Are Quakers Mystics?

Last month, Reno Friend Doug Smith led a spiritual discussion about Mysticism on Zoom. It was well attended and stimulated a vibrant discussion. One of Doug’s questions was: Do you think Quakerism can be a form of mysticism? Some thought yes and others no. Defining mystics and mysticism is a tricky task, as mystical experiences are often difficult to explain. Here is the Oxford Languages definition of a mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the Absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.

Isn’t this what we Quakers do when we sit in silence during Worship and wait for a message beyond us to come through to the Meeting? Our spiritual practice itself is mystical. I personally experience an inner quaking when I am given a message to speak. My heart beats faster and my breath comes quicker. I feel shaky and cannot calm down until I rise to speak. Once the message is complete, the quaking stops. Other Quakers have shared similar experiences with me.

Here is a quote from New Studies in Mystical Religion by Quaker Rufus M. Jones (1927): The mystic, as I hope to show, is not a peculiarly favored mortal who by a lucky chance has received into his life a windfall from some heavenly Bread-fruit tree, while he lay dreaming of iridescent rainbows. He is, rather, a person who has cultivated, with more strenuous care and discipline than others have done, the native homing passion of the soul for the Beyond… The result is that he has occasions when the larger Life with which he feels himself kin seems to surround him and answer back to his soul’s quest…

Rufus Jones was fond of saying “the beyond is within.” Christ said, “The kingdom is within you.” Carl Jung likened us to an aspen grove, connected through roots he called the “collective unconscious”. He spoke of synchronicities that occur in everyday life which seem to reveal an underlying pattern and mystery to the Universe. Most of us have had an experience that gives us a glimpse into the Mystery.

For over thirteen years, I have been reading and writing for What Canst Thou Say? (http://www.whatcanstthousay.org/)—a Quaker publication featuring mystical experiences and contemplative practice. For the last three years I have been an editor. The writers for WCTS share stories of their experiences that have touched my heart and soul. They have helped me see that my own mystical experiences are not strange, but perhaps more common than I ever realized. Here are some examples:

  • Calling a friend who has been on your mind and they say: “How did you know I was just thinking of you and about to call?” I’ve had the experience of picking up the phone to dial a friend and they are already on the line—I’d picked up their call before the phone even rang!
  • Dreaming of someone and then running into them the next day.
  • Finding just the right book or article at the moment you need it. I once found a much needed book lying in the middle of the living room floor in a newly rented house which was otherwise empty. The same can be said of running into the right person at the right time who has an important message for us, or who may change the direction of our life.
  • Experiencing a series of coincidences that lead us down a certain path in life, which later appear to be intentionally synchronistic in explicable ways. My journeys as a therapist and Quaker were marked by many such coincidences.
  • Receiving important messages during meditation, Silent Worship or other times when we are still enough to hear the voice within. Sometimes these messages can come through like a lightning bolt and are accompanied by visions and hearing a voice that is not our own. From my experience, these are rare compared to the more quiet and ordinary messages.
  • Feeling yourself disappear and become one with nature, or music, or movement.
  • Becoming so immersed in the flow of an activity that you disappear and feel something is done through you. This has happened to me when writing, speaking and working as a therapist.
  • That little “tap on the shoulder” along with a message which guides you to what you need. For example, helping you find your car keys or something you need in a store. The other day my partner was led to a thrift store he never frequents to find an obscure lid for one of my mother’s pots. Sure enough, it was there! And it was only 45 cents.

As you watch practical saints operate, in a great variety of affairs and under very different conditions, you soon see… they seem to be lending their hands to a larger life than their own.  If they were asked, they would deny that they were mystics.  “No, I am not a mystic.  I have no mighty experiences.  I am too practical and too commonplace ever to be a mystic.”  My answer would be that there is no inconsistency between a mystical life and a practical life.  The more truly mystical a person is, the greater the probability that he will be effectively practical.” Rufus Jones, New Studies, p. 198-202.

Could we all be mystics and not know it? Can we open ourselves ever more to being conduits for the Light? Is Rufus Jones onto something when he suggests we can cultivate the “native homing passion of our souls for the Beyond?” What canst thou say about your own mystical experiences?

Postscript: If you have a mystical experience you would like to share, What Canst Thou Say welcomes submissions at any time, which you can send to rhondalou14@gmail.com.

By Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.