The Purpose of Life

Ron asked me yesterday whether I could spare quarter of an hour to tell him about Quakers. We agreed to meet at 2.30 this afternoon. It was about 4.20 when we finally brought our conversation to a close. I wish I had recorded it. We talked about God, goodness, love, evil, grace, mercy, discernment, truth, peace, equality, same-sex marriage, simplicity, Christ, Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, the church struggle in Nazi Germany, Albert Schweitzer, Thomas Merton, and the purpose of life. And I told Ron a bit about Quakers.

Ron began by telling me what he already knew about Quakers: basically that we are good people. I tried to put him right on that. We are all human just like everyone else. We seek to be Spirit-led rather than ego-driven, but I doubt that we succeed any more often than other people. We kid ourselves, if we believe otherwise.

Ron and I recognised each other as Christians who value the truth and wisdom to be found in other religions as well. We are both seeking to grow in sensitivity to the beauty and pain of reality. And we both want to have done some good before we die.

Towards the end of our conversation Ron told me that he had been to some sort of Kabbalistic gathering and had gone up to the teacher after a lecture. The teacher asked him what his question was and Ron said that he wanted to know what he should do with the rest of his life. The teacher told Ron “Say the following words after me: ‘Lord, what should I do with the rest of my life?’” Addressing Jesus or Christ as “Lord” puts us in our place in relation to Him. (Please forgive the masculine language here. I’m reporting what Ron was saying. I believe that God and Christ are just as much feminine as masculine.) We need to have the humility of the Prodigal Son, who returned to his father and told him: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please take me on as one of your hired servants.” Then we need to open ourselves to whatever answer might come from God, perhaps as a still small voice.

I told Ron about our Quaker tradition of holding Meetings for Clearness to help an individual or couple come to a decision. I have arranged a Meeting for Clearness for myself to be held this coming Saturday. I will be here at Claridge House only until 15 August and need to decide where I go from here and how I might earn my living, how I might best put my skills and experience to good use, how I might do some good before I die. (I don’t know whether I have three days to live or thirty years. And I’m reminded of George Fox saying “Ye have no time, but this present time!”, which I sing to myself from time to time.)

One of the most fascinating things that Ron told me was the story of the life of Leo Tolstoy and in particular the dramatic events towards the end of his life. I encouraged Ron to read “War and Peace”. Whatever perseverance he might need would be well rewarded.

I told Ron that, along with the other two historic peace churches (Mennonites and other Anabaptists, and the Church of the Brethren), we Quakers take very seriously Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies. When people love their enemies and engage in nonviolent struggle rather than violent conflict, miracles can happen. Who would have thought that Apartheid would come to an end in South Africa with relatively little bloodshed? And I never imagined that the division of Germany and Europe during the Cold War would be overcome during my lifetime. Now we need a miracle to happen in Palestine and Israel, not to mention Syria.

My last contribution to the conversation with Ron, before we thanked each other, was to quote the end of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”:

“And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.”