In Reach of Wisdom

For the past two weeks I’ve been reading a book about mindfulness called, Relax and Be Aware. The ideas it contains are at the same time, simple and clear as well as profoundly deep and challenging. The author teaches meditation at a center in Myanmar (me-yan-mar) and in his book, he invites readers to become more mindful by first becoming aware of the activity of our minds, noticing when we get caught up in ideas and emotions, realizing it when we feel peaceful and contented and loved. This awareness leads to wisdom, he says, and wisdom leads to peace.

He points out something we all know but rarely consider: our minds can so easily fill up with concepts we’ve developed about life–based on labels and categories and past encounters with people, places, and events–that we can lose touch with the fresh, new experience we’re living in real time, right now. Our mind’s ability to see patterns is part of the genius of the way we’re made—by recognizing patterns, our mind helps us understand our world and make decisions quickly, without a lot of purposeful thought. But the unexamined tendency to group things into patterns is also the problem at the heart of prejudice of all types. When we dismiss, discount, or discard others based on our concepts of them or the groups they represent instead of meeting each person as a unique human being,  we throw away our chance to meet “that of God” in them—and to witness it in ourselves.

So I’ve been experimenting with awareness this week, trying to notice where my thoughts go—when I’m working, when I’m driving, relaxing, weeding the garden, fussing at Gloria. (Actually, credit where credit is due–she was mostly good yesterday and even helped me with my weeding a little.) I can say it’s been an interesting week, kind of a running practical-life science experiment. I’m learning something about the way I think—and the way I don’t.

I’ve noticed there’s a very definite shift inside when my thoughts ramp up and I follow some chain of ideas without realizing it. This happens easily when I’m watching the news or reading headlines online—I get caught up in the emotion of it all and stop being aware of my thoughts. When I’m going through my schedule, trying to fit more into a certain day, I feel pressure inside and lose for a bit that more grounded feeling that awareness brings. Instead, things speed up. I stop listening. I feel tighter inside.

But when I’m able to stay aware and notice what my mind is doing, I have a sense of ease about it all. There’s more space in my time. I notice beauty and feel more grateful about the little things happening in my day. In fact that sense of peace, like all is well, feels very similar to the way I feel in silent worship—quiet, at ease, supported, connected to God. Like there’s nothing else in the world I need to be—or want to be—doing in that moment. In silent worship we let our minds get quiet and we listen for God. We allow there to be space inside. I think of it as becoming more porous—we soften our edges in silent worship and let God’s light shine in. We choose for a time to let go of the mental worlds we’ve built in our minds in order to be receptive to the wisdom and presence of God.

I like the way a monk I follow in England put it just yesterday in a post:

“Silence consists, above all, in being quiet so as to be always ready to receive something greater. Leave your analyses and the avalanche of your deductions. Allow silence to be manifested within your interior self.”

We Friends are fortunate that the idea of the Inward Teacher—the presence of Christ within each life—is at the heart of our tradition. Because of George Fox’s encounter with Spirit and the confirmation of others who found the same in their own lives, we have been given a faith that is largely based on the real, immediate, and personal experience of God’s presence, acting and working and leading in our lives. This is our source of understanding; this is how we gradually grow and heal and live with more Love, becoming more Christ-like. God’s Light walks with each of us and provides the wisdom we need along the way. As the philosopher Heraclitus wrote some 500 years before Jesus’ birth, “Knowing many things doesn’t teach insight.” The Light of Christ in each life does that.

In early Friends’ testimonies, the Light was mentioned so often that they were first known not as Quakers or as the Religious Society of Friends, but as the “Children of the Light.” In Fox’s Journal, he wrote about the importance of the Light as the center of a faithful life:

“Now the Lord God hath opened by his invisible power how 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 and came to the light of the life and became 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 Scripture; though afterwards, searching the Scripture, I found it. For I saw in that Light and Spirit which was before Scripture was given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God, or Christ, or the Scripture aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by.”

In his book, A Living Faith, Wilmer Cooper, founding dean of Earlham School of Religion, notes that Inward light—which he refers to as “the Light of Christ within” has been called many different things by Friends through the years. You may have heard it referred to as the Light Within, the Christ Within, Inward Light, Inner Light, Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Seed, Measure, and “that of God in everyone.” He notes that Friends have not been sticklers for precise theological language for much the same reason we don’t conform to creeds: because the freedom we each have as God’s beloved child is important as we each respond authentically to the leading of Spirit in our lives.

Cooper writes that whatever Friends may call the Light, they are of a mind on key ideas about its nature:

  • First, the Light is experienced as the direct and immediate presence of God.
  • Next, the Light as Friends understand it follows John 1:9, which says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”
  • Third, the Light was understood by early Friends to be universal and present within each person—believers and non-believers alike. Cooper writes that “Both Fox and [Robert] Barclay held that whether one had heard of the historical Jesus or not, it was possible to be saved by Christ through the inward work of grace.”
  • And finally, Friends believe the Light of Christ is the Inward Teacher of righteousness, creating an intimate, personal relationship with each of us that literally shines a light on our shortcomings and blind spots, our wounds and resentments and flaws, making us more aware of ourselves, giving us the wisdom to know where we need God’s help. This ultimately is how we grow and heal and are transformed so that through our lives after that point, with Christ-like love, we’re able to do our part in helping God bring more Light to the world.

All these ideas are important, but It is the last one—that Christ as our Inward Teacher leads us into  understanding and growth—that puts us most directly within the reach of the wisdom we need for our lives each day.

Richard Foster’s commentary in The Life with God Bible provides a wonderful introduction to the book of Proverbs, the source of our Old Testament reading for today. You may remember that Proverbs is a collection of sayings on how to live a good and faithful life. It was written hundreds of years before Jesus came on the scene, but most likely written after the time of King Solomon, although the book is often attributed to him. Foster describes Proverbs as a book “of encouragement, offering us steadiness, stability, and comfort…it assures us that wisdom guides us in the right paths.”

Our verses for today, from Chapter 3, are a perfect example of that:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. ...

Isn’t that a lovely vision of what’s possible when wisdom leads our lives? Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. Being receptive is important here, having hearts and minds porous enough to receive what wisdom offers. The one who finds wisdom and gets understanding certainly doesn’t believe he or she already has everything figured out. Instead, we listen and accept what we hear and as a result, receive something more precious than treasure, better than anything else in life we might want. Awareness brings wisdom, and wisdom brings peace.

In James’ letter to early believers, he provides a guide on how to live a Christian life. He tells listeners how to deal faithfully with their troubles, how to conduct themselves in the church, how to live humbly and honestly outside the church, and how to care for one another and wait patiently on the Lord. Our verses for today are part of a small section in Chapter 3 that is titled, Two Kinds of Wisdom:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

Two kinds of wisdom: The earthly kind that keeps our minds caught in competition and comparison and concerns for the self, and true wisdom from God that is gentle, pure, willing to yield, porous—my word–full of mercy. More valuable than the world’s greatest treasure, opening up the way of peace, bringing a harvest of righteousness, because God is good.

I mentioned in my email to you all yesterday that I spent the lovely Saturday afternoon we were given going back and forth between writing a little inside and then weeding a little outside. I also mentioned you might hear some soil between the sentences, and so here it is: We are now in the season of life when new things are being planted; already bulbs have sprouted and in some cases blossomed into colorful daffodils and hyacinths and tulips. The perennials are coming up too—my Lily of the Valley broke through the soil and grew to a height of almost four inches just this week alone.

As the sun softens the soil and the environment improves, new life, new ideas, new possibilities begin to grow. This is the season for it. Perhaps in our set and settled lives, our grooved and well-worn paths of thinking, we too can allow the soil of our minds to become softer and more pliable, receptive to whatever our most reliable Friend, our most Faithful Guide, our Inward Teacher wants to plant in our lives this year.

All we need is to be receptive. Awareness brings wisdom, and wisdom brings peace. Let’s let ourselves be led by God’s light and then watch the beauty grow.


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