Thomas Kelly and the Quaker Silence

Mick Turner

As some of you may recall, my upbringing involved more than a little exposure to Quakerism in general and the Evangelical Quaker tradition in particular. I am grateful to have had this exposure and feel that it set the tone for much of my subsequent spiritual search in life. One of the things I learned early on was  the importance of finding ways into Sacred Silence and from that wellspring, drawing deeply from its nourishing and enlightening waters.

 That’s why I feel so irritated when those who label themselves Christian, cast any and all traditions and practices of Christian mysticism, meditation, and contemplation in such a negative light. Especially galling are those who make the obviously uninformed claim that contemplative practice aims at “emptying the mind.” Most of these critics rely on second hand knowledge and, at best, have never taken the time to delve deeply into what the contemplative/meditative tradition in the Christian faith is all about. When I read these sorts of diatribes and fear-based ramblings, I am reminded, more than anything else, of Eliot’s classic poem that talks about “The Hollow Men.”

 From the perspective of traditional Quaker thought, the practice of Christian meditation in no way involves emptying the mind. Instead, it is aimed at positioning ourselves in a receptive state whereby we can have a fresh encounter with our Inner Light. The practice of contemplation is central here, however. Through it we connect with the Holy Spirit at the deepest level by entering in through the Sacred Silence.

 Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly again speaks of the experience of taking the comfort and wisdom we find in the Sacred Silence and carrying it into the cauldron of daily living. Listen carefully to his words:

 …and in brief intervals of overpowering visitation we are able to carry the sanctuary frame of mind out into the world, into its turmoil and fitfulness, and in a hyperaesthesia of the soul, we shall see all mankind tinged with deeper shadows, and touched with Galilean glories. Powerfully are the springs of our will moved to an abandon of singing love toward God; powerfully are we moved to a new and overcoming love toward time-blinded men and all creation. In this Center of Creation all things are ours, and we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. We are owned men, ready to run and not be weary and to walk and not faint.

 Notice here how in very potent language Kelly alludes to Christ’s great prayer in John 17. Jesus prayed that we be his, just as he is God’s. When, through the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and our own diligent practice of entering into the Sacred Silence, we become more and more capable of abiding in our inner sanctuary we make manifest that chain of possession spoken of by Christ. Kelly tells a poignant truth when he says “we are owned men.”

 In another relevant passage Kelly states:

 Continuously renewed immediacy, not receding memory of the Divine Touch, lies at the base of religious living. Let us explore together the secret of a deeper devotion, a more subterranean sanctuary of the soul, where the Light Within never fades, but burns, a perpetual flame, where the wells of living water of divine revelation rise up continuously, day by day and hour by hour, steady and transfiguring.

 Kelly’s teaching here is most profound. Beginning with the reality that only regular, repetitive practice of Sacred Silence can give us “renewed immediacy of the Divine Touch.” Unless we are diligent and consistent in our pursuit of this sacred sanctuary and its inherent blessings, we run the risk of letting the experience of the Divine become little more than a quickly fading memory.

 Kelly then goes on to reiterate the fact that it is in this Sacred Silence where we find not only the Inner Light, but also those ever-flowing wells of living water Christ spoke of. Further, he reminds us that these waters are more than refreshing, although they are certainly that, but also emphasizes that these wellsprings are “transfiguring.” These blessed streams are capable of changing us at our core. These waters of healing and transformation have their source in God’s unlimited gift of grace.

 I would encourage anyone interested in what we might now call “engaged mysticism” to read Kelly’s works, particular his famous A Testament of Devotion. It is perhaps more timely now than it was back in the day it was written.

 © L.D. Turner 2009/ All Rights Reserved

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4 thoughts on “Thomas Kelly and the Quaker Silence

    1. Mick Turner

      What a moving poem. It is, indeed, from the womb of silence that all is born. I especially liked your words about the cries of a lonely child and the gay laughter of an old woman…

      A Christian singing group of the 80’s, “First Call” had these words as part of one of their songs:

      “It is written in the colors, of a thousand autumn twilights,
      Painted in the eyes of a child…….”

      Blessings,

      Mick

  1. Margaret Meyncke

    I just started reading “A Testament of Devotion” by Thomas R. Kelly. It is truly a classic. I was introduced to silence and meditation through Camps Farthest Out and continue to explore and enjoy the various forms of Christianity that I encounter in a place that is open to all. Kinda like heaven.

    1. Mick Turner

      Margaret:

      A Testament of Devotion is indeed a classic in Christian writing. Kelly does such an excellent job of bridging the importance of contemplative silence and action in the world, which has long been a hallmark of Quaker spirituality. Thanks for stopping by LifeBrook and hope you come often.

      Blessings in His Light,

      Mick

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