Saturday, August 13, 2016

Brokenness of Spirit

I have been re-reading the Journal of Stephen Grellet lately, and in it he tells a story about Spring Meeting in North Carolina and how the meeting had lost all of its membership, until a young man felt drawn on First-days to open up the meetinghouse and worship there by himself. One day, he felt a strong leading to stand and speak, which he did - to empty benches. Shortly after he sat down "several young men came into the house, in a serious manner, and sat down in silence by him. Some of them evincing brokenness of heart."

The phrase "brokenness of heart" has been on my mind since then, and with it, the contrast in the level of emotion between what I perceive in the writings of early Friends and what I experience in most liberal and conservative meetings today. One of the things that stands out to me among early Friends is the amount of tears. Stephen Grellet writes often of "tears of joy" or "tears of gratitude". Samuel Bownas wrote of an early childhood experience of accompanying his mother to worship with imprisoned Friends at Appleby prison:
I observed, though very young, how tender and broken they were; and I was very inquisitive of my mother, why they cried so much, and thee too, said I, why did thee? She told me that I could not understand the reason of it then, but when I grew up more to man’s estate I might.
After his famous encounter with Anne Wilson, he writes:
... in secret I cried, Lord, what shall I do to help it? And a voice as it were spoke in my heart saying, Look unto me, and I will help thee; and I found much comfort, that made me shed abundance of tears. Then I remembered what my mother had told me some years before, that when I grew up more to man's estate, I should know the reason of that tenderness and weeping, and so I now did to purpose.
I know tears are not unknown among Friends today. Some Friends in NCYM-C like to quote a now-deceased member who would say "the floor was wet with tears". I also remember that at the close of SAYMA one year I saw a beloved member of Nashville Friends Meeting with tears streaming down his face. I have experienced them from time to time as well.

I have an internal conflict here because I am somewhat suspicious of emotionalism by itself. I have had plenty of experience of revivals and church services that can get people into a high emotional state. There is one in particular I remember fondly, being maybe 11 or 12, I found myself quietly singing hymns in the car ride home, feeling a great level of peace and love. But, my experience with this kind of thing is that it didn't last, and so I have grown somewhat skeptical about it.

I wrote recently about humility and I think is it one of the factors in some of these cases of tears of early Friends - the "brokenness of heart" (or of spirit). One of the ways early Friends experienced the Light of Christ was as a searchlight that illuminated the dark places in the heart and brought them forth. My impression is that this was often felt in worship and led to tears and other gestures of humility. Isaac Penington describes it in very stark language:
By his casting into the furnace of affliction, the fire searcheth. The deep, sore, distressing affliction, which rends and tears the very inwards, finds out both the seed and the chaff, purifying the pure gold and consuming the dross; and then, at length, the quiet state is witnessed, and the quiet fruit of righteousness brought forth, by the searching and consuming operation and nature of the fire.
What I love about this passage is its representation of the struggle and pain of seeing one's sins illuminated, and then the quiet state that follows. My experience of this searching light is not as vivid as what early Friends portray. There are times when I am in meeting, or reading, especially times when I have tried to settle into the presence of God, when something speaks to me and makes me aware of something I should or shouldn't do, but it generally doesn't reduce me to tears.

I think there may be some level of discomfort among liberal Friends with this idea of the Light searching and revealing one's sins. Many people have grown up in churches that preach the Calvinist idea of the "total depravity of humanity", or in ones that have a tendency to be very judgmental. I have heard people say "there's nothing wrong with me" in a way that has felt to me as more a rejection of "total depravity" than a statement of being perfect. Although I think it is important for us to acknowledge that we are not perfect, I don't think our emphasis should be on how sinful we each are, but rather on how the Light changes us. One of the things I heard mentioned at NCYM-C this year, was that in the early days people came to meeting expecting to be changed. It seems to be that allowing ourselves to be brought low, to have our spirits and hearts broken - broken open, by the Spirit, lets us welcome in that change.

The other part of this brokenness, then, is the peace that comes afterwards - the "quiet state" that Isaac Penington wrote about. This comes about from the Light as well. I particularly like the way George Fox talks about it in Epistle 10:
Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c. then ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the Light, that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation: then ye grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you.
Even harder than submitting to the searching of the Light is standing still in what it finds. I live in a culture that is action oriented, and if something is wrong you have to do something to fix it, and the idea of not doing something is very contrary. I think this attitude also contributes to my resistance to being broken in the first place. Just as the silence in meeting for worship comes out of our surrendering ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I want to silence my impulses to fix myself and wait in the Light. Similarly, I want to cultivate the willingness to be broken open - it's not something I can do on my own, and while it may often be something I couldn't resist if I wanted to, I think it is helpful to be open to it.


  1. Thee was well used in writing this. I will share a link to it on Facebook, with further comment.