Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Small Voice Inside

God reveals Life, Truth, and Love to every human being of every race and religion, directly, without the requirement of an intermediary such as church, priest, or sacred book.

Howard Brinton

“Friends and the Spiritual Message”

Quaker Press

After twenty or thirty minutes of distracted meditation in this Sunday's Quaker meeting, my mind and body unexpectedly lit up. At the moment that the hour turned for me, I happened to be thinking about golf. Much as I would love to read this sequence of events as Jesus instructing me to take up my golf clubs and play, I am going to assume that I had just been sitting there long enough, doing my best to ignore distracting thoughts of golf and food and music, to allow me to sink into a deeper state of meditation.

I have achieved this deeper state a few times on my own, during meditation sessions which pushed into the thirty minute range. It may simply be a function of what happens to your mind when you sit quietly concentrating for an extended length of time.

Or it may be, as the Quakers would assert, the inner light of God beginning to manifest itself in you.

For me it comes as a physical sensation which seems to pulse through every every limb and muscle. You know that feeling you get when you spend a few hours plunging into waves in the ocean, and then you go home and sit on the back deck of your vacation home and have a few drinks? Your body feels simultaneously relaxed and alive—an intensely pleasant sensation, one that could lead equally to blissful sleep or to deciding to jump up and head for an evening out.

As my body relaxed into this state in today's meeting, I tried to open my mind to listen to whatever message might be in store for me. No voice thundered in my head; I heard nothing but what sounded to me like my own thoughts. And yet, very gradually, I heard those thoughts telling me something that seemed new—or at least something that, if I have perhaps heard before, startled me with the simplicity of its insight.

I pondered on this thought for a while, and rode pleasantly on the blissful physical sensation that accompanied it. The impression grew stronger in me that this insight was indeed coming from somewhere beyond myself; that perhaps I was finally hearing the God within me. The thought flitted through my head that perhaps this was the kind of insight that led people to stand up and give testimony.

When I heard the clerk of the meeting stand up, I opened my eyes, thinking that the meeting had come to a close. I was still so deeply engaged in my own reflections that the first words he spoke sounded like complete gibberish to me, and for a moment I wondered whether he was speaking in tongues.

But then his words became clear, and I sparked up at the thought that I was about to witness my first Quaker testimony. At last I would get the chance to hear what the voice of God sounded like as it emerged from the mouth of a fellow worshipper.

“There's an old joke,” the clerk said, with his hands folded and his eyes to the ground, “that says 'Lord, let me be chaste, but not just yet.' I have the feeling that some in this room are thinking the same thing about testimony right now: 'Lord, let me speak in a meeting, but not quite yet.'”

I looked at him in astonishment; was it possible he was speaking to me? If he was, he betrayed no sign of it. His eyes remained firmly fixed on the ground.

“For the last ten minutes of the meeting,” he said, “I invite you to share any thoughts you have had during our session today, so that our worship may bear much fruit. I feel that some here are ready to speak today.”

Then he paused, and shrugged slightly.

“Or,” he said, in true Quaker fashion, “perhaps not.”

And he sat down.

So this was it. I had been sitting for three weeks now, waiting to hear someone's testimony, to know what it sounded like to hear the voice of God, and of course that was not how it was going to work. I was being called upon, as if the clerk could read my mind, to share the insight I had gleaned during the meeting.

The physical sensations in my body intensified. Perhaps this was God's way of steeling me up for the testimony; or perhaps, as I like to think now in retrospect, it was simply a rush of adrenaline as I prepared myself to stand. I shuffled my feet; I rehearsed in my mind exactly what I was going to say:

“A little while ago I started thinking about all of the people in my life who need healing right now. And as I went through the list in my head, I realized that—in every case—there was something I could do to help promote the healing they needed. And it occurred to me that perhaps this is what you all mean by the idea that God exists in each one of us. That we shouldn't expect miracles to come from the sky; that God does his work through each one of us. That when we act in kindness and love to one another, we are cultivating and revealing the God within. And if that's what you mean, then I'm grateful to have learned that from you.”

I looked around, seeing if anyone else was preparing to stand. A man across the room was staring at me; I looked away from him and met the eyes of a woman a few seats away. I closed my eyes and prepared to stand.

But doubts now clamored for my attention. Was there a specific form into which you were supposed to put your testimony? Should I introduce myself first? Did I need to explain that I was not really a Quaker, but that I was just visiting? Should I mention that I was writing a book about my spiritual experiences this year?

More importantly, I began to wonder whether I really had anything insightful to offer. Were my thoughts anything more than basic greeting-card inspiration?

The minutes ticked away, and my doubts outweighed my inspiration. I never stood, and nobody else did either. The clerk eventually reached out to shake hands with his neighbor, signaling the end of the meeting. I shook a hand or two, and then remained seated, confused and uncertain, as we went around the circle, introducing ourselves and listening to announcements.

Walking out of the meeting house, I had the heartsick realization that I had betrayed the very insight I hoped to share. I had come to meetings for three weeks now and been waiting eagerly for God to speak through some inspired person in the room, to break the silence with divine guidance, to demonstrate for me workings of the small voice of God inside.

I can hear now, clear as a bell, what any Quaker might have told me afterwards: that all the time I was waiting, there was indeed an inspired person in the room—but he sat there silent and afraid, ignoring the small voice of God inside.

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