Our Christian book reading group is discussing Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion this month. Kelly (1893-1941) was a Quaker, and is writing out of the strong mystical emphasis of that tradition. Here are my highlights from part I.
What is here urged are internal practices and habits of the mind. What is here urged are secret habits of unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being about the Inward Light, ways of conducting our inward life so that we are perpetually bowed in worship, while we are also very busy in the world of daily affairs. [p.5]
Such practice of inward orientation, of inward worship and listening, is no mere counsel for special religious groups, for small religious orders, for special “interior souls,” for monks retired in cloisters. This practice is the heart of religion. [p. 6]
Dogmas and creed and the closed revelation of a completed canon have replaced the emphasis upon keeping close to the fresh upspringings of the Inward Life. The dearth of rich Protestant literature on the interior aspects of Christian living, except as it bears on the opening experience of conversion, bears testimony to its emphasis being elsewhere. [p.7]
Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma. And Christian practice is not exhausted in outward deeds. These are the fruits, not the roots. A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light and rejudges it, who brings the Light into the world with all its turmoil and its fitfullness and recreates it (after the pattern seen on the Mount.) [p. 8]
Kelly is one of those authors that I appreciate not because he is a kindred spirit but because his inclinations are so different than my own. I am not a mystic–not even close!–and yet I find his call compelling. The richness of deep contemplation, of perpetual inward worship, is a gift he calls all believers to open. A life energized by communion with the indwelling Christ is not just for the robed ascetics in their silent isolation, but is God’s hope for all of us–parents of chatty toddlers included, presumably! I love the image of my inner soul contentedly and peacefully bowed in worship, while outwardly I am pushing through my to-do list, coordinating committee meetings, making household repairs, roaring like lions with my daughter. We abide in the perpetual Sabbath rest even on manic Monday mornings.
Protestant literature about the practices of the inner life is much more prevalent than when Kelly wrote. People like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and Phyllis Tickle have become mentors of thousands of Christians exploring spiritual formation. Our own congregation, which is definitely Protestant and rooted in a highly rationalistic tradition, even hosts an occasional prayer labyrinth. Things are changing. But I think there is still a tendency to grope toward the inward life out of a sense of dutiful guilt. We can add “inner practices” to our already full to-do lists, making them one more thing to check off each day; necessities performed from the limited energies of our human efforts. We must instead learn to allow our inner life to become a basic orientation toward God that energizes us for the tasks we must do (and that gives us the discernment to see God at work in our own work).
I can picture what that life is like, and I sometimes feel like I’m getting there, but I keep falling back into old, broken habits. I must remember something else Kelly wrote:
In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders….And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to his secret presence and working within us.