Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Time, History, and the Eternal Now

           With inward eye we still can see
             And strive to tell in prose or rhyme
             Just what it means to us to be
            Upon the moving edge of Time

We look back over four score years
           Each one of which some gift has brought
           Still glowing as it reappears
           Within the timeless realm of thought

And so the edge of time is blurred
           By magic strokes of memory
           And life already has conferred
           Some measure of Eternity.

 --Howard Brinton, Christmas message 1968/1969

My first encounter with Friends occurred in Princeton, NJ, my home town, thirty years ago. In 1984 I attended Princeton Meeting, in a charming stone meetinghouse built near the banks of Stony Brook in 1761. I was going through a tumultuous time in my life, and the Quaker meetinghouse was a place of peace and comfort.  Surrounded by woods several miles from downtown Princeton, it evoked another era, a time before the stresses and strains of modern life.  I sat on a wooden bench in front of an old stone fireplace and felt my anxieties and concerns melt away. Among solemn, quiet people sitting in the silence with radiant faces, I experienced a sense of peace and connection with the Divine I had never felt before.

Later, as I became more involved with Quakerism, I learned about the history of Princeton Meeting and of Quakers in America. Princeton is proud of its role in the American Revolution, and its Presbyterian college. I discovered the hidden history of Quakers, the original settlers in the area we call Princeton. I learned that the Quakers didn’t take sides during the Revolution, that they cared for the American and British wounded equally, and that as a result, they fell out of favor politically. Their numbers dwindled and Princeton Meeting was laid down in 1878. It was resurrected slowly and by degrees in the 20th century, and the Meetinghouse restored and rebuilt.

This fascinating story was never revealed to me when I took an Honors class in American history at Princeton High School. We learned only about the Presbyterians, the dominant religion of our town. History, it has been observed, is usually written by the victors. What fascinates me today is the hidden side of history—the stories of the marginalized, the oppressed, and those struggling for justice and peace and new ways of living—the stories that my teacher Howard Zinn tells in A People’s History of the United States, and Diana Butler Bass tells in A People’s History of Christianity.

I also love to hear people tell their personal stories—how they found God or Christ, how they became a Quaker (or a Buddhist or a Muslim), how their lives were transformed, how they are living their faith. These, to me, are sacred stories. I never tire of reading spiritual autobiographies; and I have enjoyed writing biographies of transformative Friends such as Gene Hoffman, Herrymon Maurer and the Brintons.

We live on two levels, as Palo Alto Friend Josephine Duveneck titled her spiritual autobiography.  Coming from wealthy background, Duveneck devoted her life to the poor, the refugees, farm workers, and to educating children about the environment, social justice and peace. She also struggled to find a balance between contemplation and activism. I think many of us face e a similar struggle.

On one level, we create or read stories about passing through this temporal world and call it history. This is the world of time—a world of joys and sorrows, love and grief, hopes and fears. The world of time imposes limits, schedules, and other pressures, including death itself—the final deadline. Time also gives us opportunities for spiritual growth.

We also recognize another way of experiencing reality, which is (for most of us) rare and precious.  Instead of clock or calendar time, we experience the present moment in all its fullness. We observe our thoughts without judgment and let them float away, like leaves on a stream.  Gradually, we become aware of something that cannot be defined or put into words. We experience a spaciousness, an openness, something beyond time and space. We feel connected to everything around us, and to something greater than ourselves. This experience may occur during times of worship, or in nature, or sometimes quite unexpectedly in the midst of our daily activities.

This is the world of Spirit.  William Tabor, my teacher at Pendle Hill, called it “entering the prophetic stream.” The Franciscan spiritual teacher Richard Rohr calls it the “naked now.” George Fox gave advice on how to have this experience: “Wait in the Light for Power to remove the earthly part… that with the Light your minds may be kept up to God, who is Pure, and in it ye may all have unity who in the Light do walk.” [Ep. 49, 1653, qt. by Howard Brinton in Friends for 300 Years, p. 19.]

As a Friend, I have been influenced by the life and writings of Howard Brinton (1884-1973), best known for his classic introduction to Quakerism called Friends for 300 Years (1952) Brinton was a philosopher and a scientist, a Christian and a Universalist, an historian and a mystic. One of his most important historical works is his study of Quaker journals.  In his religious autobiography, Friends for 75 Years, he wrote frankly about the many struggles and divisions among Friends that he personally witnessed and experienced. He believed that studying history helps us to understand the Quaker way of life, how we live out our experience of the Light in the temporal world.

Howard was equally interested in the mystical, the Eternal Now. During the final years of his life, he wrote about the Gospel of John and the mystical side of Quakerism. Like his teacher Rufus Jones, Brinton believed that the distinctive characteristic of Quakerism was its group mysticism. Mysticism is a term used to describe a direct experience of the Eternal, which cannot be reduced to words.

Being a mathematician by training, Howard liked to explain spiritual realities by using diagrams.  Time can be conceived as a line moving from left to right, from past to future—the familiar time line. In the middle of the timeline, a vertical line intersects: this is the spiritual dimension, leading upward to God, and downward to the subhuman, the demonic. The point where the Eternal and Temporal meet is our human condition. This is where the Spirit becomes embodied in the temporal, where the Word is made flesh, and where we are fully alive.

For Howard, “eternal life” is something experienced not just in the future, but in the present. As he explains in his pamphlet Light and Life in the Fourth Gospel (1971),

“The word ‘eternal’ which occurs so often in Johns’ gospel…. refers to a particular quality of life in the present and also to an age of life beyond the grave which has no definite beginning or end....”

He contrasts this lived experience with “clock time.” A machine exists only in “clock time” and “continues until it is worn out.” But an organism lives in “organic time” that includes the past and future, as well as the eternal:

“An organism, because it has life possesses the dimension of height and breadth as well as length, and because it can reproduce itself both biologically and spiritually, it possesses an eternal dimension extending without limit into the past and future. This eternal dimension is possessed only by the highest forms of life, such as are mentioned so often in John’s gospel” (p. 12).

For Brinton, the way to this eternal dimension was through the incarnation of Christ (the Logos) in history, and in us. He quotes Jesus who told his disciples:  “Abide in me, and I in you….that they might also be one in us” (John 15:7). The Eternal and finite human beings are united and reconciled through Christ, who overcomes not only death, but time itself.

Throughout the Gospels, moments occur when the Eternal intersects the temporal, when ordinary experiences, like going to a wedding, or having a drink of water at a well, become sacred events. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he was physically thirsty and asked her for what he needed—a drink of water (John 4:16). In return, he gave her the Living Waters that transformed her life. Each was fully present to the other, and benefited from this exchange, in life-changing ways.

I believe we, too, can experience the Living Waters that spring up from deep within us if we take time to be fully present to the Divine. We cannot escape from the ethical demands of history—the cries of the poor, the marginalized,  the oppressed, our broken planet desperately in need of healing—but we can return from our encounters with the Eternal refreshed, renewed, and strengthened.

Arnold Toynbee, a historian whom Brinton quotes in his pamphlet The Pendle Hill Idea, refers to a process he calls “withdrawal and return.” “The minority sometimes withdraws from the world for a time,” writes Brinton, “to come back renewed in strength and insight” (p. 31). For Brinton, meeting for worship, and sojourns at places like Pendle Hill, offer opportunities for such transformative experiences.

Each time I return to Princeton Meeting, it is never quite the same, because I am not the same person. I bring new memories, new insights and new experiences. The Meeting has also changed: new people have joined, others have aged, or passed away.  When I sit down to worship, I return to the stillness, the Eternal, which I experienced thirty years ago, and it seems fresh and new. These moments when the Eternal and the temporal intersect are where I feel fully alive.

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