From Experience, What Can I Say?

Helen Haughton, Churchtown Meeting

Public Lecture, delivered at Ireland Yearly Meeting, April 22, 2006

In choosing what I wanted to say this evening, I am returning to an important early event in Quakerism.

On one occasion, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, attended a church service at which he was permitted to speak from the pulpit. He pointed out that the prophets, including Jesus, and his apostles, spoke from what they understood God to be saying to them, – not from readings or from the scriptures. This spiritual individualism and the acceptance of diversity, is at the core of Quakerism. So, from my experience, what can I say?

I want to examine a few lives, and what they said, and how they have influenced what I can say.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is categorised as a Book of Wisdom. Such books were popular in Egypt about 1000B.C., and it appears to have a link with these. The beginning of Ecclesiastes seems to indicate that it was written by Solomon. Let me read this to you:-

“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. I, the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that are done under heaven; this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.”

Much of the book could have been plagiarised from another book of wisdom and the attribution to Solomon could merely be what we would call an advertising stunt. Whatever the authorship, I find this book grips me, – as it reflects the thinking of 3000 years ago. It is largely a secular book, with only occasional references to God or things spiritual. It is full of excellent advise for living a good and honest life based on the work ethic and duty to the family and society. Some examples are:-

“Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.
Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry, for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.
A good name is better than precious ointment.
He that loveth silver will not be satisfied with silver.
The righteous and the wise,- their works are in the hand of God.”

A major theme running through the book, which only has 12 chapters, is the meaninglessness of life. The preacher reviews his life and all he has done, – “the works that my hands had wrought and the labour that I had laboured to do, and behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit and there was no profit under the sun.” If this is Solomon’s writing, we must remember how much effort he put into the building of the Temple, not to mention his other achievements, – bringing a peaceful time to his country so that it could develop economically; the admiration of his wisdom by so many leaders throughout the Middle East, so that they visited him for advice. Indeed to this day, we speak of the wisdom of Solomon.

Throughout the book, the lack of meaning is repeated many times. Initially, the Preacher asks, “What profit hath a man for all his labour? One generation passeth away and another generation cometh. All things are full of labour, man cannot utter it, I have seen all the works that are done under the sun and they are vanity and vexation of spirit “For in much wisdom is much grief.” For a time, he turns to pleasure, but this is no different, and he writes, “I builded houses. I planted vineyards. I made me gardens and orchards and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruits; I made me pools of water. I had great possessions I gathered me also silver and gold.. So I was great and increased more that any man before me in Jerusalem, and also my wisdom remained with me.” all was vanity “Therefore I hated life. Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair.”

When the word “vanity” is used, I take it to mean two possible things. Firstly, that pride in one’s work is unjustified. We should be humble. Secondly, that the work is of no importance or meaning because it has no lasting relevance.

There is another aspect to this book that I find fascinating, and this is the insertion of poetic passages. David was a poet, but what Solomon writes is very different from the Psalms.

The most famous passage is this one, which I will read in part:-

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven;
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace;”

By Chapter 12, the book is reaching conclusions, and there is a lovely piece:-

“Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days are come not, nor the years draw nigh when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; When the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain… Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.”

There is finally a sort of addendum to the book. It says:-

“Moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea he gave good head and sought out and set in order many proverbs; The Preacher sought to find acceptable words, and that which was written was upright, even words of truth;..And further by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter; Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”

I always feel a sense of sadness from Ecclesiastes. Perhaps the melancholy of ageing pervades the Book. There is plenty to urge steady living, but the thread of uselessness rather than purpose weaves through it.

If it is written by Solomon, it is the work of a man of high intelligence, …yet a man who, as he ages, is troubled by uncertainties, and tries hard to cling to basic principles. He sees work as oppressive and yet claims it should be done with enthusiasm; .we should enjoy life and be thankful for all its benefits. Clearly he believed in God, but what attributes did he place on God? I find judgement of man’s behaviour high on the list. The Commandments and obedience to them are primary, but also he insists on the value of wisdom in all things. Men and women must ponder on the meaning of their lives, and do good rather than evil He himself worked so hard, and yet found no satisfaction, – the elixer of life had somehow eluded him.

What is the missing piece in all this? Well, perhaps we can compare this book of wisdom to the life and thought of a man who followed 1000 years later.

This man was also born in Palestine; the eldest son of a carpenter; and lived most of his life in Nazareth. Although there are some charming stories about the birth of Jesus, I want to focus on his visit to Solomon’s Temple in his teens for the ceremony of Bar Mitza.

Imagine the family scene… the excitement. You may be sure the younger children were mad with envy. Maybe the boys would have their turn in due course, but what about the girls? I expect there were preparations for some weeks. Who was going to look after the children during the absence of Mary and Joseph? Did Mary’s mother live with them?

Anyway the big day arrives and they set off, together with a number of together families with their youngsters. They arrive at the capital city, surrounded by high walls, and only a few gates for entry…and inside,- ..oh my, ..such a jostle of humanity as you never saw in Nazareth,.. And then the Temple. It was visible from some distance, but now coming into it was staggering. The boys would have been quite overcome and awestruck by its size, its majesty, its beauty. In this place of wonder and sacredness, the traditional rites would have been performed, and been deeply moving. I can imagine the sense of dedication and commitment that the boys would have experienced that day.

Then, it seems, Jesus observed the groups of men, perhaps Rabbis, sitting discussing, and he went to sit with them. Maybe they were discussing some of the things Jesus had spoken with his father about …things Joseph could not explain, but they had shared. Now, Jesus was with experts, and could hope to learn and get answers. He realises that the Jewish religion encourages debate and argument, and the intellectual excitement of this to a bright young man is irresistible… He is enthralled.

So, when his parents and friends all set off for home, Jesus cannot tear himself away from the debate. I believe this to be one of the crucial moments of his development.

We are told in St.Luke’s Gospel that Mary and Joseph spent 3 days looking for Jesus. Just imagine their worry… their eldest son disappearing in a city with the usual mixture of desirable and undesirable elements, including foreign soldiers. Eventually they find him – I quote: “in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions”. They were amazed, and his mother said,”Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing?” Now listen to his answer, “How is it ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business?” Well, well… The parents were left speechless. ..How typical of a teenager… totally uncaring about adults… they seem to live in a world of their own. No sign of sainthood here.

When Jesus refers to his father’s business, is it possible that he is referring to those discussions with Joseph? Anyway, he returned home a different person, leaving childhood behind him, and with much on his mind.

The next we hear of him is when he is adult, and visits his cousin John, who is baptising people at the river Jordan. This too seems to have been a seminal moment.

I have often pondered on this event, and have an unprovable theory that Joseph had just recently died. Jesus loved his father dearly, and even called God Father. We presume he worked alongside him in the carpentry business until then, though there are references to him preaching regularly in the synagogues. In his distress at the death, he may have wanted to get away by himself to think and pray and seek the way forward. Was his future to remain in the family business or not? What better was there than to visit John and listen to his message,…and then go into the wilderness to work it through for himself. Did he have a calling? If so, what was his message? Was this the time to go ahead? What kind of power was involved. The temptations all centre around power. Possibly he already knew he could heal people, which is a kind of power, but what about secular power? He rejects this and returns to Gallilee “in the power of the spirit.”

So, what was the message that this young man felt entrusted to deliver?

Firstly, let’s compare his experience to that of the Preacher. One is born to high office and was chosen to be king of his nation. Thus, he forges a lonely furrow. The other is an ordinary man, brought up in an unusually loving family of conventional Jews, and remained a Jew throughout his life and death. He is a very sociable person, and chooses intimate friends to be with him during his ministry.

Both men had a message for their time. One ends his days in disillusionment, and the other becomes more and more spiritual as time passes, being faithful to his vision of a loving and caring nature to which man is called,..right up to his horrific death.

What an amazing difference.

Whether due to the loving background and his close relationship and bonding with both his mother and his father, Jesus focuses on one topic throughout his life and preaching, – the topic of loving, and in this he sees the outpouring of the spirit in all our lives. It is through loving that God speaks to us and it is through loving we must dedicate our lives to others. This brought Jesus at times up against the formality of the Jewish tradition. He challenged this on a number of issues, including his belief in the equality of women before God. I visualise the shock of the apostles when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. This woman was an outsider, and a wrong-doer, butJesus can turn the conversation from the sexual and worldly to the spiritual domain, using his awareness that she is deeply troubled and wants to change. Their brief encounter demonstrates Jesus’ interest and commitment to every person, whatever their history, and the implication that there is no time when we cannot respond to the best in our nature.

There are so many examples of Jesus’ loving spirit in the Gospel stories . He was a master of story-telling. He had the power of healing. He lived simply, and remained a modest person in spite of the adulation of crowds. His preaching speaks as clearly to us now after 2000 years as it ever did. His life changed the world. What more can one say, except that his message of loving has not been followed even by those who have studied his life, and all Christians must hang their heads in shame at the evils perpetrated in his name.

I move to the 17th century. By this time, reading the Bible in English was possible. However, the Christian churches had formalised their structures and services to such an extent that it was not only men like George Fox that found them unacceptable. He saw the central message of Jesus had been lost, – smothered by ritualism and orthodoxy. He had the courage to challenge the establishment, and to place the teachings of Jesus in a central position. He reaffirmed the equality of men and women, which amazes me when I think of the society in which he lived. He knew the Bible intimately, but still could ask that vital question, “What canst thou say?”, implying that each one of us needs to allow time to work out our own philosophy.

Fox introduced the practise of meeting together in silence… “Be still and know that I am God.” …which I find so powerful, especially in a world of rush and bustle and noise. There are other innovations in Quakerism which particularly appeal to me. One of these is the Queries, which are read to us each month. Let us try one of them… No 6:

“Do you cherish an understanding and forgiving spirit? Do you avoid unkind gossip and the spreading of rumour? Do you avoid damaging the reputation of others? Do you cultivate an appreciation of each individual’s worth?”

George Fox also reminded us that war, and violence generally, was against the very core of the teaching of Jesus How can one love and fight at the same time? This must have been an astonishing statement during England’s Civil War, but clearly resonated with many people,- some of whom left Cromwell’s army as a result. A few of them settled in Ireland.

The three main testimonies also are a help. They are to peace, simplicity and integrity. Similarly, I love the General Christian Counsel, which ends with a famous quote from the Elders of Balby, written in 1656: “Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of Light which is pure and holy, may be guided, and so, in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

The Golden Rule, “Do as you would be done by” has influenced Quaker action over the centuries. The custom of slavery was seen as evil. Later, the care of the mentally disturbed developed, and later still, prison reform. All these aspects of Quakerism have affected my thinking, and indeed my actions and work experience.

This brings me to the last section of my talk… From my experience, what can I say? A little history is necessary.

I was born in Belfast, but spent my early years in India, where my father worked in the Geological Survey of India. By 1939, I was back in London, where my maternal grandmother had gone to live. I was brought up in the Anglican Communion, although my sister and I attended a Roman Catholic convent during WW2, when we were evacuated to Carlisle.

Here I have to acknowledge my indebtedness to the Church of England. When in Carlisle we went weekly to the Cathedral. Firstly, it is a wonderful building, made of soft yellow and pink sandstone, which introduced me to the beauty of architecture. Secondly, the magnificent singing stays with me, and I still listen to Songs of Praise on television, ..and, thirdly, the exquisite language of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer is a continuing source of delight.

During my school years I was lucky to have English teachers who opened my mind to poetry, and with this the whole realm of that other world of imagination, and creativity. At some stage I read “The Hound of Heaven”, by Francis Thompson. This shook me.

The hound is, of course, God.

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter,
Up vistad hopes, I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic gloom of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat, and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet,
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

I move to the end:

“Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!”

After the War, I went to a boarding school near Hastings, run by Anglican nuns. Religious Education was taken by Sister Helen, whom we all loved dearly. Among other things, she introduced us to the poetry of the psalms. I have many favourites:-

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart…

Or, again, Psalm 27:

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?

Or No.19:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showed his handiwork.

A few of us seniors were allowed occasionally to attend Nones on Sunday evenings. This is the final office of the day. The nuns would file into the chapel, and , in the hush of evening, would intone the office, often using plainsong. One of the psalms was no.91:

“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God, in Him will I trust.
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust; his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the destruction that wasteth at the noon-day.”

and so, feeling secure and at peace, off we went to bed.

You may have noticed that I use the word God, as Jesus used Father. Some use “Lord”, others “The Light”, or “the Spirit”. There is no word that resolves this issue. For me, there is an all-pervading presence that I cannot attempt to describe, but has me in awe. I look at a flower, at a child growing, the complexity and beauty of many things, and I learn about creation. Perhaps there was a Big Bang, but for me that is no explanation for the development of our world, either physical or spiritual, and does not go nearly far enough in exploring that extra dimension that has been apprehended by man since time began.

In my teens and later, I spent many of my holidays with my aunt in Tipperary. She was to have a lasting impact on my life. My father’s sister, Livie, married a farmer in 1918, and became deeply involved in rural development. With her friend, Muriel Gahan, and others, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association was founded. Livie and Jack lived in a huge Georgian mansion with cold, echoing room, and few comforts. When there, I had to go to the weekly meetings of the local branch of the I.C.A. There I learnt Irish dancing, how to make soda bread, to arrange and name wild flowers, sing Percy French ,act in short plays, and so on.

Livie worked tirelessly for the needs of country women. Including rural electrification, and water supply schemes. She persuaded the government that women needed chiropody and blind services, somewhere to learn about poultry management, horticulture, and handicrafts. She finally got the Kellogg Foundation to buy An Grianan for the I.C.A.

But Livie was far more than this. She was a dedicated member of the Church of Ireland in Fethard, where she played the organ, chose the hymns, and sang them with verve. She read the Bible frequently. She had no hesitation in objecting to the very institutionalised Catholic Church of her time. Thus, I was made aware of the Mother and Child scandal, the Fethard-on-sea school fiasco, the barring of Catholics from Trinity, and from Protestant churches. Sadly, to the day she died, in her 90’s, Livie remained anti-Catholic Church,.. being unable to accept the changes since Vatican 2. Her influence on me was to act, and not to wait for others to do so.

So, I came through my teens a predictable and straightforward member of the Church of Ireland, but this changed when I went to College. Here I began to challenge all I had been taught, and to analyse the need for half of the doctrines I had learnt. I will list just a couple of these:-

Firstly, the Virgin birth seemed to me irrelevant and unlikely, together with the myths and legends that have accrued around Jesus’ birth, even though they are charming and give great pleasure.

Secondly, did Jesus see himself as God, or sent by God, and representing the spirit of God?

I hope I have not upset too many of you in stating these things bluntly, because I am aware that for many millions of people around the world these beliefs are immensely important, and I would not wish to damage their certainties. I can only speak for myself, and not for Quakers generally.

In my twenties, I married, and had 4 children in hot succession. At that time, I saw my life as a dark tunnel of daily toil.

One June Bank Holiday, we went to Brittas Bay,- a glorious sunny day, and the children had a wonderful time running up and down the sand hills and splashing in the sea. After a picnic lunch, I stayed with the youngest, who fell asleep. I had an experience which sounds banal, but had, for me, a transcendent quality and changed me for good. I heard a question in my head saying, “when will you start enjoying your 4 lovely children?” I never looked back.

Where did that voice come from? I don’t know, but I realise that probably in everyone’s lives there are such moments. There are private experiences that maybe they cannot share, but have an inner meaning and significance .I think this is why I chose this topic for tonight’s talk. We need to treasure and reflect on such moments of revelation, and see them as opportunities to do things differently.

Another occasion was when my mother was dying, I had arranged to leave work early, so I could visit her. This particular day, she had received a card from my eldest sister in England, and I read it to her again. Soon my sister Anne arrived, with whom she lived, so that in a way, all three of us were with her. She was settled for the night, and we left the room. As I shut the door, she waved a frail hand from the bed. She died that night. For me, it was as if she knew she was leaving, and was saying goodbye. Again, one can give many explanations, but I think she knew something other-worldly and comforting, and was content to go.

Some years earlier, I had taught in Rathgar Junior School. I was struck by the great differences between children’s ability to learn. So I went to UCD to study psychology. I learnt there to understand and appreciate the burden that many carry, not only in childhood but on into adultcy. The experiences that rumble in the mind and take up energy are almost always linked with relationships: Do our parents love us? Will we be abandoned? Can we trust our parents? Are we lovable? How much harm, both physical, verbal, and sexual do some carry? In contrast, how much love, protection, happiness, and sharing have we had in our family life?

This brings me back to the Samaritan Woman at the well. She needed healing, and a new chance. She found someone who talked to her as a person worthy of respect, and this gave her the courage to change.

As we know, many of the young people in our society who have not had the benefits of a happy family life, get into trouble with the law, and find themselves in prison. They have done something wrong which society cannot tolerate. We have all done something wrong, so it is a matter of degree.

In our society we have a number of paradoxes. It is seen as the height of evil to commit murder, and yet we train soldiers to do just that. Clearly soldiers do other things than kill, but equally murderers do other things than kill. In fact they rarely kill more than once, which cannot be said of soldiers. Many times, when talking to murderers, I have realised that I too would have killed had I been in their shoes. There is so much pressure each of us can take before we reach breaking point.

In prison, I have found so many lives blighted and shrivelled by their experiences, be it with alcohol, or drug abuse, family violence, or all of these issues. And yet, these same people, given a chance, can start growing,.. and blossom. However, they need this chance, and I find myself campaigning for the better training of prison officers, and the change from custodial sentencing to Restorative Justice conferencing.

The current attitude is that those who have done wrong must pay the price. If I do wrong, I want someone to listen to me, and to help me return from the misery of it,- as Jesus did at the well. I would want the opportunity to say sorry, to acknowledge my errors, and the hurt I have done to individuals and society. Restorative Justice methods integrate these ideas and attempt to bring healing to both victim and offender.

In conclusion, what am I saying? What has my experience taught me?

Solomon’s remarkable life shows me what one does may be more valuable than you may think at the time. Duty is certainly important, and the Commandments are a useful guide line, but there is no need to feel oppressed by a critical and vengeful God. Solomon was right in emphasising that work should be enjoyable, and done with a happy heart.

Secondly, the wonderful freshness of Jesus’ message of love, mercy, understanding and caring still fills me with joy and happiness. His regard for each person as valuable is hugely important to me. Thirdly, George Fox speaks to me about the courage needed to stand up against accepted norms… when necessary… and to find new ways of doing things. This I saw demonstrated in a contemporary setting in the life of my aunt.

Finally, I am left with a conviction that the unseen forces of spirituality are ultimately what we all seek and need to strengthen us in our daily lives. This I can come to know only if I am still and open and receptive.

From your experience, what can you say?