A Testament of Devotion By Thomas R. Kelly
Publisher: New York: Harper/Collins, 1996.
Thomas R. Kelly (1893–1941) was a devout member of the Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. The central principle of Quakerism is that each individual must seek and be guided by the divine light within. Kelly served as a Quaker missionary, a college professor, and a writer. After his death Douglas Steere collected five essays by Kelly and published them under the title A Testament of Devotion. The book includes “A Biographical Memoir” of Kelly by Steere. This book has been continuously in print ever since it was first published in 1941 and is considered a classic of Quaker spirituality and mysticism.
The essays were written in the last few years of the author’s life. He had experienced a nervous breakdown, the effect of which was like a dark night of the soul, and he emerged from this with an intense and unshakeable love of and sense of unity with God. Kelly writes with intensity in a style sometimes like a sermon, and often poetic. Almost every paragraph is packed with religious imagery, and almost every page needs to be read and re-read slowly to be properly understood.
In the first essay, “The Light Within,” Kelly urges the reader to “secret habits of unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being about the Inward Light.” With this orientation, we stay attuned to the divine throughout the busy day. He quotes Meister Eckhart: “As thou art in church or cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness.” Kelly uses a number of analogies to convey his idea of what this inner light is:
Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Centre, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts. … It is a Light Within which illuminates the face of God. … It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.
This “Divine Centre” is present within everyone. With rightly focused, devoted attention we may experience it. Yet he also explains that if we seek the divine within it is only because God is seeking us:
In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us.
Quoting the Bible, Kelly notes that it is God who says, “Behold, I stand at the door.” The response of the soul to the Light Within is natural. Kelly says, “The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.”
In his second essay, “Holy Obedience,” Kelly refers to an inner “Shepherd.” He directs the reader to “the life of absolute and complete and holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd.” Humility, suffering, and simplicity are all natural outcomes of obedience. Obedience, he says, may be intentional, arising from awareness of the divine within, or it may emerge from mystical experience:
It is an overwhelming experience to fall into the hands of the living God, to be invaded to the depths of one’s being by His presence, to be, without warning, wholly uprooted from all earth-born securities and assurances. … Then is the soul swept into a Loving Centre of ineffable sweetness, where calm and unspeakable peace and ravishing joy steal over one. … One emerges from such soul-shaking, Love-invaded times into more normal states of consciousness. But one knows ever after that the eternal Lover of the world, the Hound of heaven, is utterly, utterly real, and that life must henceforth be forever determined by that Real.
The third essay, “The Blessed Community,” focuses on the “Fellowship” of those who share a belief in the inner guidance of God within. The spiritual friendship and communion enjoyed by those who are attuned to the divine light within themselves – or are earnestly seeking it – is a source of great joy and spiritual vitality. In the early seventeenth century when the early Friends (or Quakers) began to meet, this “Fellowship” was evident. However, it was not unique in human history:
Every period of profound re-discovery of God’s joyous immediacy is a period of emergence of this amazing group inter-knittedness of God-enthralled men and women who know one another in Him. It appeared in vivid form among the early Friends.
Kelly says this is “the holy matrix of ‘the communion of the saints’.” While he extols the fellowship of the Society of Friends with its clear focus on turning within, Kelly asserts in no uncertain terms that the “spiritual fellowship” he is praising is incomplete until we treat all persons, without exception, as part of it: “For until the life of men in time is, in every relation, shot through with Eternity, the Blessed Community is not complete.”
In the fourth essay, “The Eternal Now and Social Concern,” Kelly states that the eternal can connect with time in a way that enables life to be lived on two levels, the “here” and the “beyond,” or “the eternal now and the temporal now.” Kelly thinks that people sometimes focus too much on the temporal but with serious commitment can shift their emphasis to the eternal. This shift in focus changes the entire quality of life:
The possibility of the experience of Divine presence, as a repeatedly realized and present fact, and its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life – this is the central message of Friends. Once we discover this glorious secret, this new dimension of life, we no longer live merely in time but we live also in the eternal.
Quakers are known for taking positive action in the “temporal now,” through social concerns such as peace, non-violence, and fair treatment of all, following the guidance of the inner Voice.
Social concern is the dynamic Life of God at work in the world, made special and emphatic and unique, particularized in each individual or group who is sensitive and tender in the leading-strings of love. A concern is God-initiated, often surprising, always holy, for the Life of God is breaking through into the world. Its execution is in peace and power and astounding faith and joy, for in unhurried serenity the Eternal is at work in the midst of time, triumphantly bringing all things to Himself.
In the fifth and final essay, “The Simplification of Life,” Kelly addresses the stress and complexity of modern life. Describing the busyness of modern life, he says many of us feel “bowed down with burdens, crushed under committees, strained, breathless, and hurried, panting through a never-ending program of appointments.” He claims that the apparent complexity and unease of our lives is not due to external circumstances but to a lack of inner integration. “We Western peoples are apt to think our great problems are external, environmental. We are not skilled in the inner life, where the real roots of our problem lie.” Kelly suggests that basis of Quakerism is in this: “If the Society of Friends has anything to say, it lies in this region primarily. Life is meant to be lived from a Centre, a divine Centre. In that ‘divine Centre’ within us we will find ‘the welling-up whispers of divine guidance and love and presence, more precious than heaven or earth.’” The final paragraph of this essay summarizes its key points:
Life from the Centre is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming. We need not get frantic. He is at the helm. And when our little day is done we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well.
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