“The Meeting,” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Paul Elmer More’s essay on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, mentioned below, quotes Whittier’s poem “The Meeting.”  The poem is long, and not aimed at 21st century literary sensibilities.  It begins with a long passage from a visitor who reproves Whittier for attending the silent meetings of Quakers, deprecating them as “dull rites of drowsy-head” and extolling the outdoors as the proper place to worship the God who created nature.   In response, Whittier explains that wilderness is full of distractions, while the surroundings within the meetinghouse focus the mind on God.  More was an excellent critic, and chose the perfect lines to quote:

But nature is not solitude:
She crowds us with her thronging wood;
Her many hands reach out to us,
Her many tongues are garrulous;
Perpetual riddles of surprise
She offers to our ears and eyes;
….

And so I find it well to come
For deeper rest to this still room,
For here the habit of the soul
Feels less the outer world’s control;
The strength of mutual purpose pleads
More earnestly our common needs;
And from the silence multiplied
By these still forms on either side,
The world that time and sense have known
Falls off and leaves us God alone.

I recommend the whole poem.  Not least because the theme developed in my earlier post, that Quakerism tends to obscure the importance of habit in human life, is partially belied by Whittier’s lively interest in this topic.

Friends Journal, January 2011

During our Christmas break, the Believer and I read the latest issue of the Quaker publication Friends Journal.  I also read several books, among them the third volume of Paul Elmer More’s Shelburne Essays. The themes of this month’s issue of the magazine seemed to coincide in some interesting ways with the themes More explored in that 1905 collection.

Phil H. Gulley’s article on “The Meaning of Universalism” brings to mind two of More’s essays, the one on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, also the one on William Cowper.  More argues that Cowper was the first English poet to make home life a major theme of poetry, and that Whittier was at his finest in exploring scenes of home.  In that way, Gulley is a follower of Whittier, for his essay is strongest in its vivid scenes from his childhood home.  Explaining his belief that there is no Hell, but an afterlife in which every human will proceed to salvation, Gulley tells of his parents insisting that he invite every child in the neighborhood to his eighth birthday party.  From that point on, he couldn’t imagine that God would give a party and leave anyone uninvited.

In his essay on William Cowper, More connects the poet’s poor mental health to his fervent belief in Jean Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination.   Calvin argued that the human will is powerless to accomplish anything of importance, certainly powerless to earn salvation, so that it is only by the free and arbitrary grace of God that some few souls, the Elect, are spared damnation.  Of this doctrine, More writes:

Good Dr Holmes has somewhere written that it was only decent for a man who believed in this doctrine to go mad.  Well, Cowper believed in it; there was no insulating pad of worldly indifference between his faith and his nerves, and he went mad.

The most obvious thing about this Universalism is that it is a form of Predestinarianism. It differs from Calvin’s doctrine only in expanding the number of the Elect to include all humans.  I cannot see that one form of Predestinarianism should be radically healthier than another.  Perhaps the belief that our actions on earth are of no importance to a kindly, indulgent God who can deny us nothing we might desire would lead to another set of delusions than those which would haunt believers in a doctrine that preaches that our actions are of no importance to a capricious, inscrutable God who will save or damn us without reason, but neither doctrine seems likely to inspire clear-headed realism.

If Gulley himself has kept his wits intact, I hasten to add, it is less likely because of an “insulating pad of worldly indifference” than it is a testament to the parents he commemorates so fondly.  As it so happens, Gulley’s father Norm was a coworker and a good friend of my father’s, and I was an occasional visitor in the home where he grew up.  My visits came after Phil Gulley had left for school, but I can confirm that they had created one of the most wholesome environments imaginable.

Another piece in the issue describes people who came from very different environments.  In her “Teaching in a Culture of Poverty and Violence,” Stephanie Wilder describes her work as a teacher in a facility for juvenile offenders in Philadelphia who have been convicted of serious crimes.  Some of these crimes are very serious indeed; the Believer and I both lost sleep after reading that “One of my students raped and brutally beat an 87-year-old woman.  He waited for her daughter to arrive home and then did the same to her.”  Wilder begins the next paragraph by acknowledging that “My students are unlikely to change.  The recidivism rate in juvenile justice is over 90 percent.”

Wilder turns to an obvious question:  “So why do I continue to work in juvie?”  After saying that as a Quaker, she is “reminded to seek that of God in everyone,” Wilder goes on to say that “I have learned to let go of my attachment to outcomes.”  She focuses on what she can control- her own behavior- not on her students’ behavior, which she can’t control.   “The boys use the expression, ‘Don’t test my gangsta!’  It means, ‘Don’t push me so far that I lose control.’  I feel that my ‘gangsta’ is my Quaker beliefs and values in the face of anger and violence.  I am sorely disappointed in myself when my gangsta is tested and I lose control and raise my voice or get disappointed.”

I’m sure Wilder’s basic point is sound- there is no point in focusing on other people’s behavior when all we can control is our own.  It is possible to take this too far, however.  Her presence in the classroom has an influence on the boys.  All of the stories she tells make it sound like her students respond to her principled nonviolence and solicitous concern for that of God in them with unbounded contempt.  If that is the case, then she may in fact be making it more likely that they will reoffend.  If the face of the justice system is someone they regard as a joke, then it can hardly deter them from continuing with the lives of crime in which they have already become so deeply invested.  As I reads the piece, I kept hoping that Wilder would describe some way that she found to use therapeutic methods based on the “Criminal Thinking” psychological model, or some other approach that has actually had success steering violent offenders away from their patterns.