Experiment with Light: Truth of the heart

Rex Ambler considers the seventeenth century roots of a practice that many Friends are following today. This is the first in a new series about Experiment with Light written by various Friends

Light through leaves | Photo: Kaensu/flickr CC

Experiment with Light is a relatively new practice for modern Friends, but it is probably best understood as a recovery, or retrieval, of a very old practice.  The retrieval  It is widely assumed that Friends at the beginning, in the seventeenth century, must have done more or less what we do in Meeting for Worship. But this would be a mistake. Friends did have Meetings for Worship, of course, and they were held in silence, so the continuity is there. But they also held smaller Meetings in which Friends were able to open themselves inwardly to the Light and to share these experiences with one another. As Barbour and Frost have put it in The Quakers, their fine history of the movement:

‘Hearers who were “convinced” by these forms of mission [the public, “Threshing Meetings”] were taken into smaller gatherings in private homes, where they shared their struggles of self-judgment under the Light with other seekers in daily or weekly “Gathered Meetings” with prayer and messages of guidance as well as silence and tears’.

When I first read about these Meetings I was intrigued to discover what went on in them. Would this explain, perhaps, why that early movement was so powerful, why Friends spoke with such confidence about what they had discovered and were willing to base their lives on it, whatever the cost?

My search for answers to this question over a number of years led to one very important discovery. What Friends were looking for in these Meetings was ‘the Truth’, as they called it, and they found that Truth, they said, with the help of ‘the Light’ which they each found within them. I needed to decode those words because they didn’t seem to carry the meaning we normally attach to them. This applied to many other words as well, so I found myself writing two books to explain what Early Friends were talking about: Truth Of The Heart (on Fox in particular) and Light To Live By (on the spiritual practice they all undertook). The words ‘Truth’ and ‘Light’ seemed to be at the core of it (linked closely with the words ‘Life’, ‘Power’ and ‘Spirit’). They were like two sides of the same coin. This is how I made sense of them.

Truth and light

The ‘truth’ they were after, having been disillusioned by the official teaching of the churches, was the truth of their life, that is, the reality of their life as they experienced it and as they opened themselves up to it. This particular reality of their lives opened out, once they accepted it – this was the difficult part, of course – onto the reality of other people’s lives, the reality of social and political life and, ultimately, the infinite reality they called God. They also found that they could get access to this reality in a very practical way, and that they could test its truth for themselves. They had within them, they discovered, as had everyone else, a certain awareness of how they lived their lives, which made them feel either good or bad about themselves. This was their ‘conscience’, in the broad sense that that word carried in the seventeenth century. It was a feeling they could be immediately aware of by simply becoming still and silent; it would ‘rise up’ within them. If they took that feeling seriously and paid attention to the reality of their life as it was now being indicated to them, they would begin to see their life differently.

They would have to deal, of course, with all sorts of contrary feelings that would have been aroused by the thought they they had done something wrong, or that their life had been some kind of pretence. This was the inevitable defence of an ego that felt under attack. But their great discovery was that if they let the ego quieten down, with all its argument and chatter, they would begin to get a clear view of what was really happening in their lives. Something deep within them would show up the truth of it all. If they owned that truth, painful as it might have been, they found they were reconciled to reality and at peace with God.

An experimental method

So the first part of this ‘spiritual experiment upon the soul’, as William Penn called it, was to try out for themselves this method of getting to the truth: to try the silence and stillness, the patient waiting, the promptings of conscience. It was also then to see what happened when they embraced the truth of what they saw and put it into practice in their lives. Finally, they could test their insights by sharing them with others, who may have had similar insights to confirm or disconfirm what they had said. In this way everything they said and did could be grounded in experience, and they could have the confidence that they were indeed ‘living in the truth’.

We can sum up that early understanding of the Quaker movement, as we have come to understand it again, as a recognition that what they most needed for their freedom and fulfilment as human beings was a sense of the reality of their life, both as individuals and in society, and that this could be gained by opening themselves inwardly to the reality that was already pressing on their conscience.

Next week Rex examines the contemporary ‘Experiment with Light’ being explored by Quakers today.

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