Spiritual Loneliness

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For three years I’ve been attending the meeting that my partner belongs to. It’s a small meeting, about 20 at worship. It’s a big change from the urban meeting I’m a member of, which routinely has 100 people gathered together for unprogrammed worship.

At first I thought I was having trouble shifting from that large, urban meeting, which I found so powerful and where there were often deeply silent meetings, to the small, quiet one in the suburbs. But I’m coming to understand that there is more to my trouble than adjusting to a shift in numbers.

Don’t mistake me. It’s a friendly meeting! I like the people there. Lots of strong individuals who’ve led and are leading interesting lives.  I’m making social friendships. I’ve been warmly welcomed. Community is strong. And there is a real desire in the meeting to make the world a better place, with actions that match that desire. More than a few folks, in a spirit of hospitality, have asked me when I’m transferring my membership out of the city and joining with them officially.

I can’t do it.

This week I was given more insight into why. Even though I’m not a member I’ve been serving on a committee. Over the weekend, we were putting the final touches, via e-mail, on a list of basic books about Quakerism to be ordered from FGC. There were maybe eight or so titles on the list–new stuff from FGC that I haven’t caught up with yet. But there were two classics that I didn’t see on the list: Friends for 350 Years and A Testament of Devotion.

I suggested them.

I was shaken by the e-mails I got back. Several Friends said they had always found Kelly’s language too opaque and daunting. What they could grasp of Kelly didn’t speak to their condition. And Brinton (although one Friend said she personally loved the book) was deemed “not suitable for newcomers.” As one member put it, she found that Brinton told her “more about Quakerism than [she] wanted to know.”

These book-ordering e-mails have proved extremely painful to me. They’ve gone deep. They’ve revealed to me, in an actual way, that these good, caring people and I are not speaking the same language.

This Sunday, I will sit down with them in the meeting room. There will be a lovely fire in the fireplace that the benches are arranged around. In the silence . . . In worship . . . Where are our places of communion? I am filled with a sense of spiritual loneliness. What is it calling me to?

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41 Responses to “Spiritual Loneliness”

  1. Raye Says:

    This is familiar to me.

    • QuaCarol Says:

      How do you deal with it, Raye?

      • Raye Says:

        Short answer, I listen to the Lord’s guidance. For a long time, that guidance was to minister by being present. I would check in, in prayer, and be instructed to go to a meeting. There have also been seasons when the call to attend was lifted from me.

        I cherish time spent in meetings where that spiritual loneliness does not occur. When it does, I can usually release the feeling. My focus is on being faithful to my Lord.

        Sometimes I am led to remain silent, sometimes I am called to speak up to correct assumptions or incorrect explanations.

        For me, the feeling is similar to homesickness.

      • QuaCarol Says:

        Thank you, Raye. Yes! Homesickness. This is familiar to me.

  2. Thy Friend John Says:

    I’m so grateful that you published this. It reminds me of the many times I’ve marveled over my fellow Friends, “Don’t they get it? Do they really not get it?” (This is not to exalt myself; many times my own spiritual elders must have said the same thing over me.) But it also reminds me of George Fox’s experience: “…so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw that there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice that said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

    May your heart soon leap with joy.

    • QuaCarol Says:

      Always a good quote to remember, John, but. . . . Let me see if I can further articulate this. Fox was seeking remedies for his despair, as I understand it. I am not in despair. I am hearing from Christ Jesus and seeking to obey. My dilemma is that I’m in a faith community where the members have not had the experiences that I’ve had and, while I understood that reality to some extent based on the vocal ministry, this thing about language and not wanting to know about Quakerism has shaken me on a deeper level.

  3. Marshall Massey Says:

    I have no great liking for reading lists that focus on Brinton or Kelly myself, but in my case, the reasons are the opposite of your committee’s. My dislike for Brinton is not because it’s “more about Quakerism than I want to know,” but because Brinton waters down the gospel of early Friends, leaves out many of its core elements, and shies away from the committed corporate self-discipline that made our Society a powerful movement. Brinton seems as much a landmark on the path of abandonment of first principles as the feedback from your committee is.

    As for Kelly, while he says many wonderful things and, like you, I love him for them, the core of his faith is more the mysticism of Brother Lawrence (he of *The Practice of the Presence of God*) than it is the “Primitive Christianity” of early and traditional Friends. He is more a beloved aberration than a representative of our movement as a whole.

    Still, the stuff I myself prefer — the writings of Fox, Nayler, Penington, Barclay, and other early Friends — would likely be even more overwhelming to your committee’s members than Brinton and Kelly. Heaven forbid that we should have to actually grapple with the message of our founders!

    I notice that you ask our friend Raye what she does about this. I suspect you may be preparing to ask me the same. So my answer, anticipating your question: I try to make myself an example of the practice I’d like other Friends to take. If I think knowing Fox and Barclay is worthwhile, I show it by quoting them in business sessions and in discussions of personal difficulties. If I think corporate self-discipline is worthwhile, I show it by living the discipline of earlier generations and explaining when it comes into conflict with what my fellow Friends choose to do. I figure that if my example is a good one, perhaps they will be moved to try it, too. And if it is not a good one, then I probably have no business recommending it!

  4. QuaCarol Says:

    Thank you, Marshall. I take your point about Brinton. As a fellow lover of Fox, Nayler, Penington, Barclay et al., I do appreciate your assessment of him. I guess I’ve been seeing him, probably naively, as a place to start–and then move into a more nearly correct place as one’s study widens . . . and deepens.

    I hadn’t thought of Kelly as a “beloved aberration,” but, again, I see what you mean.

    And thank you for telling me what you do about your spiritual loneliness. You inspire me to be more mindful of quoting from my mentors. Recently I was moved to offer vocal ministry testifying to my experience of being reassured by a Friend who had died that he was “over here now” and he was OK and it was “all all right.”

    • Mackenzie Says:

      What do you think of Pink Dandelion’s “An Introduction to Quakerism”? That was the first thing I read about Quakerism (outside of Wikipedia), and I feel like it was a good survey of the different types of Quakerism (because too often people think that *all* Quakers are hippy liberal or *all* Quakers are Plain-dressed conservative).

      • QuaCarol Says:

        I’m a Ben Pink Dandelion fan, Mackenzie. I try to get to Pendle Hill whenever he’s doing anything there. I’ve even read the doctoral dissertation he wrote about Quakers for his sociology degree. I know I’ve read his Introduction to Quakerism, but I can’t comment on it specifically because it’s merged into one big admiring “Yes!”

        To know more about the history of the different types of Quakers I recommend Tom Hamm’s Transformation of American Quakerism. It is one of the most perfectly balanced and completely heartbreaking books I’ve ever read!

  5. Elizabeth Edminster Says:

    Personally, when I was new to Quakers and trying to decide whether or not I belonged there, I found Brinton very helpful in clarifying things I knew little about. And various mystically-minded Friends led me to read and value Kelly, also early on.

    To me they are books that should definitely be available to newcomers, though not, of course, required reading. Each is a point of reference for Friends, who can then place themselves north, south, east, or west of Brinton or Kelly.

  6. Howard Says:

    I have several thoughts in my mind regarding your interesting post. First, I wonder if there might be room for both opinions on what books to have for newcomers? Why not suggest that the meeting provide a reading list of two types: one could be called something like “An Easy-Read Introduction to Quakerism”, and the other could be called “An In-Depth Read About Quakerism”. I know that when I first became acquainted with Quakerism I was an in-depth reader and loved the deepness of Kelly and Brinton. I wanted to know immediately and intellectually all about Quakers. But there are others that just want to know what they’re about to get into with Quakers, and they really don’t like reading detailed, in-depth stuff. They rather experience it over time. If a meeting wants to grow, I think it needs to cater to both types of people.

    My other thought relates to my switch some years ago from a large urban meeting to a smaller suburban meeting. In fact, when I read your post, I thought you must be talking about the two meetings in my experience. The suburban meetinghouse even has a fireplace, as you describe (but then I saw your picture, and realized it was not the two meetings of my experience). The thing I’ve noted in my experience is that the urban meeting focused primarily on the Quaker faith tradition as a door to their spirituality, whereas the smaller meeting focuses primarily on spirituality as a door to Quakerism. It’s a difference of emphasis. I quickly grew to appreciate the small meeting as a valuable asset to me on my spiritual journey. Before attending the small meeting, I had been very Quaker-centric in my spirituality. What I first saw as a “lack of depth” in the small meeting was actually just a different emphasis. And my spirituality has actually widened to be less form oriented, more open to where the Spirit takes me, and willing to see depth in new and freeing ways. Don’t get me wrong – both meetings are definitely “Quaker”. They both have entirely unprogrammed worship, and discern business through the sense of the meeting – two distinctives for me that keep a meeting Quaker.

    I offer this post to challenge you to relish where the Spirit has brought you. I think there will be exciting insights opening up for you on the journey you find yourself.

    • QuaCarol Says:

      The problem with your perfectly valid two-reading list idea, Howard (and also the spur for my post), is that the meeting in question seems to see no need for anything beyond an easy read introduction.

      I think I see what you’re getting it with your comparison of your large and small meeting. I somehow don’t see it applying here. The meeting I’m in seems to view Quakerism as an armature for social action, progressive and liberal politics, and individual personal growth. Those are all commendable things. The world is a better place thanks to the members of this meeting, but “group mysticism” isn’t part of the program.

      Spirit is clearly doing something with me. I’m trying to be obedient. So far as I can discern at this time, it has something to do with separating me out from the Quaker structures and institutions that have played so large a part in my life since the 1980s. I’m being set on a new path, but who my companions are to be and where I’m headed is, as yet, somewhere around the next bend.

  7. mkissil4 Says:

    I guess my question has to do with the place of continuing revelation, and what stock we place in it in our discernment. Putting together a list of books about Quakerism is, at the end of the day, an academic pursuit and everyone will have their own opinions (spiritual, academic, or otherwise) about what belongs there, and what doesn’t. So I’m wondering (and hopefully this is not going to come out in a mean-sounding way), what part ego is playing within everyone who is connected with this decision? Are the Friends who are in discernment over this prepared to lay aside their own opinions, positive or negative, to come to a place of unity? What are the stakes involved in doing so?

    I’m not suggesting that someone needs to “submit” in this case, so that one person or group of people gets their way, but I am encouraging all to think past the known, and possibly allow continuing revelation to find its way into the equation.

    • QuaCarol Says:

      Seems to me that faith in continuing revelation has to begin with faith in revelation in the first place.

      This is a meeting where I have heard words like “divine” or “God” or “Holy Spirit” declared inadvisable in its published material. Someone might find them offensive or feel excluded.

  8. Fred Bloggs Says:

    A writer (I’m sorry I can’t remember a name just now) said that the real divide among Quakers is the one between those who have, and those who have not, experienced gathering in meeting: “group mysticism”. I suspect, as QuaCarol suggests, that this is the essence of the problem for those of us whose seek, as it were, the “quake” rather than the “ism”, With very limited options where I live, some of us now meet for worship in our homes. Meeting in worship (not constrained by the clock) with others who share my longing and expectations seems a feast after what, for me, was a kind of starvation in the exact hour of more or less quiet offered by the friendly and very social local society.

  9. Howard Says:

    Sounds like the meeting needs an honest discussion about what the “liberal” in liberal Quakerism means. It means that we liberally accept various expressions of spirituality, and each have personal responsibility to interpret each others’ language into an inner conversation that is meaningful to oneself. How dare someone become offended at someone elses terminology just because they don’t use the same language to express their spirituality. It’s the height of arrogance and insecurity.

    Sounds like those that want certain words excluded are setting up a creed in the meeting that they think must be followed. Time for some old-fashioned Quaker eldering, if you ask me.

    This attitude in the meeting will be like a cancer that kills the Spirit among you. If it were me, I’d gently, lovingly, AND persistently offer the meeting insight into where this attitude will lead.

    One day they will thank “the divine” that you came among them.

  10. QuaCarol Says:

    I feel a growing discomfort here that I’ve set up a me/them dichotomy–with me as the superior one. This meeting is doing good work in the world, has strong community, and is filled with fascinating people whom I admire and enjoy being friends with.

    But it is not my spiritual home.

    Is there a way to write about this kind of alienation without a me/them dichotomy?

    • Fred Bloggs Says:

      I love Margaret Fell’s story of how she cried in her spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves…” (my favourite bit of Quaker history) in response to Fox’s “…what canst thou say?” For me, she declares for the utmost importance of our personal “God experience”. We live in a tragically polarised world so I understand your concern, but what you have said doesn’t read, to me anyway, as you fear it might. Rather I hear your grief that, with people you like and respect, you don’t, in simple truth, have a worship experience that speaks to your condition.

      • QuaCarol Says:

        Thank you for your reassurance, Fred. You’ve stated it exactly. These are, indeed, people I like and respect and I’ve been assuming we shared a language and experiences that, it turns out, we really don’t.

        I guess I need time to adjust to being the designated mystic. (Hhhhmmm . . . there may be another blog post there.)

  11. Amala Lane Says:

    Dear Friends and QuaCarol – this is a wonderful conversation to have fallen into. I can really relate to your conundrum Carol. I too have felt this spiritual loneliness and didn’t join my meeting for some time. Then, I joined more out of the realization that my former meeting to which I still belonged, was paying dues to the yearly meeting for me. I withdrew my membership there and transferred it to where I am now. I am not completely at home there though I have some dear friends and am fond of my meeting. There are times when it is deeply gathered and often it is silent. All of the good qualities you mention are part of my meeting too – and we are an urban meeting that rents space. This dichotomy you mention is not one of you vs them. There is a thread I’ve noticed running through many conversations amongst Quakers at Gathering, at meetings, in small spiritual formation or nurturance worship sharing where people dance around God or Spirit language and mysticism. There seems to be a trend, if Quakers can have ‘trends’ that is more about personal development and social activism over communion with the Divine Mystery and sacred activism. What I found so compelling about meeting when I first went was the silence in which I could discover my inner Spirit and divinity and in which I could share that deep well of bliss with others. In fact, for a while, it actually led me to leave it so that I could explore that more intensely through yogic meditation and practice – this took me away from Quakerism for nearly 20 years. I returned because i longed for the openness of meeting, the freedom without heirarchy and form, the simplicity of form. But I miss the depth of communion and comfort with God language. Fortunately I know there are non-theist Friends in my meeting who have a very loving and respectful relationship towards Spirit and Christ centered Friends. And I agree with what was written above about your meeting members shying away from God language out of fear of offending. This is nonsense and it isn’t setting up a dichotomy of you against them to point it out. If your meeting isn’t nurturing your soul and you are called elsewhere, that is what will be. But without discerning what is really going on in your meeting and pointing it out, lovingly, but honestly, I think you do your brothers and sisters a disservice. I think as you become more clear about what is going on, you will know the way forward. Holding you in the Light which is as tangible as the outer Light we see with our physical eyes. It’s real and your experience is real and valid. Why should Quakers in your meeting discriminate against spirit or Light centered people by avoiding that language and that literarture?

    • QuaCarol Says:

      I make a financial contribution to the urban meeting that holds my membership to cover the yearly meeting portion (with some left over if I can), and then I make a small contribution to the suburban meeting I attend. That’s important to me to do.

      As yet, I don’t feel a clear calling to go elsewhere. My sense is to stay low where I am.

  12. Ellen Levin Says:

    i can really imagine if you were in New York city and then in a small town, just that in itself would be a great divide. I go to Quaker meetings. I am not a member and lately, to be honest, I have felt lonely myself there. I am unsure why exactly so it is thought provoking and validating for me to read this. I kind of think for me, it may be that i don’t see the quaker meeting people outside of meeting as friends. it feels funny to me. i don’t read very many quaker books. I go for the silence and kindness at the meetings. i am even afraid to bring up my feelings too much. thank-you

    • QuaCarol Says:

      I wonder if you’re being prompted by your loneliness to get a little more involved in a meeting? The quickest way to make friends with people in a meeting is to work beside them–washing up dishes after social hour or helping to keep the literature table organized.

      But, that said, there was a long time in my own life as a Quaker when I would disappear from a meeting if someone tried to be friendly and say hello to me. I didn’t want to be visible. I wanted to come in, sit in the back, go deep in the silence, and get away as soon as possible.

  13. rosellen Says:

    I don’t mind this being here , but right now i don’t think I want it showing on the facebook page. I don’t know how these things work, but i hope it won’t be there. i’mnot ready for that .thanks

    • QuaCarol Says:

      To my knowledge, there’s no way to keep your comment from showing other than to delete it.

      I’m somewhat uncomfortable myself that this got picked up by QuakerQuaker. It’s more visibility than I bargained for–although I see that people are finding things in it that interest them.

  14. rosellen Says:

    rosellen is my nickname for ellen levin

  15. Day 127: When to Value Your Own Opinion | Finding God in 365 Days Says:

    […] to a new Quaker meeting is similar and the varieties of experiences are interesting.  QuaCarol has written about her time at a Quaker meeting and how she feels about that. What I found intriguing about […]

  16. pilgrim52 Says:

    QuaCarol, your post made me think of other things which I wrote on my own blog, but I wanted to write here that Amala Lane is right in that there seems to be two loose branches within Quakerism; activism and mysticism and I believe there is a great need for both. They feed each other and we cannot do without either one of them. I am new to Quakerism, having recently joined, and the biggest hurdle I’ve had to overcome is knowing that my opinion is valued as much as anyone else’s at the meetings! Some see no need for Kelly? I tend toward the mystical rather than activism and Kelly was just the ticket. He’s perfect for newcomers and just what I needed at the time. Like all things, don’t take those who disagree too much to heart, but absorb what they’ve said and if you feel it’s still right to suggest newcomers books then keep doing so!

  17. Paul Hamell Says:

    Hi Carol,
    What you have written, both in the post and in the comments, shows that we are in similar places. My meeting has long discouraged me from speaking about God, quoting from the Bible, etc. I find it to be more of a friendly gathering than a faith community or a spiritual home. Now that we have dwindled to fewer than ten at worship (I wonder if there is a connection) I find weekday mornings, worshipping at home by myself to be deeper and more nourishing than sitting down to a strict hour of “worship” with Friends who deny the existence of God, or who are indifferent to the question.

    I too find myself being led to a place beyond forms and theology, a place where language shrinks to irrelevance because it is so entirely inadequate to the experience of the Divine, the Beloved, God without form.

    Paul

    • QuaCarol Says:

      Fortunately, I have not personally been discouraged from using my language to speak about God or quoting the Bible. These Friends are truly welcoming me as an individual. It’s the corporate sense of the meeting that I feel estranged from.

  18. Barbara Smith Says:

    Carol – I just want to say, I have been there. It was a lonely time and for an uncomfortably long time I had to listen to what God wanted me to do about it. Uncomfortable because those around me had expectations of me (like your friends asking about transferring membership) and it was hard. But I spent much time in silent prayer at home discerning what my path was to be. Why was this happening? What was I supposed to do or not do about it? For me this discernment process led to leaving the group and seeking spiritual fellowship elsewhere among Friends (long-distance actually). And, like Fox, I was led away from human fellowship for a time – I guess a time when I had to be strengthened with my relationship with God before I could be in fellowship with humans again, if that makes sense. I appreciate your sentiments and pray that you find your way through it all.

    I want to assure you that you did not come across as being accusing or divisive. And from the comments you can see that you are not alone among Friends.

    Blessings,
    Barb

  19. Olivia Says:

    Hello QuaCarol,
    I don’t post out of any sense that you need more answers. You seem to be on very solid ground already. Simply to share one element of my own experience that I keep thinking of as I read the original post and subsequent discussion.

    I became a Quaker in one type of meeting, then moved and found that I didn’t feel at home with any of the meetings around me there. Over the following 10 years or so I explored various other faith groups in the search for what felt like my spiritual home and there was a solid feeling of homesickness continually at the lack of a “home” meeting in my life. However, everywhere I went that was not a Quaker meeting, i still felt like the Quaker there…. Even though I also knew that I didn’t feel like the same type of Quaker as those who attended the local meeting options. I eventually was realizing that there was no real home for me either in or out of the local meeting(s).

    At the end of that time I had grown and changed in a lot of ways. Some of them helped me to open back up to the Quakers I was disappointed in…. but the main thing that made the difference was that I had gradually (“in God’s time”) made an internal shift and found that I no longer required that the meeting meet my internal needs…even in my mind, I mean. I wasn’t looking to them for that anymore. It had finally resonated for me that I was going to go back to those Quakers who didn’t seem to speak my language and join them and essentially BE THIS (this all-that-i-am) and they were going to have to just lump it!

    What I found was that when I went back there with no thought of needing this from them but instead only of being this…… slowly I realized that they had room for that too and were glad to have me among them playing that role. It was not something I expected. My initial sense was that my convictions would not be welcome there.

    In truth, they seemed to be welcome to the extent that I was ready to just live in them as a non-issue and be that… then they were welcomed as a gift to others.

    None of this may relate to your small meeting that is afraid to speak in particulars about the divine and has so many knee jerk reactions. But I did find that where I expected more knee-jerks I ultimately found welcome. There is no rushing such a process but in honoring your timeline and wherever you are led for spiritual sustenance….one scenario may be that you end up being all the sustenance you need…. you and the Light within!

    • QuaCarol Says:

      Yes, Olivia. There are definitely internal shifts going on with me. (For one thing, I’ve been with a partner for three years after decades and decades of being more or less alone.) I’m aware of being called into new work by God, and it’s work that needs a high tolerance for inner solitude. Thank you for mirroring that I seem to be on solid ground. That’s helpful. I believe I am.

  20. Thy Friend John Says:

    QuaCarol, this may or may not speak to your condition, but it may speak to the condition of some who are reading your post and responding with such heartfelt interest. I just happened to read a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer about spiritual loneliness, and it resonated with me because I’ve long thought the want of a tradition of mutual confession among Friends (as prescribed for the Primitive Church, James 5:16) to be a corporate weakness of ours.

    I quote from Bonhoeffer’s _Life Together_, p. 86, as excerpted in Templegate Publishers’ _Dietrich Bonhoeffer Arranged for Daily Reading_, p. 31:

    “It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness.

    “The final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners.

    “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners.

    “Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we _are_ sinners!

    “But it is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; he does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; he wants you alone. ‘My son, give me thine heart’ (Proverbs 23:26). God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad!”

    • QuaCarol Says:

      I have never resonated with sin language, John. It simply doesn’t make sense to me. Jungian shadows, human failings, scars from trauma are things I can grasp, not sin. But, you’re right. Perhaps Bonhoeffer will speak to others. Thank you.

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