Meditation: Duty to one’s self, one’s soul

Sarah Hardy Jackson, Monkstown Meeting: : talk at Ulster Quarterly Meeting, 23 September 2007

Sarah Hardy Jackson is a convinced Friend, a member of Dublin Monthly Meeting for over 30 years. She has served as clerk, overseer and elder of various meetings, including a period as Yearly Meeting recording clerk. This talk was given twice in different versions. Her thought developed over time and each version is specific to a different audience. The first version (Duty to Oneself) was given to Friends at Ulster Quarterly Meeting, held in Bessbrook Meeting House in September 2007. Here she could make reference to our queries and other shared experience as Quakers. Later she was asked to give the Meditation which forms part of the World Day of Prayer Service for Christians of all denominations, held in Monkstown Meeting House in March 2008. Her own experience during the intervening time, the reaction of the audience at Bessbrook, the content of the set part of the service, and the fact of being heard by a wider audience, combine to create a version that is both shorter and with a broader context.


The request to write something for Ulster Quarterly Meeting came in mid-March, a time when the world changed very fast for me.

My 84-year-old mother, resident in New York since 1950, had gone to live with a nephew in England the previous November. It was not a good decision for either of them, and the relationship was falling apart. By prearrangement, she was to visit me in April. Suddenly the nephew decided that enough was enough and he wanted her out of his house as soon as possible. With nowhere else to go, short of money and getting frail, my mother would be living with me by the end of May.

So my response to the request was that I was unsure of what the future would hold and thus of whether I could offer anything to Friends by September. But this was the second time Ulster Friends had asked me for a talk, and it seemed that I should not say NO forever to such kindness and faith.

It has been a busy time trying to re-establish life for my mother in a new place with new people. Not to mention that she’s an Englishwoman now living in Ireland! Through the generosity of so many people and agencies, she is living a semi-independent life in sheltered housing and seems healthy and as settled as one might hope for. Since May I have been treading the difficult line between trying to make everything right for her and remembering to value my own life, work and needs. Much of the time I was so caught up in duty that I lost love and soul. From that awareness of my own failings and an incident at a Ministry and Oversight meeting come the germ of this paper.

Duty and service to others

In June was my final M and O meeting before completing the current term as an elder. That seemed like a chance to reflect on what had been achieved in the previous three years, along with the hopes and wishes for what might have happened instead. I was glad my term was over, especially as it ended in the middle of the settling-in period for my mother, whose needs were frequent and often difficult to meet. The demands were onerous and I was close to exhaustion. It was hard to remember if I had given anything of myself to the Society as an elder over the years. Time and duty, yes; but how much of my real self had I contributed?

The previous Sunday at Monkstown meeting we had heard most of the General Christian Counsel, with all its prescriptions about behaviour, being a better F/friend, those impossible measures of ourselves. Then at M and O we heard the fifth Query. Usually I note the part about honesty and integrity, pat myself on the back as this is not a huge issue for me, and get on. But this time I was caught by the final sentence: “Do you seek to discern how much of your time, talents and resources you should devote to the service of others?” When that phrase has spoken to me before, I’ve thought I should do more, be a better child, parent, wife, citizen, Quaker. Give more, think of myself less, and be more dutiful. Here I was, exhausted, close to losing any sense of my self, my soul, or what was true and right for me. And Quaker writing seemed only to reinforce the demands. The weight on my shoulders felt heavier than ever.

At M and O we had some discussion, the usual one in Quaker committees, about how to get more people involved, why the young adults do not come among us and certainly not to business meetings, what is the future of the Society. We all know this discussion. We’ve heard it many times. By definition, if you’re here at Quarterly Meeting, you’re one of those who do give up time for this communal purpose. You sit on committees, bring the flowers, take the children’s meeting, and visit the sick and elderly. And maybe your hair too is greying and you have a sneaking niggle about how long you can go on doing all this and who will do it then.

Duty to the self

A light shone for me. We may just have this backwards. The Queries are all about tasks and hurdles to overcome. They can feel very negative. It is difficult to achieve all these duties about relationships with others. They are the actions, the results; but what about the core value from which service proceeds? What is it that Quakerism teaches above other paths to God? What canst thou say?

What about the relationship with our self? That of God, which we are exhorted to seek and to meet in everyone else, is also in our self and our soul. Perhaps God’s spirit does not call us to attend business meetings, teach Sunday school, or other outward tasks. What if our gift is quiet worship, or growing geraniums, or painting pictures, or dancing? Are these self-indulgent? And what does that really mean? If God did not want us to feed our soul, why would we have one? Why would we have needs and wants? Do we have to deny our self in order to follow God’s will?

From childhood society, and particularly religion, teaches us to deny ourselves and put others first. But that’s not what Jesus said. He told us to love God first and then to love others as our self. In Matthew 22:37-40, he says this in reply to a question about which is the greatest commandment.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

So we are commanded by Jesus, by God, to love our self. Of course there is a risk we might become selfish. But that is different from loving our self, our soul: for this is our true being, what God really wants of us and for us. Unless we do listen to that voice, we may never discover who we really are and what we are truly called to do.

How easy it is for duty and other people’s ideas and standards to become adopted as our own. It is natural for us to want to fit in with our family, culture, church or school. We may rebel a little as teenagers, but most of us eventually conform. Unless this outside standard is really true for us and our soul, at some stage this unthinking acquiescence will come adrift. We may lose heart, become depressed, burn out, give up, or drift away.

This is not to advocate free love and a world without standards. But there is a huge need in each person’s life to take time to find out what is really true at a spiritual level. And that can change over time. We may have to make this journey more than once. Perhaps every decade we need to revisit this. Who am I now? What is true for me now? That doesn’t mean that what was once true is now false; just that I have changed, and it no longer fits.

We must not fear change. It is part of us, part of all living things. And on the whole we change for the better. We mostly try to pare down the layers, to get to the kernel of eternal truth in us, to find what we are truly meant to be, to know, and to embody.

Change in the individual can seem like a threat to others. They like predictability. Oh Jean, she’ll always take the children’s meeting. Well Jean may have given all she has to that task. She may need to feed her own soul for a while. That may mean she sits quietly in meeting for worship for many months. Or maybe she needs to go walk in the mountains on a Sunday. The voice that calls her is the voice she needs to follow. Even if all the outside voices around her are complaint, talking of duty and responsibility, Jean must follow the inner call of her soul.

Real service can only come out of the inner truth. It is not a substitute for it. If service is done purely from duty or habit, while useful, it has nothing of joy or love. It does not come from the heart, from the soul.

There is brief reference in the second Query to making time for private retirement for meditation, prayer and thanksgiving. The General Christian Counsel talks of giving time to the consideration of your spiritual growth. But these phrases about the value of quiet as the centre of our life are drowned in reams of words about duties, tasks and action.

The gift of silent worship

At the FWCC triennial this summer, the question was whether the Society has a prophetic vision for today. I was not present there to hear the discussion, but I do know we must share the good news of our direct experience of God in the deep silence, with our own and other young people. I feel this so deeply, yet it did not move my children. Was this because when they were young I was always off at business meetings, moaning about the paperwork? Did I never share the deep joy and refreshment of my soul in a gathered meeting? To listen, to really listen to myself, to others, to God in the silence of the meeting: it’s hard to achieve, but when it happens I am refreshed and renewed. I am saved from bombardment by my own ideas and all the environmental noise. I hear the peace. I hear the truth. It’s rare and doesn’t happen every time. Often I mishear, speak ministry that doesn’t ring true. But sometimes, just sometimes, I do. And what a gift it is to hear that clear note. How do we share this understanding that all of us can experience God directly?The great gift of Quaker worship is that it provides, even insists on time for quiet reflection. The amount of quiet may depend on the quantity of ministry in our particular meeting. People use this time in many ways. I’ve heard some say apologetically that they use it to sort out the problems of their daily life. Why apologise for that? Yes, we all hope to praise, to hear God’s message, to do all sorts of higher activities in this time. But it has to start with a cleared mind. Nothing new can come in if we are preoccupied with duties and cares. Using the time to mentally housekeep and make those lists, that’s not such a bad thing to do. It would be sad if it were the only thing that ever happened to us during meeting for worship. Sixty minutes of that a week would be a bit dull. No room for joy there. But if it helps us to centre down, we should do it.

Some people talk about meeting for worship as the place to recharge their batteries. That was true for me when I first went to Churchtown meeting, aged 26 with three small children. I would arrive each Sunday exhausted in every way. I left with a bit more calm, a lot more patience and energy. Of course by the following Saturday I was back at the bottom again. But each Sunday I learned a little more about the importance of taking time for myself.

For many attenders, that is all they want of meeting for worship: a place to be quiet and alone in the company of others. We old hands need to remember just how great is the gift of focussed silence. There are few quiet places left in the world, fewer still for people who know they have a spiritual need that so far has been unfulfilled.

It is hard to listen to one’s soul, the self. All the roles, tasks, activities, and other people’s needs seem so pressing. Caring for our soul can seem so much less important, certainly less urgent: something to be deferred. The state of the meeting house roof, a father’s ill health, the employee who is always late: these might seem vital. And so we neglect that which nourishes us.

The funny thing is that it doesn’t take much time to have a healthy soul. If we go for that daily walk, listen to that music that moves us, look at that sunset, stroke that cat – whatever it is that feeds us – something every day, we can be well. And we’ll also get huge energy for all the other outside tasks. But we need first to take time every day to be quietly alone with our self, our soul.

Service and love
Once we’ve been coming to meeting a while, we hear the queries, and we get asked to serve on a committee. For some people this is a natural progression as they start to be more in touch with their own soul. Service then can come from their inner truth. But it’s essential that we not drown each other with tasks. The Society of Friends is a do-it-yourself religion. We do need to take part, or most of us do. It’s important to recognise that this cannot be forced on people. It has to be something we embrace because it is right for us, not something required of us because it’s right for the meeting.

What if no one will serve on a committee, people ask. Then lay it down, I answer. I was on the Outreach Committee in Dublin for many years. A time came when we recognised that we had become just inreach. The same Friends came to every talk, all of them old Quaker hands. We had nothing new to say. So we laid ourselves down. When the need did arise, after several years, the elders took it on and are doing it more effectively than we did.

We must have faith that change will come and is not a threat. The way we’ve always done things is not the only way. Coercion of people to do tasks, to serve on committees, the banging of the Quaker gong on duty: these are not the right way for them or for the Society. If no one agreed to be a clerk, elder, overseer, committee member, would that be so terrible? Many things might not be done for a while. That meeting house roof really might leak. But something would happen. That old Quaker word, concern, comes in here. Someone would have a concern. Someone would act. Other people would respond and gather around to help or encourage.

We must trust. We must not get bogged down in organisational bureaucracy. Record keeping is important, but it can be hard to keep one’s heart, spirit and faith when focussed on that role. I’ve served in the central office and know what it’s like to be the one paid Quaker in Ireland. And there are Quakers all over the land in a similar state, so overwhelmed by committee work and dutiful service that they have almost lost touch with their soul, the inner spark which is God working in them. Let us not allow that to happen. Let us teach ourselves and our young people the essential value of the soul. Let us give it time and space and quiet to reflect. Our great gift is the meeting for worship. Regular attendance there can keep us in touch with God in a deeply personal way. And all the best things that we get from meeting for worship can be ours every day. We know how to centre down and listen to the still small voice. We must give ourselves, our souls, that gift every day. The service that comes then flows from love. In Paul’s words (1 Corinthians 13: 1-3, 13):

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.