In the final days of preparing for our QVS year, today we explore transformation with a post from Portland Coordinator and Program Director, Rebecca Sumner.
Transformation is a funny thing. On a personal level, it’s one of the most intimate, individual, and unique-to-each-experience things we encounter. On an organizational, societal, or global level, it’s so intricate, collective, and unpredictable that we often feel paralyzed in our efforts to seek transformation. It’s this mysterious thing that we can invite but we cannot initiate or plan. And yet, it seems to have blessedly developed these grooves in time and experience that it cascades down like a long dried up river returning in an unexpectedly wet and dreary autumn.
As we talk about transformation, I want to look at those riverbed grooves that transformation loves to run down as it surprises the dry and waiting soul. Let’s look at four case studies of transformation and see the themes and rhythms that arise:
Marge Abbot, in writing about her experience of transformation, explains that she was in several places of pain and difficulty and darkness when transformation hit. She says “I became more and more vulnerable and in despair; a precondition to being open and broken.” Then she tells of a moment where transformation took hold. She cried for an hour in worship and says this of that hour: “In that hour, my life-long sense of worthlessness was consumed in all encompassing love as I sat, enfolded in God’s arms.” And it was from this experience of desolation confronted by consolation that her call to ministry came to her. Marge now writes prolifically and leads wonderful workshops and travels and speaks and…this started when she was vulnerable in despair as a precondition to being open and broken.
Marge, in discussing transformation, talks of many conceptual deaths followed by new life. She engages the concept of baptism – a descent into water or fire or or a death or a dark night of the soul – followed by an ascent into something new. Marge cites the death of a feeling of unworthiness and the ascent of Divine love flowing through her. She cites the death of the presumption that rationality was enough and that she could control her world to responding anf the ascent of the gentle though often inexplicable nudges of the Divine love within her.
Similarly – whether you hear it as a true story that happened historically or as something that may have happened or as a parable of how the Divine works in the world, consider the story of Jesus: At many points in the Gospel, someone is a dark night – as Marge might say, they are entirely vulnerable and in despair. And then some sort of denoument comes to them. Zaccheaus is isolated and despised by society and then layed spiritually naked in front of Jesus and in his despair and vulnerability, Jesus brings a baptism – a death and the beginning of something new. His isolation and shame are put down by Jesus’ investment in him and from that collision of desolation and consolation comes his calling.
The same with so many stories in the Gospels.
The central story is when the empire violently brings death to Jesus and he expresses a feeling of abandonment even by God as he dies. The ultimate in isolation. Followed by something entirely new: a story of new life. That isolation and death is met with resurrection and consolation and Jesus again walks about the earth breathing the word “Peace” to those he breaks bread with. And, in traditional Christian understandings of the world, this is THE moment of transformation in history and from it comes a calling for each and every person in history.
George Fox, similarly, spent years looking for something he did not find. He was morose. He spent Christmas sleeping in a haystack all alone. It wasn’t until he was deep in despair and utterly vulnerable that that feeling of isolation collided with consolation and he had his epiphany that the Divine can be in relationship to him without any intermediary. He says he knew this experimentally.
American Civil Rights Movement:
As Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus, it was a moment of darkness. It had been too much for too long and the despair was too great to sit idly by any longer. And when she took her stand, the end of her patience with chronic injustice resonated like a deep breath through a shofar and called others out of the dark night into the work of societal transformation. This is a terse treatment of one of the most intricate and important periods in American history – pardon me for that in an attempt at a brief introduction to themes of transformation. And, stop for a moment there and think of current affairs in Furguson, MO. Is this another dark dark night that is sounding the shofar calling the dried up wates of justice and inviting us to finally step up and welcome the new light of transformation?
Otto Scharmer writes about a thing he calls Theory U. Basically, it is a theory about how transformation comes about. The theory is named for the shape the journey of transformatin takes: a U. He suggests a pattern of descent > going down into confusion and despair, and assent > arising in a new way of being and knowing.
Essentially a person is walking through life just fine with all her assumptions about the world, how it works, and her role in it when – BAM! something happens. We’ve all experienced this. Maybe as a kid you believed your parents knew everything. Then one day, your mom gets a math problem wrong as she’s helping you with homework. And it’s no big deal, but it is. It changes your reality. Or on a deeper level, maybe you have an expectation of what Quaker community looks like and then you experience a monthly meeting where one person controls the meeting rather than engaging in the hard work of finding unity. This might send you reeling and into some level of depression. As scharmer might describe: you had one picture of reality and your place in it and then it changed suddenly.
This often tosses people into a time of turmoil or what some historic Christian mystics might call the dark night of the soul. You look for your old footing, but it’s gone. You struggle to create some new footing or to find the light in the dark and your attempts just frustrate you further. You might call out to God and feel that God is absent. This is that humus of despair that Marge, Zaccheus and George Fox endured.
And then, suddenly, something happens and the new terrain of your world clicks. Scharmer suggests – in the business world – that when you’ve seen someone be okay one day, then depressed for some time, and then – all of the sudden – they seem to have new energy and hope, you ought to just step back and facilitate whatever it is that they think ought to be done. He suggests that we emerge from this dark night with a deeper and truer understanding of reality and of our role in it. You might return to a monthly meeting that disappointed you and have the exact vocal ministry that is needed to redirect people to seeking unity. You may have lost your vision for your future. Maybe you always thought you’d be a teacher but an internship quickly spoiled that plan and you spent months in despair before – BAM! – you realize you have a leading to be an education reform activist. Maybe you will come into your site placement working with youth living outside and it will quickly hit you that you have none of the answers and nothing really to offer them. And you will spend months of your time at QVS sitting with a level of desperation about your work. Then, out of nowhere, you will realize that being willing to be in the despair with someone else is a gift and you have a passionate calling to simply listen and walk with people in the dark.
The point of all of this is to say that, in broad strokes and not in every circumstance, transformation travels through confusion and into despair. It is being present to those hard places that finally delivers us into personal and societal transformation. It is an intimate and unique experience to be transformed or to be a part of a transformation movement. But the contours and rhythms of transformation seem to travel through the dark to find the light.
As you embark on your journey with QVS, I hope you have boundless joy throughout! I hope it is fun! And I know it will be. And I also know it will be hard. And it will be those hard, dark, confusing places where transformation apprehends you and brings you that “experimental” knowing that George Fox, Marge Abbott, Zacchaeus, and so many others traversed the dark to find.
When have you experienced transformation before? How does that fit with Theory U?
What transformation do you hope for in the coming year?
What about transformation scares you?
What transformation in the world do you hope to participate in?
What will you do when you encounter the dark night? Who can you invite into that with you? Who can support you and what kind of support will you need in the dark?
What experience of darkness might be too much and time to find help for getting out of it?
How will you celebrate the light as you find: in yourself, at your site placement, in your QVS house?
Today, as we prepare for orientation and the start of another new QVS year, Assistant Director and Philadelphia Coordinator Ross Hennesy leads us in some considerations about community:
I am a member of a few different communities. I’m part of the Quaker Voluntary Service community and serve as the acting director there. I am a member of Germantown Monthly Meeting. I live in a multi-house intentional community and I am an active citizen in the neighborhood of Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia.
Today, I want to talk about community. It is the theme of this conference, one of the traditional Friends’ Testimonies, and it is one of QVS’s core values. I also would say that it is personal for me. I have, for my entire adulthood, been trying to live into the question, “How can small, intentional communities be organized to effect social change?” All of those communities, that I listed before, are holy experiments trying answer that question differently.
First, I want to talk about community as a testimony of Quakerism. Sometimes folks refer to these as our values. I do not particularly like the word “values,” as it is a secular term that conjures the image of a projected ideal for which we strive to achieve. It is not the same as a testimony, which is the natural expression of an internal movement. It is not a projection – it is an outgrowth. Values derive from mental assent to an idea – testimonies derive from an internal transformation.
So what is this internal transformation that leads to community – George Fox famously describes his transformation in his journal when he says: “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings.”
It is what Isaac Pennington talks about when he says, “as the soul turns from the power of darkness and death, towards the power of the eternal Spirit of light; so the power meets it, embraces it, appears to it, and manifests itself in it, proportional to its present capacity and condition.”
Today we don’t like talking about darkness or death. We want to imagine that everyone is already good enough as they are. We take the phrase, “there’s that of God in everyone” to mean we do not need transformation; we already arrived and this is as good as it gets. I know this is not true for myself. I have lots of shadows. And I am going to guess that you do too.
And so this is what is offered by Quakerism. It is this movement; a life that is lived in fear and guilt can be transformed into a life that is lived in love. There is a three steps to this process to this Quaker “technology”:
- We are born into a world of “darkness,” where we are incarcerated by our fear and guilt. All fears we have, I surmise, stem from two basic primal fears. Jesus, Pennington and Fox use the metaphor of Death, and I adapted this from Brian Drayton’s PH pamphlet “Getting Rooted”:
- The first is the fear of not-being:– these fears sound like “I need…” (not having enough, not being safe, not being heard)
- The second is the fear of not-counting: it is a social death and these fears sound like “I should…” (not being loved, not being respected, not making a difference, not being good, not fulfilling obligations)
- There are spiritual disciplines that enable us to see clearly how fear controls us. The option that society gives us is to stay really busy, to imagine if we just work hard enough, or we choose the right causes, we can postpone death and avoid pain. Or if we buy the right products those dark places will disappear. This is not what Quakerism offers; instead, we directly confront our darkness. We hold our fear in the Light. We invite death into the conversation with light, we let all of the darkness bubble up from within, then when it shows up we say, “Hello fear, thank you for that information, but you know what, instead, I’m going to choose compassion.” When our minds are silent, all of these subconscious motivations rise up to be greeted.
- By holding our fear in the Light, we are transformed into children of Love. If we do this enough, we reach a tipping point, what used to be called “convincement,” where our default way of being in the world is no longer out of fear, but compassion. The fear and guilt never goes away, nor should it. It remains one of our tools, but it at some point loses its authority. It stops serving as our basic operating system.
When fear loses its authority over us, and is replaced by compassion as our primary motivation, we look like the early Quakers who stood up to Kings and Presidents calling for justice without fear of imprisonment or losing social status. Or we look like early Christians, who no longer fearing death, say to Caesar, “go ahead and throw me to the lions. It doesn’t matter. I’ve already died with Christ. You lost your power over me because I answer to a different authority.”
So why community?
Two reasons that I can see:
- This transformation that Quakerism makes possible, this movement from fear to compassion – is impossible to do alone. You need a community to practice on. You can’t do empathy by yourself. So this is my spiritual discipline right now, during the week, when I am alone, I sit and let all of my own darkness, my hidden motivations, my fears, rise up to my own consciousness. I like to think of this as honing my full “intelligence,” not just my intellect, but my full self-awareness. I’m bringing it all to the Light. When I go to meeting for worship, I am using the people in the meeting house to blow on the ember of empathy that is my Inner Light. I am practicing listening to, not just with my ears, but with my whole body, to sense what the community is feeling and saying, hoping that at some point my capacity for true compassion gets so bright it begins to guide me throughout my week. I do the same with my house community. They give me so many opportunities to catch myself saying, “Well I should…” and then stopping, and saying instead, “What does compassion look like in this moment?” Sometimes it’s the same, and sometimes it is different.
- The second, “Why” to community is it gives you clues as to tell you what you are supposed to be doing. This year I got to watch the Volunteers, almost like a little laboratory, as they each came in with expectations of what community would be like. Each wanted to find in their house community a network of support that would encourage them and challenge them in the areas that were most important to them. The house community would be a place of rest and nourishment, so that they would be strengthened to go out into the world a do the real work that drew them to QVS.
Throughout the year, however. I got to check in one on one with each of the Volunteers. I got to hear their frustrations with the house community as it wasn’t fulfilling that hope. One Volunteer complained to me that the community wasn’t anti-racist enough. Another complained that the community wasn’t politically active enough. Another complained that the community wasn’t spiritual enough, and another complained that they didn’t tell enough poop jokes in the house!
Why is this? Its because the things that the Volunteers cared most about, what they sought support for, was the thing that they had to offer to the house. Those are the things that they have the most passion and skills for. If they were going to be present in the community, it was us to them to bring it.
So community is never going to reflect back to you your ideal community. It’s most likely not going to challenge you in areas of growth that are most important to you, but it WILL tell you who you are and what you have to offer. When you sense your true self not being supported or reflected in a community, it is a clue as to your leading. It’s not the support that tells you what you what you’re supposed to do with your life, it’s the frustration. And this is how community grows! This is how you “build community,” by offering our lives to fill in those gaps as gifts to others.
What is community?
When I refer to a community, I usually mean groups of 12-200 people, (I fudge it with “Intentional Community” as a shared house with a larger purpose– but prefer “Cooperative House”) who share, at their center what I’m going to refer to as a “common-wealth”. A metaphoric or literal storehouse, where each puts in what they can and takes from it what they need. This commonwealth can be political and look like power-sharing. As Hannah Arendt says, power “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” So the center can be a shared political will. The commonwealth can also be economic like the first Christians set up. It says in Acts, “And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” It may look like a community of knowledge, where truth emerges from the sharing of ideas, or a spiritual community, where Spirit emerges. The commonwealth can look like a lot of different things, but the point is, we each bring what we have, our excitement, our truth, or skills, our energy, our money, and we gift it to the community, building up the resource bank from which, as we have need, draw.
Quaker communities, at their best, combine all of these things: the politics, the truth-seeking, the economic ,and the spiritual, into a community that is ultimately aspiring to be a community of love. In Quaker community, love has to have the final say. It is a higher authority than community. We already talked a little about how love and fear are opposites. Which is why 1 John 4:18 says: There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
Community is the means to this higher end.
What then is love?
I asked my professor this once, “Why do we use the same word to say, I love my partner, and I love pizza, and I love God, and I love baseball?” And he says, “They all have in common, ‘the urge to merge.’” For the two to become one. To have “common – union (communion), common-unity (community)” But there are often times where we know that this union, this one-ness is oppressive. Parents who can’t let go because they have lost their own identity, a partner who no longer sees us because we have become an extension of their own life, a collective who expects assimilation, a nation who invades other nations with the goal of a unified capitalist economy: these are all ways in which the desire for unity can manifest. These are all the shadows of community.
So I think my professor only got it half right: Love is not unity, it is the heightened tension between self and union. It is not just the ‘urge to merge,’ but as the poet Rilke puts it, ‘Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.’ And by entering into an empathetic relationship with another, we tighten that tension. The desire to overcome difference becomes stronger, as must the counter balance to protect the other. That tension can be tightened, like a guitar chord, to a degree that it plays music, but if it ever slackens – if the individuals lose the attraction for one-ness or if it’s ever successful and pure unity happens, love breaks.
One way to think of this is from the field of neuroscience. Our brains make a map of us, our sense of self, and it roughly includes our bodies, but sometimes it can extend or retract to include more or less than our bodies. For example, think of a tennis player, who uses a tennis racket. Over time, that player builds a neuron map that includes that racket in their own sense of self – and she can use it as easily as she can use her hands and feet. When folks lose a limb, it is thought they can feel a phantom limb because their neuron map of themselves is incongruous with reality. They have a sense of self that exists beyond their body. This happens in relationships, we start to map our closest relationships into our brain’s may of our self. We begin to predict patterns of behavior, we learn to read subtle tones of voice, we know the sounds of people’s footsteps. It’s all being scripted into our brain. The other person is literally drawing themselves into you. You are physically becoming one. So when you go through a break up, or someone close dies, that feeling of loss, is the fact that, just like with a lost limb, your map of your self is missing a piece.
At the same time, you have to recognize that that one-ness exists only in your head. The other person remains an individual with a infinite chasm between you and them. You will never have direct access to their experience, only what is communicated in thousands of subtle ways, verbal and non-verbal. This is the tension – at the same time, we become do literally become one, writing ourselves on to each other’s “sense of self”, but we must honor that which is infinitely distinct and separated, the other person’s subjective experience.
This is also the tension within communities. Community is built by what you have in common, where there is unity, by what is shared in the center. By definition that is in contrast with difference. Groups of individuals will (if they’re doing it right) struggle between building something in common and protecting what is different, with the goal of stretching both as tightly as possible without snapping.
And so I conclude with where I began. You have a choice before you: A life freed from darkness and lived in light, freed from fear and lived in love. But you have to participate in community to get there. And community is both hard and wonderful. It’s full of disappointment and celebration. It’s frustrating.
It requires making tough choices. It means getting into conflicts. It means doing other people’s dishes. It means having dance parties in your living room and cleaning up the mess the next morning. It means you have to sit through people’s nonsense vocal ministry. Or have old people tokenize you. Or worse have them ignore you. It means you get to make people food and eat food made by others. It means you have an audience, if you’re willing to be other’s audiences later. It forces you to create and enforce and respect personal boundaries. You’ll be taken advantage of, and you will accidently hurt people. It means you are confronted with the fact that you hurt people. That you annoy people. That you bring joy to people and make them laugh. That you will be called on your bull and sometimes you’ll have to call someone else’s. It means you will have live music playing when you want to dance along and far past when you want to go to sleep. And someone else’s dog will pee on your rug. Community is complicated.
But it’s the only chance we have to discover the life of love and courage and power that lies on the other side.
Today, in preparation for orientation, we explore the Quaker Way with a post by Madeline Schaefer:
I have spent a lot of time over the years thinking and talking about Quakerism and most of that time I have been very, very confused. Quakerism is all about questioning, after all. What is Truth? What is silence? What does it even mean to be a Quaker?
Perhaps part of why I have always been so confused is that the point of asking these questions is not to find an answer. It is to undermine our own understandings of where false Truths may lie, and to love the richness found in the asking.
After all, we are searching for a true way to live, not a code of ethics. And we will not find answers in words, but in life itself. The Truth, therefore, is something that we live, every day, in our own time. We speak of it because we are human. But we only know it by choosing life in our actions every day.
For many years, I thought that by going to enough Quaker conferences and reading enough books about spiritual enlightenment, I could actually develop a plan for how to live a perfect, good and whole life. And while it did help me further articulate my experience, I only really understood my own Truth when I finally had the courage to let go of myself. By shaking loose from who I thought I was or what I thought I needed, I finally had more space to live my life. I was subconsciously choosing to be with something more real, and that thing was my life.
I may have never come up with a good definition of Truth by letting go, but my life has become clearer. And it was only through sitting with my own mess that I found the lightness to live fully in the present moment. Moving toward life involves giving up all of the wonderful coping mechanisms you were using to deal with your own loneliness. And it sucks.
But there is something almost magical hidden within that painful non-action. Being with your messy self, heals that messy life. Sitting in your own pain, your own confusion, may not give you answers, but it will give you strength. You may not feel “transformed,” but your life is changing every second, and you with it.
Quakers don’t talk about suffering very much, particularly in the context of Truth, but letting go often involves a good deal of suffering. It is often excruciatingly painful to give up all of the habits that you used to negotiate your own loneliness. If, as the Buddhists teach us, life is suffering, then Truth must be hidden inside of that suffering. Perhaps knowing Truth must and always will involve pain.
Being a Quaker or part of a Quaker community such as Quaker Voluntary Service involves lots and lots of talking. For many Quakers, it is through the process of talking with one another that we learn who we are and where we may need to let go. We will likely never find answers to the questions we pose to ourselves and one another. But we can live in confusion with others, and then live our lives.
You may become frustrated with all of these questions, all of this searching. But it will lead you somewhere, even if the answers you are looking for evade you, and the process of being yourself involves sometimes painful discomfort. We cannot help but choose life on this path full of questions.
Madeline opens with three good questions. How would you answer them now? How do you hope your answers might change over your time with QVS?
- What is Truth?
- What is silence?
- What does it even mean to be a Quaker?
Madeline mentions going to Quaker conferences and meetings in hopes of finding a plan for living a “perfect, good and whole life.” What are you hoping for from a year of living in the Quaker Way in community? What might you need to let go of in the coming year?
What pieces of yourself or your “mess” might you be called to sit with this year?
Reading this blog entry, what do you hope for? What do you fear?
Madeline talks about the Quaker Way as a way of searching and asking questions in community. What are you searching for in this year? What questions do you hope to ask in community?
On Wednesdays and Saturdays leading up to our 2014-2015 orientation, we will be posting an entry related to each of our core values with queries to help us prepare for a year together exploring the Quaker Way, Service, Transformation and Community.
Quaker Voluntary Service defines our value of service thusly:
Through the QVS experience, we seek to create and sustain a culture of service within the broader Quaker community and foster a lifetime of service for volunteers who learn the joy of giving of themselves for the good of the world and in gratitude to God. We strive to serve in contextually appropriate ways that affirm the dignity of all persons and the sovereignty of all communities. We will practice solidarity rooted in mutually empowering relationships.
Today, we engage prophetic service with Noah Merrill: Please watch Quaker Speak’s Interview with QVS board member Noah Merrill on Prophetic Service here and engage the queries below.
(We recommend considering these queries, and as you have time and are lead, journaling about them in preparation for your time with QVS. It could be helpful to discern if there are responses to these queries that it could be helpful to share with your QVS housemates).
- How does Noah’s understanding of prophecy resonate with you? Are there way you hope to bring this view of the world into your QVS year?
- What do you hear in the concept of Friends and sacramental living? Have you experienced this? Do you have hopes for experiencing this in your QVS year? What are your goals related to sacramental living?
- Noah explains prophetic service as not just saying that another way is possible but as living a different way – making it a reality. As you contemplate this concept, how do you respond to it? What does it cause you to imagine or wonder about your year with QVS? What does it cause you to hope? What fears do you have?
- How might you live in a way that invites people into the possibility that something could be different?
- Noah suggests that we could be living into this prophetic service in communities. What are your hopes and fears for living in an intentional community engaging in prophetic service? What questions or hopes do you have for your housemates? What conversations would be helpful to have early on in your time together to prepare for this communal life of prophetic service?
- Noah talks about seeing things as they are and also reaching for what they could be. What are you seeing as it is and longing to lean into what it could be? What are your goals for this life of prophetic service in your QVS year?