Thursday, December 24, 2009

Transformation: Inward of Outward?

Marshall Massey made the following comment in response to the blog on Amish Grace and Quakers: To adopt the [Amish] practices is, I think, to mistake the outward for the inward. Friends have historically had their own avenue to humility — the avenue of quietism, a stilling of our selves inspired by a powerful recognition of our own fallenness, and by a sense of our tremendous every-moment dependence on our Lord. It is to this, and not to outward tactics, that Friends need to turn.

Christmas, because of its garb, is a good time to think about outward wrappings and inward presence.

During Christmas, outward wrappings are more distinct than during other times of the year. Our houses are often transformed with trees, wreathes, advent calendars, pine boughs, candles, eggnog, mistletoe, creches, beautifully wrapped gifts and other signs of the season. Often our touches are old-fashioned or nostalgic--an idealized 19th-century village under the Christmas tree, a touch of a Nutcracker in either our music or a wooden replica of Tchaikovsky's figure, a viewing or reading of The Christmas Carol. We associate these outward signs with inward states:

--The Dickensian Christmas represents conviviality, family harmony, good spirits, fellowship. We are longing to be surrounded by healthy community and loving family.

--The shepherd and magi Christmas represents the conjoined simplicity and grandeur of the holy, the sacred made incarnate on earth, the sacred available through the everyday things of life. It is God's love alive and available in the here and now. We long for the sacred in life. We long for an extended season of goodwill to all men and women. We long for a just world.

--The trees, the pine boughs, the candles, etc., those elements borrowed (or stolen) from the pagan, represent our love of the living things of the world, our longing for light and life during this darkest period, our longing to incorporate earth love and joyfulness into the sacred.

During the Christmas season, we hope that putting on the outward form of what we long for will transform us inwardly--individually and collectively-- into what we wish to be. I think primarily this happens unconsciously--we don't think "I'm putting up this creche because I want all babies in the world to be treated kindly" or "I'm drawn to buy this colorful print of Dickensian carollers because I want to live in a more convivial world." But I do think we long for a world where everyone is cared for, community is strong, the material goods of the world flow abundantly, the earth is protected, and joy abounds.

Of course, we know that many marriages fall apart during the Christmas season. Many children can't come home, because no matter how beautiful the packaging, the underlying poison is too deep. We know the world is a highly flawed place. If anything, the beautiful packaging of Christmas can underscore-painfully- how far we are from the ideal.

The great question is: Can the outward form change the inward person--can the dress transform the soul? Some say that the great distinction between Christianity and the other two religions of the book, Judaism and Islam, is Christianity's persistent belief that the inward soul of a person can and must be transformed, that in fact the salvation of the world can only occur when people undergo the soul transformation --a new way of seeing--that leads to the true outward change ... of everything. The other religions, it is said, put more faith in outward changes--following laws and a set cycle of prayers, fasting, etc.--for softening or least ameliorating, the hardness in the human heart and thus engendering change.

Quakers have always come down hard on the side of the primacy of inward transformation, seeing the outward forms of the faith as "counterfeits." The early Quakers, as we know, saw the rites of the church as allowing people who participated to believe they were godly people without transforming their lives. They saw the rites of the church becoming an end in themselves, not an avenue to transformation. The Quakers swept away these rituals to open room for the essential, to put people in the unmediated presence of God with faith that this would result in world transforming change.

But we Quakers use ritual, and I would argue that sitting in stillness is one of the most rigid rituals of all. Coming from a different tradition, I tend to see the cultural ritualism of the English all over the faith--try introducing the tiniest variant or "programming" into a meeting for silent worship. So my questions is: what privileges silent worship over other rituals?

Also, like Marshall, I believe inward transformation is the key: I believe in inward to outward, not outward to inward. The most beautifully trimmed Christmas tree in the world will not magically mend broken hearts in a family. On the other hand, is there a transformative possibility or quality to the outward? For instance, many people think some transformative quailty was lost when the Roman Catholic sisters began adopting "civilian garb" and the church moved from the grandeur of the Latin Mass. What do you think?


kevin roberts said...

Hi Diane-

I came to Friends as an adult with no religious background. To me, the essence of the Quaker practice of stillness is to free my outward mind and my inward soul from the straitjacket of anticipation, of the constraints that arrive when I tell God "Okay, I've learned what comes next, I don't need to pay much attention, all I have to do is get it right and we'll be done soon . . . " I don't see the silence I share with my church as a ritual, but as a purposeful lack of ritual. If one or two or twenty people decide to sing, or pick up a musical instrument, or speak for a time, that's okay as well. Obviously if people begin to consider silence as important in itself rather than as just the stage the player uses to perform, then something has gone wrong.

But some outward forms are useful to me as well, also not as ends, but as means of disciplining my thoughts, and desires, and needs, and goals. In worship, I don't personally use any of what you describe, but my life is full of forms to structure the way I approach certain questions or avenues of thought. Like Marshall, I am very leery of telling God that I have it all set up for him, but I'm comfortable using certain forms as tools.

I think the old Quaker answer still applies: if the form itself has genuine significance, then use it. If the true substance accompanies the form, then accept it, but don't confuse the purity of the substance itself with the wrapper it came in.

You think a lot about this stuff, don't you?

Bill Samuel said...

I think Dallas Willard's emphasis on distinguishing the treasure and the vessel is very important. We do have this treasure in earthen vessels. That is something we can not escape.

The vessels are not the problem in themselves. What is a problem is holding on to the vessel instead of the treasure. The vessels may be very useful to us in grasping the treasure, just as a jar without holes is very useful when obtaining water, but they aren't the point.

Dallas' observation is that groups of Christians often cling tightly to the vessels of our particular traditions, and thus lose focus on the treasure.

Early Quakers threw out the church vessels of their day wholesale in a radical attempt to put aside all distractions from a focus on the treasure. But we must have vessels, and so they wound up creating a vessel that they felt could avoid the problems of the church vessels they abandoned and enable a complete focus on Christ as head of the church.

All people of faith, including Quakers, must be open to what vessels will serve them today to help them focus on the treasure. There is no need to just abandon tradition, because traditions often developed because they were found to be useful vessels, but the traditions should not be held rigidly and people of faith must always be willing to change the vessels in which they hold the treasure.

It must be a dynamic process not a static one of holding to a tradition that worked well. God must lead us in the moment, and God will help us to discern what vessels are appropriate in our time and situation if we will listen.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Diane, Interesting, and as always, good post. Of course I don't come from a Quaker background though I have come full circle back to a Mennonite/Anabaptist conviction while being a member of an Evangelical Covenant church.

I think the outward Scripturally speaking is sacramental, or meant to be so. All things are to be pointers, or as Bill Samuel well points out here, vessels for God's grace and Presence. I believe that in a sense the bread and the wine in the Eucharist are such, and that the water in baptism is as well. I do this only on the basis of what I believe Scripture teaches both in the old and new covenants. Not that I have a good handle on that, because I really don't. And not that those sacraments can't become idols because they can. They can become blocks to God's blessing if we see them wrongly. But they're meant to be sacramental through Christ by the Spirit. I see Christmas Day as sacramental in a certain sense. And I wish you and yours a Blessed and Merry Christmans!!! Thanks for your friendship in blogging.

Diane said...

Hi Kevin,

Yes, I think about these things. :) I've met Quakers who insist we have no rituals, unlike other churches, but we DO. Silence IS a ritual. So ... you give reasons for being drawn to it, rather than denying its ritual quality, which is great. It struck me as I was writing this blog that this is a subject I keep coming back too--are there ways to examine or tweak our Quaker rituals to create a Society of Friends in which it is, in the words of Dorothy Day, "easier to be good?" IN this context, I'm thinking of "good" as "more of a community" and less of an assemblage of individuals.
Hi Bill and Ted. Merry Christmas. BIll, of course !!, great points. Ted, I still can't track down your blog. Do you have a new url?