Minding the time: Bob Johnson’s Thought for the Week

‘Why am I not a grumpy old man?’

Engraving of James Nayler, 17th century; B, for blasphemy, was branded on his head as punishment

Last week I had my eighty-seventh birthday. In three short years, I’ll be ninety. Why am I not a grumpy old man? There’s a host of things I can no longer do, so why hasn’t frustration built up? Well, one major blessing is Quakerism. Looking back over the years, it has played a key role – not something I necessarily conceded at the time.

Aged eleven, I invested my pocket money in a small blue book, smaller than today’s smartphones. It contained the sayings of Isaac Penington. I can still vividly remember my surprise and delight. The first paragraph hit me hard, and has remained steadfast with me ever since. He wrote: ‘He that readeth these things, should not strive to comprehend them, but, as he grows in the light, and the light grows in him, the words will of themselves, open unto him.’

What a profound insight. I could immediately tell this was true from my own personal experience. Words I knew little of earlier began to fill out; they acquired new meanings, new values – and all because I had changed, not them. When, decades later, I was mortified by the inhumanities of linguistic philosophy, this bedrock of Quakerism saved my soul.

As a teenager, I was assailed by a series of religious challenges that seemed insoluble. How could I possibly know about turning water into wine, or walking on water, or indeed the resurrection? These were mysteries which, despite much urgent enquiry on my part, remained troublingly closed. They did not open of themselves. The light did not seem to enlighten. What to do?

Again, Quakerism came to my rescue. This time in the form of George Fox. His redolent phrase ‘This I knew experimentally’ saved my anguish. Here was confident advice from a man who knew what he was talking about. Find out what works in practice. Experiment. Don’t expect to ‘know’, until you’ve had a range of experiences. And then, confirming Penington, matters may well resolve themselves – as indeed they have done, over the years.

Then, to crown them all, came James Nayler. What he had to say, and the circumstances in which he said it, constitute the nearest thing I’ve come to a Quaker miracle. Despite being robbed and beaten he was able, on his death bed, to say, ‘There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong.’ I had lived a cosseted life, having been born into a non-belligerent Quaker family. I knew little about violence. But, having elected to work with violent men in the prison system, I gained a thorough grounding in all varieties of man’s inhumanity to man. And what did I find running through all of them? That James Nayler had gotten there before me.

What wonderful confirmation. What delight. Yes, there is a spirit that delights to do no evil – you can find it in remarkably diverse places, though you do have to be an active seeker, just as those early Quakers were. And the key to unlocking human aggression, including war? Unpack revenge – and all evil, yes all of it, will dissolve into delight. A Quaker blessing? I should say so.

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