by Elise Boulding
For most of us, the great enemy of the Kingdom is today. The trap of dailiness catches us, and makes cowards of us all. For the train leaves for the office in five minutes; if the beds aren’t made and the dishes washed now, the house will be a mess all day. The baby is crying for his bottle, nobody can find any clean underwear this morning, and within an hour the editor of the Meeting’s Monthly Bulletin must have information about all the committee meetings to take place next month. It is not only that these things can’t wait today; it is that the same things recur with the same immediate urgency day after day after day. It is not as if we could work up an extra burst of speed, finish our tasks for once and all, and then be free to do “God’s work.” The more we long to be doing other work, the more overwhelming the tasks of the present seem, until they sap our courage and our strength. Or we may respond to the pressure by a complete about-face, and come to feel that these tasks are, after all, the only ones that matter. Then we are in danger of finding all our security in our daily routine, and will fear anything that might change it.
Should we leave our daily tasks then? Should we leave the plow standing in the middle of the furrow to follow Him?” There are some people whose special gifts require them to do just this, and no man should hinder them. But God does not call most of us away from the plow; He would rather have us shift bosses, since it is, after all, His acre, and start plowing the field for Him. St. Francis heard a voice before the crucifix at St. Damian’s saying, “Francis, go, repair my house that thou seest is all in ruins”—and he walked out of the shop where he had been selling cloth for his father, never to return. Brother Lawrence saw a vision of God’s Providence in a monastery kitchen washing dishes- in the presence of God. Each man, through the strength of his vision, was living as if the Kingdom were already here. Some men must change their work, like St. Francis; others must do for God’s sake what they formerly did for their own, like Brother Lawrence. Many of us will find that we are called to one kind of service at one time of life, and another at a later time. Washing diapers and feeding young children commands by far the largest share of my life right now, but I know it will not always be so.
For those of us who know that it is right for us to stay where we are, is it possible to avoid the trap of dailiness? Can we transform our homes and offices into advance outposts of the Kingdom? In the moments of exaltation that come to us all, certainly. But day after day? You may say, “But that is expecting too much! These are very fine words, and we have used them ourselves occasionally, especially on Sunday morning in meeting for worship, but we can’t really do this!” Friends, I have shared this reaction with you. But I have been having some “close, plain work” with myself in recent weeks on just this subject. I have gradually come to realize that I have been expecting far too little of myself. With the coming of the fifth baby, the usual sicknesses in the other children, and a major operation for one of them, all in one month, I have been getting more and more adept at making excuses for myself. I am too tired to be patient, too tired to pray, too tired to make our home “a place of friendliness, refreshment, and peace, where God becomes more real to all who dwell there and to those who visit it.” And all the time that I have been telling myself this, I have been turning my back on the one Source of refreshment that I needed! If we keep our backs turned to God, His Kingdom gets to seem more and more unreal and impossible, and we come to expect less and less of ourselves in the way of service.
The One Thing Needful
I trust that I will never again be able to persuade myself that I am too tired to pray. For this, this is the one thing needful. We like to think of prayer as a free overflowing of the spirit, but there are times when it must be undertaken as an act of the will, a discipline in the strictest sense of the word. Religious temperaments differ, and I am not one of those who place great reliance on specific procedures and “steps” in the religious life. But turning to God in prayer is the one indispensable step. Only through prayer can our vision of H1s Kingdom come clear. The clearer it comes, the greater the strength, the greater the joy, the greater the spiritual release which will enable us to live here and now in such a way that the Kingdom can come to all mankind.
If there are things inside us that block our sight so that we cannot look upon the joy that God has set before us, it is through prayer that we can examine and gradually dissolve these obstacles, for God is the First and Last Counselor. Earthly counselors have their important place, too, but it is my experience that insights from the psychiatrist’s couch still have to be offered up to God in prayer before the real liberation of the imprisoned spirit can take place. In spite of all that can be said about the “God above God” and the ultimate impersonality of the universe, it is the God of the divine encounter, the personal God we meet in prayer, who touches, transforms, and liberates us. It is in Him that we must put our trust.
But we must also trust ourselves. In a world that specializes in props and supports, physical, psychological, and spiritual, and devices to make life easier, let us not be fooled into expecting too little of ourselves. If we keep our eyes turned toward the Kingdom, we will know that all things are possible in God’s sight. Paradoxically, we must not expect too much, either. For even though we are faithful in prayer, there are periods of spiritual dryness which come to us all, periods when the inward obstacles loom very large indeed, and the Kingdom seems to recede. Madame Guyon experienced seven years of such dryness, when God seemed to withdraw His presence from her entirely. “But taught by the great inward Teacher, she was enabled to perceive from the first, that it would not be safe for her to estimate either the reality or the degree of her religion by the amount of her happiness…. She did not seek joy, but God. God first, and what God sees fit to give, afterwards.”
We must not depend on joy, then. It is set before us, as a fruit of the spirit, but we must first seek the Kingdom. When we are spiritually liberated to live as if the Kingdom were already here, as we surely will be if we are faithful in prayer and seeking, it will slowly move in upon us from the horizon. Our brothers who now stand frozen before the abyss will look up, and see the Kingdom coming, and they will start to build a bridge across the abyss—in joy.
While yet we see with eyes, must we be blind?
Is lonely mortal death the only gate
To holy life eternal–must we wait
Until the dark portcullis clangs behind
Out hesitating steps, before we find
Abiding good? Ah no, not that our fate;
Our time-bound cry “too early” or “too late”
Can have no meaning in the Eternal Mind.
The door is open, and the Kingdom here–
Yet Death indeed upon the threshold stands
To bar our way–unless into his hands
We give our self, our will, our heart, our fear.
And then–strange resurrection!–from above
Is poured upon us life, will, heart, and love.
The article above is the conclusion to the 1956 William Penn Lecture, given on March 25, 1956, during Philadelphia Yearly Meeting by Elise Boulding. The sonnet at the end is taken from The Naylor Sonnets by Kenneth Boulding, her husband, professor of economics at the time at the. University of Michigan. [This is Sonnet #26 “Who Through Death Attained This Resurrection & Eternal Holy Life”.]
Elise Boulding (1920-2010) is the author of My Part m the Quaker Adventure, a study leaflet for Junior High classes in First-day school, and other pamphlets [and many other books & articles).
This excerpt from Boulding’s William Penn Lecture was published in the April 15, 1956 issue of The Friends Journal.