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Active mystics

Shan Cretin presenting on AFSC's work at this year's Corporation Meeting. Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC

If you hang around Quaker circles long enough, you are likely to pick up on an often unexpressed tension between what are called the “mystics” and the “activists;" those who express their faith by doing, by acting in the world, by addressing social concerns, and those who prefer to express their faith through contemplation, conversation, and other spiritual practices. 

Both of these expressions of faith are absolutely crucial for a world transformed, both spiritually and socially.  When combined, they lead to the development of real, human relationships that plant the spiritual seeds for cultural change and inspire powerful collective action. 

In our work with Quaker communities around the country, Lucy and I noticed that while each Quaker community might have determined an interest or focus—whether it be criminal justice, immigration, or Israel/Palestine—there is often an energetic split between the “activists” and the “mystics.” Peace vigil outside of Guilford College.

We’ve also have noticed that many Quaker meetings do not have difficulty identifying injustices, or even taking political action.  But when it comes to developing relationships with those around them most affected by political or economic injustice, Quaker congregations are often fairly disconnected.  And it is through those relationships that real transformation can take place—both socially and spiritually.

Perhaps Quakers have been unable to connect with communities working for grassroots change because we, as Quakers, have not yet learned how to ease the tension between mystics and activists within our own Quaker communities. 

This tension is often felt in a strain in the responsibilities of the meeting, and the members can feel pressed for time and resources, both of which are likely being used to satisfy the needs of these two distinct approaches to faith rather than nurturing one coherent body.

As a result, resentment often builds between people who fall on either side of the spectrum.  Why don’t those mystic types go out and do something, the activists often wonder as they hear of the formation of another spiritual support group.  Why don’t those activists sit down and consider if their actions are motivated by Spirit or ego, say the mystics to themselves after the 4th or 5th announcement to donate food to a local shelter or attend an upcoming peace vigil. 

How can we bring these two powerful means of knowing and living the Spirit together so that we are not only more powerful activists, but more powerful faith communities? 

Rufus Jones, a Quaker from the 20th century and one of the founders of the American Friends Service Committee, referred to this unique combination of activist and mystic as “positive mysticism.”  According to Jones, an individual’s mystical experience is not a reason to leave the world or to annihilate the personality. To the contrary, the experience of a deep resonance with the Spirit is a call to be more truly oneself, to refine one’s personality so that it is in closer resonance with that divine Spirit in all walks of life.   To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.

Quakers witnessing at an Immigrants' Rights march.Jennifer Piper, the Program Director for Interfaith Organizing in AFSC’s Immigrant Rights program in Denver, Colorado, has seen both Quaker and non-Quaker faith communities bridge the gap between the activists and the mystics through a careful practice of acting and listening.  After engaging in work for social change—whether at a peace vigil, a protest march, a homeless shelter, or a prison—participants come together for a period of quiet reflection, often with one person presenting on how the experience affected their spirit.  This provides an opportunity not only for the participants to reflect on their social justice work, but also to get to know one another in deeper spiritual community.    

By acting, learning and waiting with one another, in our Quaker communities, we are more intimately connected to the Truth that the Spirit bestows on each one of us, through our experience of this life. 

What Rufus Jones called an “expanded personality,” one that is inspired and shaped by the Spirit, can only be realized by engaging in work to create a world transformed. It can only be realized by being human, together. 

We hope that the growing Meeting/Church Liaison program can help Quaker communities not only become better witnesses for peace and justice—we hope that through engaging with these issues, Quaker meetings can become more vibrant faith communities, living out Spirit in the world.