Thought for the Week: Elaine Miles is still standing

‘Silence and stillness were necessary conditions in order to attain an attitude of mind that would be completely open.’

‘Fox was not describing an intellectual exercise.’ | Photo: by Jacob Dyer on Unsplash

When the early Quakers talked of ‘the Light’ they meant ‘Christ’, because in the New Testament Jesus referred to himself this way. Eventually the term became a kind of metaphor for the Holy Spirit, and Friends began to speak of ‘the Spirit within’. They believed that if they submitted to it, it would give them great peace of mind, enabling them to withstand imprisonment and torture. From this they would get the power to ‘change the world’.

In his Light to Live By, Rex Ambler has done us a great service in collecting the early writings of Friends, to try to discover what they meant by this process. I have been rereading it with a new appreciation. Ambler found that Fox’s earliest writings were the most helpful – naturally enough, perhaps, since when Fox wrote them he had only just made this great discovery, and it was fresh in his mind. Ambler discovered that Fox said that to begin you had to ‘stand still in the Light’. Silence and stillness were necessary conditions in order to attain an attitude of mind that would be completely open. Then you had to stand back from what emerged as most present in your thoughts and ‘stand against them’. In this way you would be able to view them more objectively and they would no longer overpower you. Thus Fox wrote to Lady Claypool, who was depressed and unhappy, without using the word ‘light’ at all, but in language that he thought would be most understandable by her: ‘Be still and quiet in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou will feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against all blusterings and storms.’

Fox did not name this process, but Rex Ambler decided to call it ‘Meditation’. I think this is a pity: Ambler himself describes it as ‘passive attention’, yet ‘to meditate’ is commonly thought of as ‘to turn over in the mind’ – something active, not passive. (Verbs ending ‘-itate’ are usually active, like ‘agitate’, ‘resuscitate’, even the mild ‘facilitate’). Those of us who are quite sure that we do not ‘meditate’ in Meeting for Worship are reacting against the idea that the process is active in that sense. Fox was not describing an intellectual exercise.

We do need to change the world, and perhaps it will be helpful to ‘Be still and cool in our minds’, even if we do not want to call it ‘meditation’. We need to withstand the blusterings of politicians and entrepreneurs, and we are in desperate need of the power to resist climate change and promote equality. Let us all ‘stand still in the light’.

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