Of Leadings and the Inner Light
Quakerism and the New Cosmology

by Mary Coelho

I was seated in a darkened room with perhaps fifteen others, viewing the sixth program of the Canticle to the Cosmos video series. Brian Swimme was saying, "The same dynamics that formed the mountains and formed the continents are the dynamics that eventuated into humans. We don't live on the planet, but in and as this bio-spiritual planet."

The words Brian spoke brought a knowing that connected deeply to my being. I felt a surge of energy. I imagined known and unknown forces within my body that were sustaining and forming my identity — all this, far beneath conscious awareness. It was a kind of illumination. I knew how deeply and fully I belonged to the universe and to the earth.

The ecstasy lasted for several days, during which I painted a large tree of life, filled with diverse creatures against a background of enfolded Mystery. This thought came again and again: "Everyone has to hear this story."

* * *

I grew up not knowing the depth and fullness of my belonging to the earth and to this story, the story of "a single energetic event, a whole, a unified, multiform, and glorious outpouring of being." (Swimme, 1984, p. 40) The reasons were partly emotional and partly cultural. When I was an infant, my parents lost a four year old son, David, to spinal meningitis. Their inconsolable sorrow meant that, early on, they were not able to receive me with joy and love. I grew up never really sure that I belonged.

An anchor for me was the comfort of extended family. Also there was the fullness and dependable routine of farm life: the two Jersey cows that were milked by hand twice a day, every day; Sally, a loving fox terrier; Bill and Ted, the Percheron-like work horses that pulled the flat wagons; the ice on the pond that offered afternoons of ice-skating with my cousins; the deep, sandy topsoil of the New Jersey coastal plain, ideal for growing truckloads of sweet corn and bright red tomatoes; the wild asparagus come spring, and wild blackberries in the heat of summer.

And there was the small Quaker meeting three miles from our farm, attended by all three generations of my family. We went every Sunday. To this day, almost fifty years since I left home, I could tell you the names of the regulars, where they usually sat, and whether or not they were among those who were often moved to speak. Miss Rushmore spoke every Sunday from near the front, on the left. I remember fondly, too, picnics on the meeting grounds, and especially community picnics at the Taylor's farm on the Delaware River. The grade school, run by the meeting, provided a secure home for this vulnerable child.

The adults in our Quaker community spoke often of the Inner Light, the seed of God, the indwelling Christ. "It is a Light within, a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us." (Kelly, p. 29) The Inner Light might be found in the worshiping community, where it would move a person to speak. The Inner Light might lead a young man to refuse to go to war. It might call someone to alleviate suffering or injustice, and then give them the power to accomplish that task. People testify that through the power of this Light, evil weakens in them and the good is raised up. (Lucas, p. 26)

Nevertheless, any hope that I would one day know that Light was not sustained within the worldview that I learned in high school and college. As a student of biology and chemistry, I was shown models of molecules made of colored wooden balls and sticks. I studied many of the known laws of chemistry and the laws of motion in physics describing the behavior of matter. In that predictable world of particulate matter, ideas of an indwelling Light that could influence our behavior and the movement of matter seemed to come from an earlier, benighted period.

I learned from my biology teachers that replication errors and mechanical breaks in the DNA chain account for mutations. If random, mechanical processes are determinative of genetic information, a domain crucial to human identity, it seemed there could be no place for any direction and purpose in life. How could human religious beliefs be imposed on such a foundation? I eagerly attended all the "religious emphasis" programs sponsored by my Presbyterian College. Yet within the frame of science I was learning, talk of what sounded like an interventionist God who had occasionally visited the earth and influenced the course of events did not offer me a worldview I could genuinely believe.

For years I struggled with this chasm between the science I received as fact and the religion then available to me. Although this struggle surely was exacerbated by the wounds of my earliest years, I eventually understood that I inherited it from the wider culture, too, and that this same destructive dualism retains a powerful hold to this day. My struggle was a personal problem, but it was and is a problem widely shared.

The path that had led in that darkened room to a profoundly new and alluring way of seeing has been long and difficult, but also at times exhilarating and punctuated by moments of sheer joy. Many insights and events made it possible for Brian's inviting words to work their transformation. For example, a mystical experience at age 29 launched me — rather, hurled and compelled me — into a search that continues to this day. For I had come to know experientially of a powerfully healing and attractive dimension of life not addressed in my science classes. Although not an experience of light, it was an experience of the sacred, and thus closely related to experiences of the Inner Light. I had an inner knowledge, unacceptable as it seems rationally, that what I had known was, in some manner, an answer to humanity's problems.

Also crucial in my journey have been the fruits of an education that began in my mid-thirties, when I enrolled as a seminary student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and continued through my doctoral studies in historical theology at Fordham University. At Fordham I delved into the western contemplative tradition, particularly as experienced by Teresa of Avila, Bonaventure, and Meister Eckhart. I learned that in our western contemplative path to spiritual growth, there is a preparation, followed by a letting go, and then a letting be, to use Eckhart's words. In this way, the sacred depth of our identity can be known.

I learned, too, of an integration that is possible, an integration of one's personality. Called the unitive life, this integration makes available, day in and day out, the wisdom at the core of our being. I thereby learned to honor the mystical side of Quakerism and to see it as part of a far older tradition that takes as its foundation the experiential side of the religious life. But it was the new story of the evolutionary universe — specifically, the scientific story as translated by Brian Swimme — that enabled me to integrate the manifest, physical world into a dynamic, sacred whole.

* * *

The insights and wisdom potentially available to all of us as participants in the great epic story, when integrated with religious experience and the wisdom of religious traditions, has the power to awaken our sleeping souls. Entering into the integration involves a profound transformation: a letting go of long-held assumptions, assumptions so deep we may be unaware of them. For me personally it has taken a great deal of reading, thought, and meditation to begin to actually enter into the story, to see myself as a participant in the vast unfolding, a unique expression of a universe billions of years old. The effort is well rewarded because, as Brian Swimme observes, our central religious truths expressed within the context of a developing universe find a vaster, more profound expression and deeper relevance for the issues of today. This has been true for me with regard to core aspects of my Quaker tradition.

The meeting for worship of the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers, usually lasts an hour. It may be entirely silent, or individuals will speak as they feel led. There is no prearranged program (although some Quakers do now have a programmed meeting). As I learned in my youth and now fully embrace, the meeting is truly the priesthood of all believers. That is, all participants are assumed to be willing vehicles for a message to the community. Both the speaking and the silence can provide those gathered with an experience of inward divine presence and guidance. Sometimes the first person who speaks says something that touches others, so that later in the meeting, one or more feels led to speak to the same theme, out of their own experience.

These verbal sharings do not come back to back. Significant intervals of silence are themselves a full presence, not a mere waiting. As well, those gathered know to avoid slipping into rational argumentation and discussion. Rather, we stay "close to the root." That is, we keep close to the fount of divine creativity.

On occasion, a meeting becomes a compelling group adventure. Each person, even in silence, makes a contribution to the whole that emerges as the hour unfolds. Reality shows itself in fullness in the gathered community, just as the diversity of species reveals the fullness of the mysterious reality that is Earth. Quakerism thrives on a bold assumption, congruent with the story available now through science, that there is an ongoing unity, yet a place and space is available for expressions of great diversity and uniqueness. Something emerges by the power of sheer combination, as Quakers gathered in silence or as creatures shaped in ecological community. With community comes the possibility for an intensification of individual spiritual experience that is not available in isolation.

This valuing of individual contribution to the community is also honored in the monthly meeting for business. The ideas and wisdom of one or several persons can contribute unexpectedly to the movement of the whole. In contrast, voting and rule of the majority, though expedient at times, fails to acknowledge the value of diversity and of the easily overlooked individual or minority. Thus, while in quest of a decision around which can arise the unity of consensus, Quaker participants know and honor the felt presence of an active, creative power — a self-organizing process that can lead to wise, truthful decisions if the process itself is trusted. Trust manifests as humility on the part of participants, as differing ideas are explored. This humility is not unlike that now required of humans before the functioning of our planetary community: the biosphere.

Quakers have long had confidence in what we speak of as "inner leadings" (or "callings"). This is the belief expressed clearly by the early Quaker Isaac Pennington: "There is that near you which will guide you; Oh wait for it, and be sure ye keep to it." (Steere, p. 26) These leadings are not just about the direction of one's personal life but also about the needs of others and of larger social concerns. The active life has long been understood by the contemplative tradition as intrinsic to the inner life.

After resting in "the dark sources of consciousness," the person is then available to participate in the dynamism and creative power of the indwelling Presence, as expressed through the structures and the personality of a particular individual. The journey inward and the journey outward belong intimately together.

Does the new story drawn from science in any way speak to this experience of being guided? In a mechanistic world dominated by assumptions of fragmentation, such leadings would seem to derive only from the superficial associations of an active mind. However, in an evolutionary universe, we find a context in which leadings can indeed be honored. The individual is placed within a living cosmology offering rich possibilities in each and every moment. Cosmic creativity may well spring forth within any of us, because each is no less than a form of the unfolding whole—a whole that incorporates both the visible world and the nonvisible. The part (the individual) likewise is comprised of the visible and the nonvisible and has intrinsic to it indwelling powers that are formative and centering. The exact manner in which our consciousness is engaged in the larger context is not understood, to my knowledge, but the framework is there.

It is possible that there are leadings about events not derived from the usual means of communication, although familiarity with a situation through normal means of communication may stimulate an emotional engagement that, in turn, brings forth leadings to address that particular state of affairs. Physicists have, after all, discovered nonlocality, which is action (at the subatomic level) in the absence of local forces. A story told by Jean Shenida Bolen illustrates the kind of nonlocal interconnections in the realm of the individual consciousness that exist in this mysterious world of ours.

As a young child, Jean lived in California with her parents, who were from Japan. On occasion her father would awaken saying that so-and-so back in Japan had died, and that he learned this in a dream. A couple of weeks later, a letter would arrive saying that indeed that person had died at the time her father had known it. How was that knowing, that "leading" possible?

According to M. L. Rowntree, at its best, the Light is the whole self in touch with God and with the universe (quoted in Lucas, p. 16). Such full participation in the universe can bring the individual into leadings that arise outside our local, daily consciousness. The new cosmology gives us confidence that our leadings or callings may go beyond an individual's isolated ideas, and that a person can be led to actions that do indeed reflect the needs and direction of the larger community and the evolving earth. Likewise, the Quaker idea that refusal of a concern has cosmic consequences (Steere, p. 44) finds support in the context of the web of interconnections that is the unfolding whole.

In the context of the new story, there would seem to be wisdom in the Quaker refusal to observe a fixed number of sacraments in a ritual manner. As well, because all life is regarded as intrinsically sacramental, outward forms that would honor a subset of the whole are not observed. For example, baptism is not practiced, lest it obscure the ongoing need for vital, spiritual change throughout one's life. (Lucas, p. 27) The inner communion made possible for many Christians through the Eucharist is sought by Quakers within our everyday lives. Indeed, the silent meeting itself may be sacramental. Sometimes in meetings, one feels drawn not only into God's presence but also into a bond with one another and with all that is eternal. (Steere, p. 12) This pan-sacramentalism finds support in the frame of the time-developmental cosmic story. Evidence now from many other religious traditions and from the new physics points to a creative, numinous, nonvisible realm suffusing the material universe: that which Brian Swimme calls "the All-Nourishing Abyss." Because each part within the whole may be linked with or touched by this nonvisible realm, each part is in touch with or may know itself within the numinous, the great mystery.

Quakerism has been and continues to be one of the peace churches. It is understood that pacifism means not only the refusal to fight and the belief that war is no solution to human conflict. Pacifism is also proactive: the creation of peace based on justice. Pacifism and the strong social witness of Quakers arise from the recognition of "that of God" pertaining to all peoples and all individuals. It is an answering to that of God in everyone. (Steere, p. 19) The witness of pacifists, in and out of the peace churches, has been challenged as unrealistic in the face of the unfathomable violence throughout human history, and especially in the last century. To be sure, pacifism is a bold vision. Yet I see it as well supported by the new story, in that evolution is occurring now very rapidly in human consciousness and in cultures at large. With the perspective of deep history offered by the story, we can at once accept that some of humanity's most troubling patterns of behavior are deeply rooted in our primate past, while resolving and taking the necessary steps to move beyond them. In an age of gun powder, automatic rifles, long range missiles, land mines, and nuclear weapons, we can not afford to do otherwise. Overall, pacifism finds support within the universe story because people, human cultures, and our dreams for self betterment are no less a dynamic of the universe than are the whirling planets and shimmering stars.

Finally, I'm grateful that Quakerism has no fixed creed, although many teachings and traditions. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism in the 17th century, would sometimes ask while preaching, "You will say, Christ saith this and the Apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" Fox was ever anxious to bring people to "sit under their own vine." That gift of my Quaker heritage has instilled in me the confidence to ask and keep asking the unanswerable questions, to explore widely, and to trust an inner process of searching for truth. That same teaching provided a foundation in which I found my way to the new story.

There are leadings within me that see the gifts of the Quaker tradition finding fuller expression when placed in the context of this new story. There are leadings within me that, in turn, long to enrich the new story by synthesis with dimensions of the Quaker vision and the broader contemplative vision. The Quaker worldview can particularly aid in grasping the social significance and avenues for applying, indeed living, the new story. And, to my ear, there is no lovelier way to honor the creativity that pervades the universe at all levels of existence than by calling such the Inner Light. Other traditions may make important contributions, out of their long and diverse histories, to our unfolding culture, now richly informed by a dramatic new origin story.


Kelley, Thomas R. 1941. A Testament of Devotion. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Lucas, Sidney. 1948. The Quaker Message. Wallingford, Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill.

Steere, Douglas V. 1984. Introduction from Quaker Spirituality, Classics in Western Spirituality. Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press. (Introduction published in 1988 by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.)

Swimme, Brian. 1984. The Universe Is a Green Dragon. Santa Fe: Bear and Company.

_______. 1985. Canticle to the Cosmos. 12-part video series. Center for the Story of Universe, 311 Rydal Avenue, Mill Valley, CA 94941.

_______. 1996. The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Swimme, Brian, and Thomas Berry. 1992. The Universe Story. San Francisco: Harper.

MARY COELHO is the author of Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood: The Power of Contemplation in an Evolving Universe (Lima, Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 2002).

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