Tag Archives: S

S is for Spirit

Spirit is a word Quakers use a lot – but it also has a lot of non-Quaker uses. Here are some examples:

  • “When the Spirit moves you to speak, remember to stand.”
  • “She’s a spirited child.”
  • “The Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove.”
  • “Beers, wines and spirits sold here.”
  • “The Light might also be called God, the Spirit, the Tao, etc.”
  • “The sculpture captures the spirit of the place.”

Quaker use is a long way from “beers, wines, and spirits”, and perhaps most closely related to “the Holy Spirit” – and yet Quakers do not, as a group, have the kind of clear Trinitarian picture of God which helps to make sense of the Holy Spirit (if sense can be made of the mystery of the Trinity!) in some other contexts. The term ‘holy’ has usually been dropped, to make it just ‘the Spirit’ – although the capitalisation is usually kept, partly as part of a general trend to capitalise most if not all of the ‘terms for God or whatever you call it’, and partly, I think, to maintain the distinction between the Quaker and secular uses of ‘spirit’.

What is the Spirit? In some Christian theology, the Holy Spirit is one person of the Trinity, where God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ, are the other two persons. Older use among Quaker did retain ‘Holy Spirit’, although not in every case. Modern Quakers, furthermore, are often happy to include ‘the Spirit’ in a list along with ‘Christ’ and ‘God’ or to talk about the Spirit of Christ or the Spirit of God – for example, “this Spirit, or Light, or God” (Janet Scott, accepted by the community by inclusion in Quaker faith and practice), and Advices and Queries 2 refers to ‘the spirit of Christ’. The Spirit is often spoken of as something one can be in, or can follow: a meeting might be “held in the Spirit“, or be “in loving dependence upon the spirit of God“.

The Spirit is often described as something that an individual or meeting might follow, and as a source of guidance. This puts the concept of the Spirit at the heart of a number of other key Quaker ideas. Thus, a true concern is a leading of God’s Spirit, and testimonies are the formalisation of shared leadings of the Spirit.

One aspect of this way of speaking which bothers some Friends is that the Spirit is described as an external force or thing. Some, of course, do think of the Spirit, and indeed of God, as external to themselves and the world. Others find this unacceptable – because not true to their experience, impossible to comprehend, or unscientific. With this in mind, I have often heard Friends connecting the Spirit to another common Quaker phrase, ‘that of God in everyone’. That key word here is ‘in’ – the phrase produces a picture in which God is internal, not just to the world but to each person in it.

Very occasionally, Friends connect back to the Biblical roots of the idea of the Holy Spirit: for those from a Christian background the key text is usually the story of Pentecost, although phrases like “the Spirit of God” are also found throughout the Hebrew Bible (more in some translations than in others). Overall, though, the concept of ‘the Spirit’ is a general one, more defined by the Spirit’s actions in the Quaker community than by older stories or abstract theology. The Spirit guides, leads, and is followed.

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S is for… Sustainability

“To individual Friends we issue a clear call to action to consider the effect of their lives on the world’s limited resources and in particular on their carbon usage. We ask Friends to keep informed about the work being done locally, centrally and throughout the Quaker world and to educate themselves. But above all that, Friends keep in their hearts that this action must flow from nowhere but love.”

Minute 36, our Canterbury Commitment to sustainability

What would a sustainable world look like? We need to reduce our use of energy, of throw-away things, and especially of fossil fuels. In my visioning, this usually involves people working together more closely, sharing more generously, and focussing on interaction rather than material things; for other Friends with whom I have done this exercise, it looks very different. I’ve heard people speak about cities crumbling, or of more manual labour and less intellectual work. When I share my vision, people sometimes say things like ‘but you can’t expect everyone to get along’, and when I hear other peoples’, I frequently feel that as a person with chronic health problems whose talents run more to reading and writing than gardening (not that I don’t enjoy gardening!), I would have little to offer in those future worlds.

I do think that we need to look at the state of our communities, locally and nationally. Groups of common understanding, like Quakers, are good, and have a role to play; but what about groups of accidental commonality, like people who live on my street? I live in a building with three flats. I know the names of the people in the other two because I see their post, but that’s really all I know about them. It wouldn’t occur to me, when in need, to go to them for help, and I’d be surprised (not upset, but surprised) if they came to me over anything other than which night to put the bins out. I’ve sometimes thought about reaching out to people like them, and to others on my street; but the memory of the leaflet which came round a couple of years ago, moaning about how there are too many students and there needs to be a cap on rental properties, stops me. Students are busy, and non-students wish we weren’t here.

(If my readers are a typical Quaker audience, someone out there is probably thinking ‘but students are a nuisance! They are loud/messy/too many/etc.’ – I’ve heard this said in Meeting settings several times. I have no real reply; I don’t like the sound of drunken parties or bins left endlessly on the pavement, either.)

In my vision of a sustainable world, we travel less, and feel consequently more attached to the location in which we live. We move house less often, and get to know our neighbours better. We don’t dash around looking for a better-paying job, but go on living on what we have. We spend money where it’s needed – food, health – and not where it’s not – cutting our ‘defence’ budget, for example.

I have no idea how to get from here to there, though. If I get the jobs I actually want to do, I’m going to have to travel for them, move house for them, and work for promotion within them. I’m not going to get to know my neighbours. If my personal life continues as it is, I’ll probably live alone. If my health continues as it is, I’ll heat my house to ‘too warm’ and go on eating food and taking medications which are packaged in plastic. Above all, I have no idea whether that’s a reasonable course of action – it’s what most people would do, but is it right? What alternatives do I have?

S is for… Simplicity

Quakers are in favour of simplicity. We keep our worship spaces simply decorated – plain walls, functional rather than fussy furniture, maybe some flowers in the middle but nothing more. (Other than the notice board full of posters and pictures – which is simple in the sense that it’s just a notice board, rather than being other than busy to the eye.) And we strive for simplicity in our lives.

What does that mean, though? Once upon a time, it meant plain dress, the wearing of Quaker grey or sometimes black. When I was a school my brother and I used to say that it meant wearing unbranded clothes – no Adidas, no Nike. As an adult, I think of it as having two parts: functionality over form, and ethical and sustainable sourcing. I think the function of clothes is to keep me warm and comfortable, and so I wear warm, comfortable clothes, even though my needs for comfort are somewhat different to those of the rest of the world. I need enough clothes, especially if I am to continue to approximate the demands of dressing as a woman in a socially recognisable way and the variations of social context. (I could wear my black menswear lace-up shoes everywhere, they’re that comfortable. I don’t. I do wear a hat everywhere – but I want to wear a clean neat one on formal occasions and a dirty one for mucking about in the woods.) But I want those clothes not to contribute to climate change or human suffering, so I try and buy fairtrade or at least not sweatshop clothes when I need new, and when I don’t need new, I try to buy second hand. That’s a kind of simplicity, but you wouldn’t know it was there by looking at me.

There’s also simplicity of living. Sometimes when people talk about this, you get the impression that downsizing is the only option – oh well, they say, now the children have moved out I’ve sold my house and I’m getting rid of all my possessions so I can move into a tiny flat. This is well and good, and if you’ve got a big house with only one or two people in it, please do sell it and move into something more appropriate sized. However, I already live in a one bedroom flat and it doesn’t really make my life simpler – only because it’s in a good location. I didn’t have to declutter my life to move in here; in fact, I bought a TV and a(nother) bookcase. What would actually make my life simpler would be the prospect of a steady job when I’ve finished my studies.

Overall, I’m a bit conflicted about simplicity. I’ve just bought a fancy new phone – that’s not part of the simple life. On the other hand, people who advocate for a simple life rhapsodise about how you get to spend more time with people you love, and I depend entirely on internet and phone to make that happen. (The people who are rhapsodising usually turn out to have a well-paid, probably full-time, job, a partner or spouse, and children. My life isn’t that shape.) Similarly, I own boxes and boxes of what most people would consider clutter, nothing, rubbish. On the other hand, my handicrafts – which rely on boxes and boxes of stuff to make things from – are praised when I finish them, and often considered throwbacks to a simpler way of life. Conclusion: simplicity isn’t simple.

S is for… Sabbats

Sabbat, as you may well know, is the Wiccan word for the eight solar festivals of the year: Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Lammas, and Mabon. (They have lots of names, of course; over the years, I’ve settled on these as my favourites.) This is one of the aspects of Paganism which seems to me to be common sense: the year is turning, in Britain we see changes regularly, at around these times, in ways which relate to the movement of the planet Earth and the needs and life cycles of plants and animals who dwell upon Her.

I make no claims to their universality, but I don’t think they need them. It’s enough that I, living here now, recognise what is actually happening around me, and I hope that others elsewhere are able to do that too.

It’s Mabon, the Autumn Equinox, tomorrow, as it happens. I have noticed some changes: a chill in the air, damper weather, shorter days. There are the students, too – for a British university, Mabon is the time of new terms and new courses. It’s always felt like a magical, enjoyable time to me, not least because I always enjoy starting a new study project. It’s the compensation I get for the cold and dark of winter!

The leaves aren’t quite turning yet, but between now and Samhain they will come down – only eight weeks. Roll on, the turning wheel!

S is for… Silence

As a Quaker, silence is important to me; not for its own sake (it seems to me that physical silence is useful but not actually required in the practice of Quaker worship) but as part of a practice of inward listening, waiting, and stillness.

It’s not something which is often found in Pagan rituals – if it is, it’s often labelled ‘meditation’, and is, by Quaker standards, rather short. At home alone, I don’t feel the need to conciously include it in my rituals, either, because silence is the natural state in which I exist unless I choose to break it (or choose to use something – the TV, music, the telephone – to break it).