Thomas Swain

on Shakers, spiritual gifts and faithfulness

Willow tree. | Photo: Photo: Ed Yourdon/flickr CC.

Thomas Swain, clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, is one of the few Friends who have worked in four major branches of American Quakerism – Evangelical, Friends United Meeting, Conservative and Friends General Conference. He is a regular visitor to Britain and is an associate tutor at Woodbrooke. 

You have experienced many forms of Quakerism. There are different ways of expressing faithfulness?

Yes. There was a dear Friend in my Meeting called Bob Balderstone. He owned an orchard. Bob couldn’t tell you very much about Quakerism but he certainly exemplified it in the way that he cared for the land and his orchard, the way he related to people, the way he had his business ethics. He was solid. But he had no vocabulary to talk about it. He didn’t even have a sense of his own worth when he retired because his value was in his work and when he retired, because he had to, he lost his sense of his worth.

He let his life speak?

Yes. His value was in what he could do and what he was given by God to do. But again those are not his words. He would not articulate it like that.

You spent time in a Shaker village in your twenties as a tour guide. What impressed you?

They were real and they considered people real. They would not put something on a chair because a chair was meant for persons to sit on so they always had the chair ready for them, as it were.

What did you learn there?

What the Shakers taught me was that there was an interior life. I had the outward form from my family – ‘Episcopalianism’. The Shakers were the first people to articulate an inner landscape and the idea of gifts for me.

You did a thesis also on Shakerism?

It showed an evolution of how the writings of the Shaker community were influenced by the community experience so in 1816 they said this and in 1888 they said the same thing but in a very different way. It was based on testimonies. I got to know some early Shakers through their testimonies. And I had an experience of going to the burial ground outside of Albany – and all the people in the cemetery were real for me. They were not dead bodies because I had known them from their writings. They were still living for me. There was a kind of aliveness there. There was something very tangible and real in that experience.

What was it?

I would say that it is a transcendence and a reality of God’s presence. No, I will say it another way. I would say it is the spirit of Christ. I am learning that compassion is a manifestation of Christ. It moves me very deeply to feel that connection. It gives me LIFE, in capital letters, in a way that George Fox and other early Friends talked about the Life.

A subject of interest and concern for you is the idea of ‘spiritual gifts’. What do you mean by the word ‘gifts’?

Any ability that we have that has an animation or a life or a liveliness is a gift with us. Everyone has a gift. The church needs to call out the gifts in individuals. [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer said: ‘The church cannot afford unemployed people.’ So that gifts are a way of being employed and it is also a way for building the body. That is what gifts are for. They are meant for the community.

They should be shared?

They are not meant for the individual. Gifts are shared. You cannot give a gift away. You have to share it. I can’t give my gifts to you. I don’t have to be threatened that you are going to take them away. When I envy somebody else I am not paying attention to my gifts. I am letting someone else’s gifts be over me. The Shakers have a nice thing in that song ‘Simple Gifts’ – ‘till by turning, turning, we come right’.

You are clerk of Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia. Does it apply to you there?

Yes. It is a call to wholeness. I know there have been things that have been given to me and that I can have an influence by praying. That is a gift. Presiding in a Meeting, labouring for a sense of unity, to help the body come to unity for clearness. Sometimes gifts are given to us for a season and sometimes they are given to us for all of our life. Some gifts come forward and some gifts come backwards. I like the idea of turning. You can turn a gift around that is a bad gift, or a backward gift, to be a forward gift. The Shakers had that sense.

It requires humility, which the Shakers had?

Yes. I knew sister Mildred. She was a very dear person. A lot of her songs convey that humility: (sings) ‘Yielding and simple will I be, like a pliant willow tree’.
The willow tree is an image that is very important for the Shakers – because of its own humility.

The willow can bow and bend? Is it relevant today to Quakerism?

Sure. The symbolism is very important: ‘Who will be like a willow tree?’

We have to get our own wills out of it. I see a lot of Friends who have a wilfulness with things. And also a wilfulness of getting other people to do the work that they are called to do and they feel that they are good Quakers when they achieve that. I don’t know if that is the way here but I see it in the United States. That is one of the lessons for myself – of keeping my own wilfulness out of it.

I know that it is best to offer a suggestion and not to push it. If it is right, either I need to bring it up a second time, because it is right to do it, or somebody else is going to grab it. That is the humble part.

What is it about Meeting for Worship that you cherish?

The first answer is knowing the presence of God as real. It is not imaginary.

The second is knowing my connection with my friends in my Meeting. The Shakers call that ‘the bond of affection.’

I feel it is about humility and a willingness to surrender. People in my Meeting are mostly people who know that they are broken. In terms of a person, that they are not complete. There is an openness to allow God, Christ, I do not want to say reign, that sounds inappropriate, an openness to being led.

What phrases speak to you?

There are three phrases that speak to me personally. I say them to myself.

The first is: ‘I am OK. I am OK. I am OK.’ The thing that I am saying is, whatever I am feeling, it is fine.

The second phrase is ‘I am loved’. That has been the struggle in my life: to recognise my worth. To know that I am loved and that I have worth, that I have value.
And the third one is that ‘I am connected to God’. The worst thing that I can imagine is being devoid of God’s presence.

Is there a skill to waiting?

You just wait. Like you wait for a bus. It will come.

You have a better sense of it than I think we do in the United States. The idea of someone who waits on her majesty is a very helpful idea. Waiting is more of an attitude of willingness to give service when you are asked to do it. That is how I would see a lady in waiting or a gentleman in waiting. And that is what came to me this morning in prayer. Waiting to be told. Like a servant. Waiting is having an attitude of knowing that you can and are needed to give service and you will be called because of your gifts. That you can be sure that you will be called for service. That is helpful for me.

Waiting is active. It is not just doing nothing?

Absolutely. I remember being in a demonstration at the United Nations in the 1970s and I saw Allen Ginsberg sitting down. He was wearing a sign across his chest and it said: ‘Meditation in action!’ It involves listening. Being attentive and listening for signs and hints and looking for those invisible threads.

How important is prayer to you?

I couldn’t exist if I didn’t think that I had a relationship with God. I try to spend thirty minutes every morning in prayer and more and I do it in the evening as well. I begin Meeting for Worship with prayer. One of the most effective ways of prayer that I know is when friends say: ‘How are you?’ ‘Good to see you.’ ‘Glad to know you.’ Not the lofty kind of prayer. I also know, and this is when I know when I am led to do things, when my stream of consciousness flows that I am in a power or a stream. It is a living stream.

The word Christ?

Christ is a loaded word for us. I need to use the word Christ out of my own authenticity. I expect others to speak out of their authenticity and I am open to that. Early Friends used thirty, forty or fifty words for the same thing. I think our faithfulness is through the life – whether we call it ‘Christ’ or something else. Christ is easy out of my early learning as a child and it is comfortable and it means something to me; but there are other authentic ways of understanding and pointing to the same thing.

You have tender feelings for those who do not share your words?

I do. What is not so tender is that I want them to tell me what their experience is. I can be moved by that. And I believe that it is open to us to do that. Almost fifty per cent of the people in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting do not have a relationship with the divine – a study was done – and I do not know how they can sit in Meeting for Business and discern a decision if they do not have that relationship with the divine. I think that is part of the waiting, that we hold something for others. In the Meeting for Worship we can hold a sacred space for others.

The sense of a spiritual power has been a thread in your life?

When I sit in Yearly Meeting there is a collective sense of that power. I do not know where I was reading this but it referred to Christ as representing the archetype of our collected unity and that is a new thing for me… to understand that. What other words can we use that conveys that? Because there is strength in knowing our unity. Our world, in my perception of our world, is that it is so violent and it so numbs us that we don’t know how to respond – and we do have a corporate ability to challenge those things in our lives. I believe that the spirit of God can speak to us and overcome it and change it.

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