Thought for the Week: Jennifer Kavanagh re-reads Thomas Kelly

‘It is in the power of community that we can most effectively express our faith.’

‘Does our discomfort stem from some level of recognition?’ | Photo: Thomas R. Kelly, in 1914

I have been re-reading the American Quaker, Thomas Kelly. Not the much-loved A Testament of Devotion but the less familiar The Eternal Promise, a series of essays written between 1936 and 1940. Writing in a world on the edge and in the early days of war, Kelly knew well what it is to live in hard times. Even if his language isn’t always ours, I feel that much of what he writes about community, activism and, above all, spiritual renewal, has a strong resonance for Friends today.

Kelly is clear-eyed and uncompromising in what he says about the urgent need for spiritual renewal. He does not hold back in his criticism not only of the external religiousness of some churchgoers but of the attitude of modern Quakers. He considers that too many of us are ‘respectable, complacent, comfortable’, ‘paled-out remnants’ of the fire that kindled early Friends. He considers that many of us ‘have become as mildly and conventionally religious as were the tepid church members of three centuries ago against whose flaccid mediocrity George Fox flung himself’. Ouch! Does our discomfort stem from some level of recognition?

And this relates too to our activism, which he fears has become too secular – is not sufficiently rooted in our spiritual lives. Yes, we may be passionate in our activism but where is our passion for the ground of our action, the ground of our being?

Kelly is not asking us to retreat from the world – far from it. As a very active Quaker, serving on the American Friends Service Committee, he was acutely aware of the devastation in a war-torn world. It is to engage with that suffering that he asks us to go within, to rededicate our lives. ‘Attend to the Eternal that He may recreate you and sow you deep into the furrows of the world’s suffering.’

And it is in the power of community that we can most effectively express our faith. Kelly mourns the day when ‘the fellowship of the early Children of the Light gave way to membership in the Society of Friends’, And now that we have become not only the Society of Friends (tellingly, we usually drop the word ‘Religious’) but charities subject to ever-increasing layers of secularised bureaucracy, his concerns ring an uncomfortably loud bell. How I welcome our current movement towards a simpler Society! I hope that will mean not only a stripping away of unnecessary procedures, but what I consider the real meaning of simplicity: a focus on what matters, on our spiritual lives, on our rootedness in the Divine.

As we move into another year and consider how we can adjust to current conditions and our own hard times, maybe what we need, Friends, individually and collectively, is a spiritual renewal.

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