Whether you were born into a family of Friends or became a convinced Friend later in life, you know that there are some things about our tradition that make us different from other Protestant denominations. First and most obvious is that we don’t do communion in the same way that other Christian churches do; for us there is no bread and wine (or wafers and grape juice) but rather a turning inward to enjoy communion with the Spirit of God. We practice what we think of as a sacramental faith that doesn’t require outward rituals. Ours is a faith lived out in our choices and behaviors and the words we speak, the love we share, each and every day.
Early Quakers—and especially George Fox—felt the leading of Spirit was the center of all, and both the experience of individuals and the leading of the entire meeting were important. Scripture is also important and to be relied on for truth and clarity and inspiration, but as Fox so beautifully taught, the Bible was not simply written once—something we follow and forget—but is part of a living conversation that continues to ask for our response. “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
Our faith is a living, growing faith. We do our best to walk and live by whatever Light we have, believing that as we continue along the path, more Light will be given. And it is. We are continually guided and our understanding deepens as the way opens.
This week I read something inspiring written by the New Thought writer Florence Scovel Shinn. In the late 1920s through the 1940s, the New Thought movement provided seeds for the Unity and Unitarian Universalist churches of today; writers drew heavily from the Gospels, teaching that when we understand the power our thoughts and words have in shaping our experiences, we will be able to live more truly in accord with God’s purpose for us—and peace and abundance and harmony will result. The sentence that inspired me was, “With the ‘single eye,’ man sees only Truth.” She was referring to our New Testament scripture for today, Matthew 6:23:
“The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
Wouldn’t that be amazing if that were literally true? And wouldn’t it feel wonderful—healed, whole—for our whole bodies to be full of God’s light?
If with a “single eye,” we only see Truth, it would follow that we would see only that of God in everyone, which is one of the hallmarks of our faith. The unmistakable truth of our kinship in God would be plain for all to see. Perhaps with a “single eye” we will be able to look through any adversity, any trouble; watching for the goodness of God to appear, certain it is on the way.
So, I wondered, how do we get this “single eye”? To find an answer, I looked through all my Bibles—the NIV, the ESV, the Greek version, the Hebrew version, that one that puts all the translations side by side—and the scripture itself doesn’t vary much. Some translations use the word lamp instead of light; others say healthy instead of single. The indication is that to have a “single eye” means to have a healthy outlook, spiritual understanding, to see the goodness and promise God offers us in every situation.
I wondered what different scholars had written about the passage, so I looked up a number of commentaries. John Chrysostom was an Early Church Father in the Fourth century and the archbishop of Constantinople. He wrote, “The eye He speaks of is not the external but the internal eye. The light is the understanding, through which the soul sees God. He whose heart is turned to God, has an eye full of light; that is, his understanding is pure, not distorted by the influence of [the world].”
And the Cambridge commentary offered this interesting take:
“The eye is not itself the light, but contains the light; it is the “lamp” or candle of the body, the light-conveying principle. If the eye or lamp is single, it admits the influx of the pure light only; if an eye be evil, that is, affected with disease, the body can receive no light at all. The whole passage is on the subject of singleness of service to God. There can be but one treasure, one source of light, one master. The eye is the spiritual faculty, through which the light of God’s truth is recognized and admitted into the soul.”
This commentary also suggested something I’d never thought of before: that when this verse appears in the book of Luke, the suggestion is that the spiritual perception of the Pharisees is dimmed, so they are unable to recognize Christ. If our eye is not single, our perception is limited; we won’t be able to see the goodness, the love, even the Christ all around us. God’s love could be closer than our own breath, but if we’re blinded by the world, we see only the darkness.
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary offers this understanding:
“The light—rather, “the lamp” of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single—simple, clear. As applied to the outward eye, this means general soundness; particularly, not looking two ways. Here, as also in classical Greek, it is used figuratively to denote the simplicity of the mind’s eye, singleness of purpose, looking right at its object, as opposed to having two ends in view..…thy whole body shall be full of light—illuminated. As with the bodily vision, the man who looks with a good, sound eye, walks in light, seeing every object clear; so a simple and persistent purpose to serve and please God in everything will make the whole character consistent and bright.”
It begins to become clear, doesn’t it? The single eye looks to God for understanding, keeps the vision of God’s love as its utmost goal and aim. And the life is transformed, because we live in the reality of the Light. We’re bathed in it continually by the spirit of God.
Do you think that’s impossible in this crazy, complex, and conflicted world? George Fox didn’t think so. Fox was absolutely convinced human beings could reach perfection, even in this murky, earthly realm. From his own experiences and openings—and a mystical experience he had in which God showed him many things—Fox taught that God’s intention was to restore humankind to the nature of pure relationship we enjoyed with God before the Fall.
Here’s how Fox describes that mystical event in his journal:
“I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were newe, and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness; being renewed into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me; and it was showed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue.”
His experience of being swept up into the paradise of God and being made pure, renewed in the image of God, convinced Fox that this was God’s intention for everyone, to restore us all to the pure and innocent relationship that existed at the dawn of creation. Perfectibility became an impassioned—and controversial–idea at the center of Friends’ teachings.
The Valiant Sixty—those 60 early traveling ministers–set off with blazing energy, not only across the countryside but around the world. Their intention wasn’t to earn converts for the Friends tradition, but to restore God’s children to the truth of the Christ within. This was beyond any creed or tradition—the deepest practice of original faith. It was about restoring everyone to what Adam and Eve had in the garden with God before the Fall. It was possible, they taught, if we let the light of Christ lead.
And these early Friends weren’t quiet about their message, either. These were powerful speakers, stepping out in spirit, and doing some remarkable and adventurous things. In his essay, Early Friends and the Alchemy of Perfection, Max Carter wrote that in the 1640s, “the first Quakers …asserted that “the power of the Lord” was coming over the people, that sin was being overcome, and fallen character was being perfected, that ‘miracles’ were attempted and sometimes accomplished.”
As Fox began his open-air preaching, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands gathered to hear him speak. Many felt moved and challenged by what he said. And his messages were often met with disbelief and even anger. He was attacked and imprisoned numerous times. People continually argued with him, as he put it, “pleaded for sin,” claiming that no person could achieve perfection in this world. In his journal he wrote about those who so strongly resisted that idea:
Moreover, when I was brought up into His image in righteousness and holiness, and into the paradise of God He let me see how Adam was made a living soul; and also the stature of Christ, the mystery that had been hid from ages and generations: which things are hard to be uttered, and cannot be borne by many. For of all the sects in Christendom (so called) that I discoursed with, I found none who could bear to be told that any should come to Adam’s perfection,—into that image of God, that righteousness and holiness, that Adam was in before he fell; to be clean and pure, without sin, as he was. Therefore how shall they be able to bear being told that any shall grow up to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ, when they cannot bear to hear that any shall come, whilst upon earth, into the same power and Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in?—though it be a certain truth that none can understand their writings aright without the same Spirit by which they were written.
Now the Lord God opened to me by His invisible power that every man was enlightened by the divine Light of Christ, and I saw it shine through all; and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation to the Light of life, and became the children of it; but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man; neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. For I saw, in that Light and Spirit which was before the Scriptures were given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all, if they would know God or Christ, or the Scriptures aright, must come to that Spirit by which they that gave them forth were led and taught.
Max Carter adds, “For Fox, perfection meant submitting fully to God’s original design for creation, a creation made perfect but corrupted by the Fall. When one is renewed into God’s original image by Christ, one is perfect again.”
These words of Fox make it clear what his interpretation of the “single eye” would be:
“There is your Teacher, the Light, obey it. There is your condemnation, disobeying it. If you hearken to the Light in you, it will not suffer you to conform to the evil ways of the world [but] lead you to purity, to holiness, to uprightness, even up to the Lord.”
In this time, this the year of our Lord 2021, we are quite slowly and tentatively beginning to move out from a year of paralyzing darkness, uncertainty, and challenge. Hearts have been broken, lives lost, security crumbled, retirements canceled, jobs sacrificed, connections frayed, holidays and rights of passage changed and sorely missed. Even as we begin to edge out from under the control of the pandemic, the effects of what we’ve all experienced—and the healing that needs to come—will take years, maybe generations.
This is a good time for a new vision of what’s possible—for us, for us all, for the world. We don’t have to set our sights on merely getting back to normal. That will be the first part of the journey, but let’s not stop there. Let’s aim higher. We can emerge from this time with a single eye, focused on the goodness of God. Our whole bodies—and not only our physical bodies but our church bodies and governing bodies—could be full of light as a result. What a difference that would make. Perfect is possible, with Christ as our guide and God our destination. Even in this world, even while darkness and hardship still seem to exist, our single eye will keep us living in the light, and that will change everything.
In closing, a few encouraging words from early Friend Job Scott:
Be content with a little, make not haste. And as thine eye is single to the divine light in thee, thy whole body will become full of light; thou wilt not lack any good thing, any necessary information; but God will reveal all things to thee, as far and as fast as thou canst safely and usefully bear them.
- OT Proverbs 20: 27
- NT Matthew 6: 22-23
- Carter, Max L. Early Friends and the Alchemy of Perfection. https://journals.sas.ac.uk/fhs/article/download/3465/3416/
- Fox, George. The Journal of George Fox. https://www.hallvworthington.com/wjournal/gfjournal1.html