by Thomas R. Kelly
This is the fourth chapter of Kelly’s book A Testament of Devotion. The full book includes:
- The Light Within
- Holy Obedience
- The Blessed Community
- The Eternal Now and Social Concern
- The Simplification of Life
Table of contents of this chapter:
There is an experience of the Eternal breaking into time, which transforms all life into a miracle of faith and action. Unspeakable, profound, and full of glory as an inward experience, it is the root of concern for all creation, the true ground of social endeavor. This inward Life and the outward Concern are truly one whole, and, were it possible, ought to be described simultaneously. But linear sequence and succession of words is our inevitable lot and compels us to treat separately what is not separate: first, the Eternal Now and the Temporal Now, and second, the Nature and Ground of Social Concern.
i. The Eternal Now and the Temporal Now
There is a tendency today, in this generation, to suppose that the religious life must prove its worth because it changes the social order. The test of the importance of any supposed dealing with Eternity is the benefits it may possibly bring to affairs in time. Time, and the enrichment of events in time, are supposed to pass a judgment upon the worth of fellowship with the Eternal. We breathe the air of a generation which, as the old phrase goes, “takes time seriously.” Men nowadays take time far more seriously than eternity.
German theology of a century ago emphasized a useful distinction between This-sidedness and Othersidedness, or Here and Yonder. The church used to be chiefly concerned with Yonder, it was oriented toward the world beyond, and was little concerned with this world and its sorrows and hungers. Because the sincere workingman, who suffered under economic privations, called out for bread, for wholewheat-flour bread, the church of that day replied, “You’re worldly-minded, you’re crass, you’re materialistic, you’re oriented toward the Here. You ought to seek the heavenly, the eternal, the Yonder.” But the workingman wasn’t materialistic, he was hungry; and Marxian socialism promised him just the temporal bread he needed, whereas the church had rebuked him for not hungering for the eternal Bread.
All this is now changed. We are in an era of This-sidedness, with a passionate anxiety about economics and political organization. And the church itself has largely gone “this-sided,” and large areas of the Society of Friends seem to be predominantly concerned with this world, with time, and with the temporal order. And tire test of the worthwhileness of any experience of Eternity has become: “Does it change things in time? If so, let us keep it, if not, let us discard it.
I submit that this is a lamentable reversal of the true order of dependence. Time is no judge of Eternity. It Is the Eternal who is the judge and tester of time.
But in saying this I am not proposing that we leave the one-sidedness of the Here and of time-preoccupation for the equal one-sidedness of the Yonder, nor advocate a lofty scorn of this maimed and bleeding world while we bask serenely upon the sunny shores of the Eternal. But 1 am persuaded that in the Quaker experience of Divine Presence there is a serious retention of both time and the timeless, with the final value and significance located in the Eternal, who is the creative root of time itself For “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”
The possibility of this experience of Divine Presence, as a repeatedly realized and present fact, and its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life—this is the central message of Friends. Once discover this glorious secret, this new dimension of life, and we no longer live merely in time but we live also in the Eternal. The world of time is no longer the sole reality of which we are aware. A second Reality hovers, quickens, quivers, stirs, energizes us, breaks in upon us and in love embraces us, together with all things, within Himself. We live our lives at two levels simultaneously, the level of time and the level of the Timeless. They form one sequence, with a fluctuating border between them. Sometimes the glorious Eternal is in the ascendancy, but still we are aware of our daily temporal routine. Sometimes the clouds settle low and we are chiefly in the world of time, yet we are haunted by a smaller sense of Presence, in the margin of consciousness.
But, fluctuating in predominance though the two levels be, such a discovery of an Eternal Life and Love breaking in, nay, always there, but we were too preoccupied to notice it, makes life glorious and new. And one sings inexpressibly sweet songs within oneself, and one tries to keep one’s inner hilarity and exuberance within bounds lest, like the men of Pentecost, we be mistaken for men filled with new wine. Traditional Quaker decorum and this burning experience of a Living Presence are only with the greatest difficulty held together! I’d rather be jolly Saint Francis hymning his canticle to the sun than a dour old sobersides Quaker whose diet would appear to have been spiritual persimmons.
But now let us examine the ordinary experience of time, unrevised by this great discovery of the Eternal Life springing up within it. The ordinary man, busy earning a living, exercises care, caution, foresight. He calculates probabilities. He studies the past in order to predict and control the future. Then, when he has weighed all his factors and plotted the outcome, with energy and industry he wills himself into persistent activity along the lines of calculated wisdom.
And much religious work is carried on in just this same way. With shrewd and canny foresight religious people study the past, examine all the factors in the situation which they can foresee, and then decide what is wisest to undertake, or what is most congruous with the Christian life described in the Gospels. Then they breathe a prayer to God to reinforce their wills and keep them strong in executing their resolve.
In this process, time spreads itself out like a ribbon, stretching away from the now into the past, and forward from the now into the future, at the far end of which stands the New Jerusalem. In this ribbon of time, we live, anxiously surveying the past in order to learn how to manage the most important part of the ribbon, the future. The now is merely an incidental dividing point, unstable, non-important, except as by its unstaying migration we move ahead into the richer meadows and the greener pastures of the future. This, I fear, is the all-too-familiar world of all too many religious men and women, when a deeper and a richer experience is possible.
The experience of Divine Presence changes all this familiar picture. There come times when the Presence steals upon us, all unexpected not the product of agonized effort, and we live in a new dimension of life. You who have experienced such plateaus of glory know what I mean. Out from the plain of daily living suddenly loom such plateaus. Before we know ir we are walking upon their heights, and all the old familiar landscape becomes new. The experience of Paul is very true; “The former things are passed away; behold, they are become new” One walks in the world yet above the world as well, giddy with the height, with feather tread, with effortlessness and calm security, meeting the daily routine, yet never losing the sense of Presence. Sometimes these periods are acute and brief, too dazzling to report to anyone. Sometimes they are less elevated but more prolonged, with a milder sense of glory and of lift, yet as surely of a piece with the more acute experience. Such experiences are emotionless, in themselves, but suffuse all emotion with a background of peace, utter, utter peace and security.
The sense of Presence! I have spoken of it as stealing on one unawares. It is recorded of John Wilhelm Rowntree that as he left a great physician’s office, where he had just been told that his advancing blindness could not be stayed, he stood by some railings for a few moments to collect himself when he “suddenly felt the love of God wrap him about as though a visible presence enfolded him and a joy filled him such as he had never known before,” An amazing timeliness of the Invading Love, as the Everlasting stole about him in his sorrow, I cannot report such a timeliness of visitation, but only unpredictable arrivals and fadings-out. But without doubt, it is given to many of richer experience to find the comfort of the Eternal is watchfully given at their crises in time.
In the immediate experience of the Presence, the Now is no mere nodal point between the past and the future. It is the seat and region of the Divine Presence itself. No longer is the ribbon spread out with equal vividness before one, for the past matters less and the future matters less, for the Now contains all that is needed for the absolute satisfaction of our deepest cravings- Why want, and yearn, and struggle, when the Now contains all one could ever wish for, and more? The present Now is not something from which we hurriedly escape, toward what is hoped will be a better future. Instead of anxiety lest the future never yield all we have hoped, lest we fail to contribute our full stint before the shadows of the evening fall upon our lives, we only breathe a quiet prayer to the Now and say, “Stay, thou art so sweet,” Instead of anxiety lest our past, our past defects, our long-standing deficiencies blight our well-intentioned future efforts, all our past sense of weakness falls away and we stand erect, in this holy Now, joyous, serene, assured, unafraid. Between the relinquished past and the untrodden future stands this holy Now, whose bulk has swelled to cosmic size, for within the Now is the dwelling place of God Himself. In the Now we are at home at last. The fretful winds of time are stilled, the nostalgic longings of this heaven-born earth-traveler come to rest. For the one-dimensional ribbon of time has loosed its hold. It has by no means disappeared. We live within time, within the one-dimensional ribbon. But every time-now is found to be a continuance of an Eternal Now, and in the Eternal Now receives a new evaluation. We have not merely rediscovered time; we have found in this holy immediacy of the Now the root and source of time itself. For it is the Eternal who is the mother of our holy Now, nay, is our Now, and time is, as Plato said, merely its moving image.
The sense of Presence is as if two beings were joined in one single configuration, and the center of gravity is not in us but in that Other. As two bodies, closely attached together and whirling in the air, are predominantly determined by the heavier body, so does the sense of Presence carry within it a sense of our lives being in large part guided, dynamically moved from beyond our usual selves. Instead of being the active, hurrying church worker and the anxious, careful planner of shrewd moves toward the good life, we become pliant creatures, less brittle, less obstinately rational. The energizing, dynamic center is not in us but in the Divine Presence in which we share. Religion is not our concern; it is God’s concern. The sooner we stop thinking we are the energetic operators of religion and discover that God is at work, as the Aggressor, the Invader, the Initiator, so much the sooner do we discover that our task is to call men to be still and know, listen, hearken in quiet invitation to the subtle promptings of the Divine. Our task is to encourage others first to let go, to cease striving, to give over this fevered effort of the self-sufficient religionist trying to please an external deity. Count on God knocking on the doors of time. God is the Seeker, and not we alone; He is anxious to swell out our time-nows into an Eternal Now by filling them with a sense of Presence. 1 am persuaded that religious people do not with sufficient seriousness count on God as an active factor in the affairs of the world. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” but too many well-intentioned people are so preoccupied with the clatter of effort to do something for God that they don’t hear Him asking that He might do something through them. We may admire the heaven¬scaling desires of the tower-builders on the Plain of Shinar, but they would have done better to listen and not drown out the call from heaven with the clang of the mason’s trowel and the creaking of the scaffolding.
An invariable element in the experience of Now is that of unspeakable and exquisite joy, peace, serene release. A new song is put into our mouths. No old song ever has caught the glory and the gladness of this Now; no former Now can be drawn upon to give perfect voice to this Now. The well-springs of Life are bubbling up anew each moment. When the angel is troubling the waters, it is no time to stand on the bank and recite past wonders. But the main point is not that a new song is put into our mouths; the point is that a new song is put into our mouths. We sing, yet not we, but the Eternal sings in us. It seems to me, in the experience of plateau living in the Divine Presence, that the Everlasting is the singer, and not we ourselves, that the joy we know in the Presence is not our little private subjective joy, pocketed away from other men, a private gift from a benevolent and gracious God. It is the joy and peace and serenity which is in the Divine Life itself, and we are given to share in that joy which is eternally within all Nows. The song is put into our mouths, for the Singer of all songs is singing within us. It is not we that sing; it is the Eternal Song of the Other, who sings in us, who sings unto us, and through us into the world.
For the holy Now is not something which we, by our activity, by our dynamic energy, overtake or come upon. It is a now which itself is dynamic, which lays hold actively upon us, which breaks in actively upon us and re-energizes us from within a new center. We can count upon this as the only secure dynamic, an all-potent factor in world events. For the Eternal is urgently, actively breaking into time, working through those who are willing to be laid hold upon, to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort, that is, self-originated effort, and let the Eternal be the dynamic guide in recreating, through us, our time-world.
This is the first fruit of the Spirit—a joy unspeakable and full of glory.
The second is love. It is second not in importance but merely in order of mentioning. For it is true that in the experience of Divine Presence that which flows over the ocean of darkness is an infinite ocean of light and love. In the Eternal Now all men become seen in a new way. We enfold them in our love, and we and they are enfolded together within the great Love of God as we know it in Christ, Once walk in the Now and men are changed, in our sight, as we see them from the plateau heights, They aren’t just masses of struggling beings, furthering or thwarting our ambitions, or, in far larger numbers, utterly alien to and insulated from us. We become identified with them and suffer when they suffer and rejoice when they rejoice. One might almost say we become cosmic mothers, tenderly caring for all. But that, I believe, is experienced only in the acutest stages of mystic ecstasy, whereas I have been discussing the experience of milder, less lofty plateaus of glory, prolonged days and even weeks of sense of Presence wherein, as Isaac Penington would say, the springing of the Life are ever fresh. In such a sense of Presence there is a vast background of cosmic Love and tender care for all things (plants included, I find for myself), but in the foreground arise special objects of love and concern and tender responsibility. The people we know best, see oftenest, have most to do with, these are reloved in a new and a deeper way. Would that we could relove the whole world! But a special fragment is placed before us by the temporal now, which puts a special responsibility for our present upon us. The responsibility arising from our location in space is very different from our responsibility arising out of our location in time. For we can journey to distant places and get a different foreground of objects and events, but we cannot journey out of our time-now into a new historical location. The invading Love of the Eternal Now must break in through us into this time-now.
But what is the content and aim of this yearning Love, which is the Divine Love loving its way into and through us to others? It is that they too may make the great discovery, that they also may find God or, better, be found by Him, that they may know the Eternal breaking in upon them and making their lives moving images of the Eternal Life. It is not reserved merely for the Father-Love in heaven to grieve over prodigal sons. Wherever any heart has tasted of this heavenly Love, there is the Father-Love grieving over prodigals, there is the shepherd heart yearning over sheep not having a shepherd, not knowing where are the green pastures, not even aware that there are green pastures to find, there is one of the sons of God mourning to see his fellows raking together the sticks and the straws while over their heads is held the crown of life. Heaven’s eternal Now within us makes us speak blasphemous things, for we seem to assume the prerogatives of God. But this is a part of that astounding boldness of which I mean to speak under the head of peace—our next main fruit of the spirit.
But first I would point out the new fellowship which is born among those who have found the Love which is in the Eternal Now. For those who have been brought back to the Principle within them are exquisitely drawn toward all others who have found the same Principle, The fellowship is not founded upon a common subjective experience, like the fellowship of hay-fever sufferers! It is founded upon a common Object, who is known by them all to be the very Life within them. This is the Reality which removes Quakerism from pure individualism and from pure subjectivism, as it is so commonly and so mistakenly interpreted.
The third element in the experience of Presence, after love and joy, is peace. And I make bold to speak of this, even if at this very hour the tragedies of China and of Spain and of German concentration camps are heavy upon us.
The amazing way that anxieties pass away, when enfolded and quickened by the Presence! The old life of one dimension, lived merely in the ribbon of time, was always a strained life. Had we calculated the past correctly? What unforeseen happening in the future can arise and overthrow all our efforts? Strain! Strain! Out of such attitudes are built those lives which get written up in the success-stories of the American Magazine. And religious people think they must work hard and please God and make a good record and bring in the kingdom! Has the Nietzschean ideal of the superman, with heroic, world-striding power, hypnotized the church into an over-acrivistic attitude?
And then comes the sense of Presence, The Eternal Now breaks through the time-nows and all is secure. A sense of absolute security and assurance of being
linked with an overcoming Power replaces the old anxieties about the Kingdom, It is a security regarding the individual and regarding the group and regarding the race of men. Then we say, “How could we have been so blind?” For surely all things of value are most certainly made secure through Him! Faith, serene, unbroken, unhurried world-conquest by the power of Love is a part of peace.
For the experience of Presence is the experience of peace, and the experience of peace is the experience not of inaction but of power, and the experience of power is the experience of a pursuing Love that loves its way untiringly to victory. He who knows the Presence knows peace, and he who knows peace knows power and walks in complete faith that that objective Power and Love which has overtaken him will overcome the world.
And an immediate corollary to this is the weakening of the merely calculated, rationally planned decisions. When we lived in the one-dimensional time-ribbon we had to think life out all by ourselves. The past had to be read cautiously, the future had to be planned with care. Nothing was to be undertaken unless the calculations showed that success was to be expected. No blind living, no marching boldly into the dark, no noble but ungrounded ventures of faith. We must be rational, sensible, intelligent, shrewd. But then comes the reality of the Presence, and the Now-Eternal is found to underlie and generate all time-temporals. And a life of amazing, victorious faith-living sets in. Not with rattle and clatter of hammers, not with strained eyebrows and tense muscles but in peace and power and confidence we work upon such apparently hopeless tasks as the elimination of war from society, and set out toward world-brotherhood and interracial fraternity in a world where all the calculated chances of success are very meagre.
I said that the rational element in the conduct of life is weakened. But the checking and co-ordinating considerations of reason are not eliminated from life guided by the Presence, replaced by the promptings of the moment. Between the atomistic, unintegrated chaos of the time-nows and the coherent, integrated unity of a rational system, wherein time has lost its meaning—between these two factors reflective men have always sought to effect a marriage. Surrender to the promptings of the Eternal Now may involve the absurd courage of faith in the face of insuperable obstacles. But it does not release us from all intelligent and rational and co-ordinated behavior, all reasoning and consistency. Speaking of his openings Fox said he found that “they answered one another and answered the scriptures.” There is a unity and coherence and rational continuity in the out-cropping guidances of Spirit-led men. Penn, at the time of the Wilkinson-Story separation, wrote concerning the antinomian claims of the separatists: “As if the Light were inconsistent with itself, or admitted of unity under not only different but contrary practices in the one family and flock of God.” This matter needs very careful and much fuller sifting. But I am sure that the outcome must be such that reason and intelligence are not eliminated from those lives who live within the Presence, nor on the other hand are reasoning and intellectual calculations to replace or paralyze the vigor and imperiousness of the Eternal Now,
But in the sense of Presence some of the past nows of our time-now change their character entirely. Our old failures are so apt to paralyze us. The Eternal Now may counsel: “Undertake this.” Our time now says: “See what a weakling you proved yourself to be in an earlier case. Better not try it now.” But the assurance of the Eternal Now is enough, as it should have been for Moses: “Surely I shall be with thee,” Submit yourself to the Eternal Now and in peace serene, in the boldness of perfect faith, you can advance into miraculous living. Or, in the opposite direction, our time-now may say: “Do this. You are well prepared for it. Your education and training fit you, perhaps to teach, to preach, to counsel, to guide an enterprise. And if you don’t, nobody will.” But the Eternal Now in us may say: “Stay, Wait. Don’t rely upon yourself. Don’t think you can reason yourself into your obligation. Know you not that I can raise up of these stones men better able than you to do this?”
Thus in faith we go forward, with breath-taking boldness, and in faith we stand still, unshaken, with amazing confidence. For the time-nows are rooted in the Eternal Now, which is a steadfast Presence, an infinite ocean of light and love which is flowing over the ocean of darkness and death.