Sacred Compass: The Spiritual Way of Discernment by J Brent Bill

Book Cover

This book is written by an American Evangelical Quaker. So there are a number of things that need tackling before getting into the book. I have learnt that while Quakers are often seen in this country as liminal to Christian orthodoxy in the US they come in two varieties. There are those who are theologically in a similar position to UK Quakers and there are the Evangelical Quakers who clearly are orthodox though pretty liberal with respect to the Christian tradition but hold to elements of the Quaker tradition as well. J Brent Bill comes from this Evangelical stream. As such his theology would be a pretty close fit with that of many URC  congregations particularly those that draw on elements of Separatism. Secondly, through Ship-of-Fools I have become aware that Quakerism has a wholly separate tradition of spiritual discernment and given the way even in this country we overlap I wanted to include some exploration of it within what I looked at.

Firstly this is not a book that places the spiritual accompaniment in a wider context. The metaphor used is deliberately that of a compass and not a road map or a SatNav. He also has the Puritan idea that what is right for one is not necessarily right for another. To illustrate this he uses the Draft in the US and the decisions made by him and two friends. One friend coming from a more Radical Quaker tradition openly resisted, the other friend  a Lutheran who could have been excused sought to go and he himself having no clear guidance sought to delay. Though the responses were very different yet each decision was brought out of who that person was and their journey with God.

Secondly, core to discernment processes are  leadings with certain characteristics that he lists in his chapter on paying attention he suggests testing out leadings against:

  • the Fruits of the Spirit
  • caring
  • a sense of harmony with God
  • generosity
  • persistence
  • rightness
  • surrender of our wills to God’s.

He also suggests that they should come from within and not imposed from outside.

He deals with being lost times and I found myself quoting him while on the Spiritual Direction session simply because he says that in the New Testament

lost is simply lost, not damned or condemned.

I added that I suspect if you sense yourself as lost it is the first step towards being found.

He outlines a process which passes through sensing, waiting and acting. In the discernment process, we are moving continually back and forwards between the stages or completing the circle. He describes spiritual friendship as a

friendship between people committed to each other and to the deepening of their faith lives

He talks of what Quakers call “Weighty Friends” who are people that others instinctively turn to for spiritual guidance. In some ways ironic because having to explain the times my faith intuition seems able to grasp something ahead I used the metaphor of “thin” as in the Celtic Spiritual  term “thin place“. I think because I am so often surprised by it myself. He describes such people as having a “call:
to create a safe place for spiritual investigation
to embrace hope
to hear the Spirit
to encourage faithful obedience”

I think so far this has been the most useful of the books I have read. In that it has cored me back to what I already sensed and yet has given some form to the process without being prescriptive.

Pilgrim Path

past the water channel
that marks the boundary
of the arrow-grass salt marsh
we finally step out onto mudflats
then awkwardly hop about
as we remove clumsy boots
tie  laces together
and hang them from our packs
then roll our trousers above the knee
in preparation for the traverse
cautiously we move
trying to avoid the glasswort
in case it is slippery seaweed
towards where the poles
point heavenwards
in an otherwise horizontal world
the left behind causeway becomes
just a distant murmur of traffic
drowned by the keening of seals
hidden in the light’s vastness.

sanderlings flicker-feed beside us
a heron languidly flaps by
black-backed gulls speed overhead
between blueness of sky
and its browned reflection in the sand
we walk between masts that mark
the safe route across this unveiled
sea-wilderness that stretches
the horizon

broken shells sharp against our feet
seagrassed mud-mires grasp our legs
firm bottom runnels cool our calves
soft sands ooze between our toes
each step a different experience
each step a repeat of all others
a pole in front
one behind
mesmerised
there is no map
or sense of distance covered
only the journey

yet this too is finite
eventually we come
to the point
where marram grass rises
above sand-dune
and we reach landfall

Solitary Walking – a Reformed Spiritual Practice?

This is initial thinking and it is not simple.

Firstly, one of the big shocks of my thesis was that the Reformed Spirituality is instinctively Green. It is really weird because the people who are most surprised by this are the Reformed.  The idea that getting out into the natural world is good for the soul seems to be deeply embedded and has deeper roots than the idea that we are the driving spirituality of capitalism. The Green nature of Reformed may well stem from John Calvin’s idea of the natural world as the theatre of God’s Glory. Or rather it may well be that John Calvin’s own spirituality connected with the natural world which led to his doctrine of the world as “theatre of God’s Glory”. That is the connection made in  Ravished by Beauty by Belden C Lane. If so we are also called not to turn it into some safe primary school image of itself but to see it in its complexity with the dark and the dangerous included. I am never quite sure whether I like God, God is far too challenging for the word “like”.

Secondly, we are inherently an active tradition. This means that we like to tackle problems and achieve things. The idea of sitting quietly in a room does not fit naturally with who we are, so the idea that we should go out into the natural world and just breathe in the beauty is not going to fit with the Reformed activism. Here walking comes to our aid. We are doing something; it might not be getting us very far, far quickly but we are doing something.

Thirdly, there is a substantial literature on spiritual aspects of walking, quite a bit of it generally secular. However, what is probably more important to the Reformed Christian is there is a strong linkage with radical ideas of society and justice. Walking is not a practice that gives us just space but it also connects to radical views on what society is. People such as Peace Pilgrim, Jarrow Hunger March, and this teenager against climate change have used walking as a means of engaging in wider aspects of society.

Fourthly, Pilgrim sites may be un-Reformed but the journeying is far more ambiguous particularly within the Separatist tradition in England. It is the tradition that both created the Pilgrim Fathers and Pilgrim’s Progress.  The metaphor of the Christian life as a journey runs deep. It is also true that if Geneva is the birthplace of the Reformed tradition then it is also a tradition whose creation was dominated by refugees. There is no accident in the Reformed traditions perpetual return to the stories of Exodus and Exile. We are a travelling people and that goes for the English Reformed as much as anyone due to the Five Mile Act.

So walking in the countryside seems to be a good match with Reformed Spirituality. What do I mean by Solitary Walking? The normal term for hiking alone is Solo Hiking. What I want to get at with Solitary Walking is the deliberate embracing of the spiritual side of walking. Solitaries are another term for hermits so in this respect, I am exploring a spirituality that links with the eremitical tradition rather than the monastic.  So here are the Spiritual connections I see.

Firstly the Bible has lots of people travelling and because of the history of the Bible, a lot of these journeys were on foot. So we assume that Adam and Eve left the garden on foot, a journey from, not a journey towards. Abraham is called to journey (actually it is his father Terah who starts off the journey but there is no account of the call of Terah), the  Exodus,  Ruth and Naomi’s journey, the Exile and Return, Jesus’ peripatetic teaching ministry in Galilee and Paul’s missionary journeys are all stories of travel. There is no lack of travel during God’s revelation. Perhaps it could be argued that God is able to reach people particular when they are moving, it is the stationary periods where things particularly go wrong.

Secondly walking is physical, repetitive and slow. As such it is at odds with much of the modern culture which focuses on the new, the virtual and the quick. We become, myself very much included, stimulation junkies. Walking allows us to lower our desired level of stimulation without us going to the cold turkey of a plain room, silence, and stillness. Let me deal with each term in order. Walking is physical, you need to be at least partly present in the moment or you end up walking into things whether lamposts, other people or dog dirt. There is, however, more as the art of walking is keeping going and that means paying attention to very practical things such as food, what you are wearing and how far it is until you next rest. It thus in a very practical way brings you into the present. It is repetitive in that involves the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, usually several thousand times in a days hike. In this perhaps it fits with a number of other spiritual practices such as bead prayers (e.g. the rosary) and  mantras (e.g. the Jesus prayer). Thirdly it is slow. I walk relatively quickly about 5km per hour on a reasonable terrain. It still takes me two hours to walk ten kilometers something a car cover in about 10 minutes! That means things change more slowly and I begin to notice things simply because I have the time to.

All of the last two paragraphs apply equally well to group walks as well as solitary ones. However, the solitary nature of a walk brings other spiritual aspects. These are silence, vulnerability, and freedom. I will take each of these as I suspect I am applying them in a bit of a different way.

Silence is rarely complete when walking, there is nearly always the crunch of your feet. However, when walking alone and not having a companion to talk with one of the things you do get is consistent big chunks of time when you are not trying to communicate with others. The only conversation you have is that which goes on in your own head.  The big advantage, therefore, is you actually get to listen to yourself  consistent spell of time. There is so much going on in modern life that distraction is everywhere. Although not necessarily physically noisy (though many distractions are) distractions are noisy in the sense used in signal processing. This noisiness means we loose connections with ourselves in much of modern life. The process of walking alone reduces the level of distraction so that we can hear ourselves and possibly in that gain some connection with God. However, unlike a silent retreat, it does not have the effect of a dive in off the high diving board into complete silence.

Vulnerability is not popular these days. We try and make ourselves secure against the need for other people. A single person is often seen as intrinsically vulnerable. I am dependent quite often on the kindness of strangers whether it is the offer of a cup of tea, helping me with directions or advice about local transport, the kindnesses are all welcome. In our seeking of self-sufficiency, we often cut ourselves off from receiving these kindnesses. This gives us the illusion of not needing others. What travelling as a solitary person among other people does is draw our attention back to our interdependence.

I really considered not including freedom in the list. It is perhaps not the usual item included in the spiritual practices and yet for me it is intrinsic to the process. There is on one level a very basic freedom, I have usually a number of miles to walk in a day and provided I cover those miles exactly how I do it and which paths I follow is totally within my control. It can feel quite liberating to take a path that is not that specified in the guidebook when appropriate. It reminds you of your self determination. On another level it gives a different freedom, that is the demands for time and attention most people live with most of the time. I am slightly disconnected from the continually on society that is part of modern life. If an email comes to work that needs urgent attention then it has to wait as I cannot deal with it until I have proper connections. What is more the people I meet do not know me, they are meeting me for the first time and thus have no expectations. I do not feel I am expected to be the canny statistician, dutiful daughter or loyal friend as no-one knows those personas. Personally I seem to attract these projected personas and they are not always compatible with each other.

Finally, having made a case for solitary walking as a spiritual practice largely suited to Reformed Spirituality let me point out why can only ever be part of the experience. I, myself and my shadow with the Bible are never sufficient within the Reformed tradition to be the Church. The Church must always consisted of an attempt to belong to a community. Some of this I believe goes to the heart of the Gospel where we have a God who seeks those who are separated from him. Other parts are very practical, loving people as an abstract idea is a form of wishful thinking, we can only really love people in the concrete physical reality of the present. Finally, my PhD has persuaded me that the discipline of the Church is realised within the life of the local congregational community.

That said I am still working on this and am not sure where it is leading.

Works Cited

Belden C Lane. Ravished by Beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Hardback. ISBN:9780199755080