The door to the meeting room closes and everyone shuts her eyes, puts her hands in her lap, and tries to bring the silence of the room into her head. This is not meditation, this is listening — listening for what is called “the still small voice”. It is not conscience, though it is kin to it. The people in the room are seeking to make contact with — depending on whether they are Christian or not — the Holy Spirit or simply the Spirit or the Light. Sometimes one of them feels a rumbling inside. Words begin to come together. He rises and speaks to the rest of the congregation. Words of comfort, words of insight into the sufferings of the human soul flow through the voice into the ears of the congregants. The Light infuses these messages with a powerful optimism — a sense that all humans are ultimately good and capable of being reached. Other times, the words speak to “concerns” that the Friend feels need to be brought before the Meeting. Sometimes he thinks he has been led by the Spirit to witness in the world by undertaking a project that will help others.
In 1992, I sat in one of the chairs of Palo Alto Friends Meeting and thought I had such a leading: I was going to former Yugoslavia to help the peace movement communicate with the outside world. I managed to convince a clearness committee that I was sincere. This let me use the meeting as a place to collect money for my project. For three months, I lived in Croatia and visited other countries including hostile Serbia — meeting locals, watching events, and writing about my experiences. Upon my return, I spoke about my struggles. Two years after my return, I admitted to my wife that I was suffering from depression and sought psychiatric help. Eleven years later, I found the right diagnosis (I knew because the medications eased my discomfort with the world) which was bipolar disorder.
For many years, I have engaged in a long conversation with my friend Diana about the nature of our mutual doubts about our Quaker witness. What had really motivated me to leave my wife and follow the inclination of the Spirit that I thought I discerned? Diana tells me that I am still considered a bit of a god at Palo Alto Friends despite my lengthy inactivity on the former Yugoslavia issue. Grave doubts about the genuineness of my leading haunt me, especially since my diagnosis.
Mania has been suspected of other Quaker leaders. George Fox, a shepherd who became convinced atop a smallish promontory named Pendle Hill and went on to become a leader among those who avoided the Church of England, sat silently in rooms separate from the churches of the land, and divorced themselves from the customs of a corrupt people. I should point out that he did not found the Religious Society of Friends: he merely became a prophet among the middle-class farmers and tradesmen who formed that revolutionary body. Many supported him when he spoke up against the “steeple-houses” and their sinecured and hypocritical ministers who drove people away from the Light. They did not pause when he disrupted the services of the Church of England and when his actions were inexplicable — such as the time he took off his shoes and walked through a certain town crying “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield” — gave him the benefit of doubt and allowed that there might be meaning that they themselves did not yet discern.
One writer speaks about Fox and the “miracle of bipolar disorder“:
Fox’s deliberate effort to interrupt the sermon of ministers and priests is often seen as a revolutionary gesture. For many, it’s the ultimate act of speaking truth to power, regardless of the consequences. Yet, mania, even in a mild state means that shame, guilt, and contemplation of potential consequences are no longer present. It can seem noble and bold, and it can be both of these, but it is also a symptom of a chronic illness in an acute phase. Manic can be deceptive in its early stages. And would we see George Fox differently if we viewed him as ill rather than inspirational or transformative?…
When I read that George Fox could have been manic depressive it confirmed for me that I was in the right place. And for the rest of us, does that knowledge make us push away? The stigma of mental illness in any context is often extreme, even with advances in understanding and medication. What would it take for us to concede that leaders, like ourselves, have hindrances, some even severe? There were times in my life that I questioned God’s purpose for my life, but no longer. The lesson learned from all of this is for me is that God can use each of us to accomplish awe-inspiring things. I have already observed evidence of this in my own. And when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.
Then there is James Nayler, a Quaker who became estranged from Fox and his followers for a time. Nayler got into trouble when he rode into Bristol on a donkey where he was welcomed by followers who chanted “Holy holy holy!” and threw their garments into the mud in front of them. The prophet denied that he was impersonating Christ, but only giving testimony to the Christ inside of him. He was brought to trial before the Second Protectorate Parliament and found guilty of blasphemy. The punishment was harsh: Nayler was pilloried, scourged through the streets of London, branded with the letter B upon his forehead, had his tongue pierced with a hot iron, brought to Bristol to be flogged through its streets, too, and sentenced to two years hard labor. Fox wrote that “James ran out into imaginations, and a company with him; and they raised up a great darkness in the nation”. Quakers were already under attack as Ranters who disrupted church services, walked naked as a synmbol of their innocence, and, in the case of one that diarist Samuel Pepys saw standing on the corner in London, stood with braziers of hot coals on their heads. Most Friends did not take part in these actions, but it is well to point to the Nayler’s manic charisma that attracted many to follow him.
On his deathbed, Nayler uttered what may be some of the most profound and beautiful words in the English language:
There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.
Thou wast with me when I fled from the face of mine enemies: then didst Thou warn me in the night: Thou carriedst me in Thy power into the hiding-place Thou hadst prepared for me: there Thou coveredst me with Thy Hand that in time Thou mightst bring me forth a rock before all the world. When I was weak Thou stayedst me with Thy Hand, that in Thy time Thou mightst present me to the world in Thy strength in which I stand, and cannot be moved. Praise the Lord, O my soul. Let this be written for those that come after. Praise the Lord.
How we who have suffered with the illness can identify with these words! We have been misunderstood, misjudged, and reviled. Generations of Friends, afflicted and otherwise, have found solace, comfort, and encouragement here. When you are in the midst of an episode, you feel the chaos of the world more severely than at any other time. You act out in inappropriate ways, but there is no malice in these; hence, you are an innocent.
I have cried over Nayler’s words many a dark night of the soul. So true to my own pain and the anguished resolve not to be of the horrid world that I have witnessed, that I inscribed the words on my heart. There is Truth here. They give meaning to souls such as mine who cannot shake the sickness that enfolds them in its numbness, craziness, fear, and anger. It is right that they are preserved.
However, I am also wary. I am mindful of the environment which can enrich the lives of many, but grant harbor to the delusions of a few. The problems I describe are not a peculiarity of the Peculiar People; indeed, people with mental illness become enthralled with many different religious traditions including militant atheism. I think here of members of organizations such as the Legion of Mary who prayed for the conversion of Russia, of the many who are obsessed with the Bible, and of one woman I know who sought the help of a faith healer who told her that she could get off her meds. Within days she was back in the hospital after rear-ending a car whose driver displeased her and burning him with a cigarette when he got out to confront her. Many churches depend on the religiose as volunteers and proselytes. We will go places and take risks that many will not and we are praised for them until we show other signs such as pressured speech, paranoia, rapidly flitting from topic to topic; or acting, as one of my friends did, shaving off exactly half of her long blonde hair before going down to the DMV and rechristening herself Radical Social Change.
The word “silly” originates in the German selig meaning “holy”. In Fox and Nayler’s day, it was a good thing to be called silly but time has changed how we perceive the phrase “Silly with the Spirit”. My fall into mental illness might be traced to its beginnings by marking my fascination with my name, Joel. I thought it special that I was named after one of the minor prophets. Spiritual traditions mixed in my brain; could I be the reincarnation of this other Joel who demanded that believers beats their swords into plowshares? I learned to keep this belief to myself, but the scorn I received when I voiced it did not discourage it.
When I discovered Quaker Meeting, I found a place where I could be that prophet. I delved much into the history of Quakerism, including the legacies of George Fox, James Nayler, John Woolman, and Lucretia Mott. The Light had guided these, so I, too, would give myself to the Light. I rose to speak frequently, though I often fought the urge. Some did not like me for my “popcorn”. Still I did not stop. All this led to my journey to former Yugoslavia. Many of the neurotypical admired me for my resolve; and I loved the attention. But then came my crash and the long self examination that persists to this day.
Speaking as the Spirit moves you is harmless enough. I remember days being enraptured by the testimony of some of the older Friends who had studied Quaker history and the Bible deeply and who could be depended on for wise insight and guidance. I believe, too, that at least some of what I said held true for others and may have helped them. Maybe even my wild adventure in former Yugoslavia helped people. I remember once after a particularly painful meeting, a very old Friend coming up to me, taking my hand in hers, and just looking with Love into my eyes. Yes, there is much goodness to be found in Quakerism and, sometimes, we who are there because of our sicknesses wreak some ourselves.
But why did I turn away? Religiosity goes beyond Belief and Faith; it has more in common with an addiction and is founded on delusion. The Prophet Joel in me felt blessed above all others. When I go to a Quaker meeting and take my seat among them, I feel tugging to that former incarnation. In many ways, I still identify with the Friends and their ways,; nay, I respect them deeply and commend them to others. But manic me can go too long without detection in this environment. In an order that expects revolutionary thought and action coupled with a love for the Truth and wise insight as the Quakers, a crazy man such as I was could thrive until it was impossible to stand him.
The world desperately needs Quiet Rebels such as the Quakers. I give them credit for opening my eyes to many injustices. Nearly thirty years ago, I became aware of the suffering of those who cannot live as common spouses because they happen to be of the same sex as their partners. I witnessed how the Friends — starting with a few but then accreting more and more — struggled to find answers to these problems and then — unlike any other denomination save a few run by despotic cult leaders — resolved in Unity to stand for the right of gays and lesbians to marry their own. In this way, the Quakers have taken on slavery, sexual inequality, and war — to mention a few issues. But I cannot be with them because I have an illness that causes me to become too wrapped up in the sense that I have been selected for a Holy Purpose. I must stay away because I must be vigilant about my illness and allow no avenues in my life down which it might slip back into control.
Let this be written for those who come after and those who live now so that they may understand.