O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed myself and quited my soul,
like a weaned child with it's mother;
my soul within me is like a weaned child.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.
This is one of the great images of resting and trusting in God and it leaves out most of the story. A weaned child gets to the place of peace and rest, but the weaning child is something else. It is a child who is crying for something they cannot get, crying for what they have lost. It is a child that is hungering for that which no longer satisfies and refuses the better nourishment that is put in front of them. The weaned child is an image of rest and peace, but for both the child and the mother, the process was not easy. They have earned their rest.
Friends in their writings, in both their early writings and their later journals, developed a style that mentions baptizings and difficulties yet is almost totally opaque about what was actually going on with them. Reading about our Quaker heroes presents a picture of strength in the face of adversity but does not give any idea of what the nature of their inner travails. As a result we only get a partial picture and as a result, our spiritual lives seem pale and weak in comparison.
One gets the picture that the spiritual journey is like what we would like to see in our retirement portfolios, a steady line going up and to the right. Like Jacob's ladder, every round goes higher, higher. My spiritual journey doesn't look like that at all. It looks more like my actual retirement portfolio, up some days, dropping precipitously on others and no way to tell what will happen next. My own experience of the spiritual life, though is not one of a linear progression. If there is a mathematical analogy, it is more like chaos theory. It is a path of sharp contrasts and discontinuities. I have moments of insight and awareness of the deep presence of God. I have felt myself led and held. I have had periods where faithfulness came easy and I felt the Presence so strongly that I could do no other than to be faithful. My soul was indeed calm and quiet like a weaned child.
At other times, my inner two year old has been going at full throttle, throwing tantrums and stamping its foot and saying, “No!, you are not the boss of me.” There are times when I am hanging on for dear life, and there are times when I have let go and just say, forget this. But the storm passes, and I find myself coming back to God and I find myself being drawn back into God's acceptance.
James Russel Lowell wrote the poem that provides the words for the hymn:
“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment do decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;”
I have always wished that it were that simple. I find myself being faced with choices constantly. Sometimes I feel like it is once a day, or once an hour. In the midst of the storm, I do not find the Quaker idea of the day of visitation, or the Biblical story of Lot's wife being turned to a pillar of salt because she looked back when fleeing Sodom to be particularly comforting. I find that exhortations to avoid backsliding do not speak to my condition, especially if I am backsliding. What nourishes me is the story of the prodigal son who has wasted his inheritance and is welcomed back with open arms. It is the promise implicit in Jesus' admonition to forgive each other 70 times 7 times, because God's forgiveness is even greater than our own. It is a far cry from Esau's plea, “Father, have you no blessing left for me?”
I take comfort from the psalmist:
Whither shall I go from the spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
Even when I am refusing the hand, crossing my arms across my chest and stamping my feet. Even when I am insisting on crossing the street by myself, your hand is still there, whether I take it or not.
And yet, each little unfaithfulness, each little act of rebellion makes the next one easier. Our habitual ways of avoiding God, or running full tilt away from God, did not become habitual overnight. They became habits from our constant practice. We are called to examine every part of our life in the Light of Christ. Eventually we will have to address these habits we have built and change our habits of avoidance into habits of faithfulness. The path that we are called to is narrow and strait, but my experience of it is that it is not straight.