge in 1655, and the students saw him and cried, “O, he shines, he glisters!”

Now, I think that one discerns the genuine good reason for traveling in the ministry in the same way one discerns the genuine inspiration for true worship: it manifests as an intuition in one’s heart or conscience, running counter to one’s will, and showing one a far higher way than what one is inclined to do. At its best, it overwhelms one in the same way as all other forms of true religion do.

And the thing about that intuition is that, if it is present in oneself, it will also manifest in some (though usually not all) of the people around one. It will tend to affect them the same way it affects oneself. Those that see no value in that intuition will say, “Don’t do it,” in the same way that one is inclined to say to oneself, “I’d rather not” — or they may say, “If you do it, don’t come to us; leave us alone.”

And on the other hand, those that value that intuition will say, “What you are doing confronts me, but I recognize it as the right thing to do.” And they may also say, “If you do it, I want to be involved.”

— And of course there will be also people who have more confused reactions, and people who don’t feel affected by it at all: all the usual gamut of human conditions.

A century and a half and more ago, when it was common for Friends to travel in the ministry, they often recognized that they had to do it precisely because it crossed their own will and desires in some good way. And then off they’d go by horse, carriage, or afoot, without a clear schedule and without phoning ahead. And as a result they’d arrive at far-off communities at times that were often quite inconvenient for the inhabitants.

But if the inhabitants of the communities they visited were serious Friends, or serious seekers, those people would already understand that the true religion, when it manifests, isn’t necessarily convenient. And so they’d drop their plans and obligations and go to meet the traveling minister and hear what she or he had to say.

(And then, if it turned out that the traveling minister was not truly led by God, but was only traveling in her or his own will, the Friends whom she was visiting would as like as not provide some eldering to get her back on track. For it wasn’t just that the traveler ministered to those whom she visited; the ministry was often, quite rightly, a two-way street.)

So travel in the ministry was a way in which the traveling Friend not only lived that religion that is beyond human choosing, but made it visible in her or his own life for those whom she visited to learn from.

And the discipline that the Friends she or he was visiting held themselves to in response — the discipline of dropping their activities to meet with her, no matter how inconvenient it might be — kept them open to that same religion-beyond-will-worship, and made them more ready to receive whatever the visiting minister might have to share.

And thus, as the beyond-religion of the minister met the beyond-religion of those she visited, the same fire that shone from the monk Joseph’s fingers could be passed back and forth, traveling from community to minister and from minister to community, knitting the Quaker world together in one fire.

I don’t know that there is any guarantee that a minister truly doing this will always “shine and glister” as Joseph did, and Fox. I doubt that many true Quaker ministers were known for their shining; it may have been the exception rather than the rule. I’ve also long suspected that such “shining and glistering” might actually be something that the beholder sees because, for one reason or another, she or he needs it, rather than something that pours out of the minister like light from a light bulb regardless of the beholder’s condition. The minister (or beholder) who thinks it is the minister and not the beholder who sets the light loose, may be in grave danger of mistaking the light for an artifact. Or so I suspect.

But be that as it may, there is still indeed a sort of travel outside of the will, just as there is a religion outside of the will. And if we can manage to hear the Spirit’s guidance clearly enough, and follow it faithfully enough, such travel can still, today, have power.

In fact, I believe that I am already experiencing a measure of that power manifest in my own small case — not that I shine with light, but that I can feel how I myself and those around me are being affected by shared intuitions as the preparation for this walk proceeds, and I can experience those shared intuitions as being joined to the power that caused Joseph’s fingers to shine. Does that make any sense? I’ll try to explain it better in some future posting.

Heaven knows this is a matter that needs some exploring. And I hope that this posting has at least laid some groundwork, providing us with a bit of the vocabulary we will need to discuss it in more depth as this journey proceeds.

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Reader Comments (4)

Best of luck and safe travels… you leave tomorrow, yes?

-- comment posted by david myers
May 12th, 2006 at 9:34 a.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 11:41AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
My destiny was to pass Marshall just as he was about to launch his undertaking. His destiny was to apprise me of it — a unrelated customer of another salesperson in the store where he worked. So begins our interaction as was and is to unfold.

Today I address the issue of light within for it mirrors a larger issue. I suggest that when one sees what they ought to see, when they are in concert with the Will of the Divine, they in fact resonate with that Will, they literally vibrate with Divine resonance. Cosequently they shine forth just as Moses did as he returned down the mountain and the shining from his face was so intense that the had to wear a veil when confronting his kinsmen. Concomitantly those whose own balance, whose own resonance, is such that they can in turn resonate with one who is shining, will then be able to perceive the resonance, the shining and will see it shine forth.

In another comment to another essay, I shall relate this to then how we know when we are acting in accord with the Divine will — but for now, suffice to say, one in fact shines as they proceed [which with proper attunement one can “feel”] and those with proper perception “see”[sense] the light and so recognize a proper path pursued.

-- comment posted by Steve Evans, http://sevansgsm-usa.com/
May 12th, 2006 at 9:15 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 11:43AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Today you are setting out on your journey. Great!

I definitely identify myself as one of those who had the intuition, “Yes, I want you to do it and if you do it I want to be a part of it.”
now when”.

No I did not yet further pursue reading A.J. Muste but it is on my reading list. His motto for action I always loved to quote: “There is no way to Peace, Peace is the Way.” So I advise you to feel the leading each step of the Way Marshall. Your experience of seeking confirmation of the leading was just simply awesome. Your experience is leading us Quakers out of apathy and what D.Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I feel that Community and unity is growing among us from your responses to your Leading.

-- comment posted by John Hackman
May 13th, 2006 at 10:49 a.m.

Sep 2, 2006 at 11:44AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Many thanks to all of you for these kind wishes –

-- comment posted by Marshall
May 22nd, 2006 at 9:50 a.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 11:45AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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