Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rex Ambler's Light to Live By

There has been an amazing level of interest expressed in Quaker circles here in the US and abroad in the work of Rex Ambler to explore the experience of early Quakers in arriving at a spiritual state of incredible peace and fulfillment, a state that permitted them to form vibrant communities that felt in some way corporately that they had overcome sin. He spent a lot of time exploring early Friends writings and over a period of time managed to reduce the inner experiences they described to a relatively simple meditative formula that helped him to overcome inner turmoil and unhappiness, and then help others to overcome their deepest problems as well. The process - or "practice" - as he calls it is pretty simple and is laid out on pages 46-47 of his book, Light to Live By: An Exploration of Quaker Spirituality:

• Relax body and mind - Feel weight of your body on chair, release tension in your body. Let worries go and preoccupations. Relax mind and be wholly receptive.
• Let the real concerns of your life emerge – what is really going on in my life? Do not answer from the head. Silence.
• Focus on one issue – one thing that makes you uneasy – try to get a sense of the thing as a whole.
• Ask why it is like that – wait in the light, and let the answer come. Pursue to deepest place
• Welcome whatever answer comes – trust the light. Submit to it and it will show you the way through.
• A different feeling will arise in you about it. Accept it.

He says in the book that when he went around to different Meetings in England and Europe he found that people mostly responded to the practice with great enthusiasm but some few did not take to it. They either were not open to some new way of approaching their worship routine, or they felt it was maybe even a little dangerous to plumb so deep into one's psyche, or that it seemed a little too self-centered. But he no where apparently ran into the objection that the practice totally abandons the biblical language in which early Friends insights were articulated. He starts from the words they used but he soon departs from these words and frames his experience in general meditative language or psychological language that no doubt modern people, even Friends are more comfortable with.

I am not saying here that the practice Ambler has developed is ineffective. It may indeed be helpful and fruitful for many Friends. But my own experience has led me to see the issue of biblical words and the biblical narrative as very important in my spiritual life and I feel that is what I should give testimony to. I have written about this before in my book Leadings: A Catholic's Journey Through Quakerism and I feel it is relevant here. I understand that most people today, at least most people among Friends, are pretty educated and secularized. While they might see the importance of the biblical narrative to early Friends, they feel that the language they used really doesn't resonate with modern people. People in the 17th century, when Fox lived, did not talk in psychological terms about their inner lives. They, like everyone in their society, saw things largely in biblical terms. The world was full of disputes, anger, unfaithfulness, violence - the fruits of man's sin, man's fallen nature. There was no Freud, no Buddhist Meditation around to dabble in. You talked about problems in religious terms. You conquered problems or felt you conquered them by coming to see them conquered through religious commitment. Here are the words George Fox used:

“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, the, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [prevent] it? And this I knew experimentally” (Fox's Journal, 11).

Ambler knows from reading all of Fox that what he experienced transformed his life and eventually the lives of many. So he tries to translate that experience out of the Christian, biblical context. But my experience was different. I grew up in 20th century secular America. I had little exposure to religion in my early years. My parents were atheists but I lived with a lapsed Catholic grandfather. I went to church from time to time but it wasn't part of my life in a deep and consistent way. I did hear all the stories of Adam and Eve, of Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Egypt, Jesus in Bethlehem, the cross, the resurrection. You can't grow up anywhere without getting them somehow, however shallow-ly [new word]. When later in my life I came to see the biblical story as very real and important to me, I compared my experience with a scene from the movie, Miracle Worker, about the life of Helen Keller. She had lost her vision and hearing at a very early age - somewhere around 14 months, I think. And as she grew up she learned no way of communicating at all until the teacher Annie Sullivan is hired by her parents to try to tame her. Over the next months, the teacher tries to teach her sign language, felt through symbols impressed on her hands. Helen doesn't really get it. She learns the signs. She accumulates a whole vocabulary but she really doesn't have a clue what the signs and symbols mean. Then in a revelatory moment in the turmoil caused by her behavior, her teacher desperately tries to show her that the signs that spell the word W-A-T-E-R actually do relate to something real - the water she pumps out onto Helen's hands. Somewhere deep in Helen, a link is established between the hand sign and the reality of the water. This revelation opens ALL reality to her because she SEES the link between the game and the world around her and in her. My experience was the same. A moment came in my life when I saw that the biblical narrative and the language used to communicate it were deeply wrapped around my inner spiritual reality, and that Christ was in me to redeem me, guide me and help me live my life. The truth is it doesn't really matter to me if every detail in the narrative is historically or scientifically "true" - it's truth on a deep spiritual plane is very real and completely relevant to me today.

Is the experience one has through that medium the same as you would get through the more detached meditative language? The German title he used to describe his method tells me he thinks it does - Wo Worte Enden. Ambler obviously thinks so, but I doubt it. And the words of scripture are the words the whole cloud of witnesses before have used - even those Quakers we love. If we want the historic community of Quakers to continue with the vibrant spiritual message they gave us, I worry about abandonning the words of God we encounter in the Bible.