Part 2 – The Still Small Voice
There is a Hawaiian word that I am trying to understand. Kuleana. It is something like responsibility, but kinder and somehow more generative and relational. The word kuleana is often used in a collective way as a call to take care of something. “Taking care of our elders is our kuleana.” Or like a t-shirt I saw recently, “More Limu, More Fish. The ocean is our kuleana.” (Limu is Hawai`ian for seaweed, an important food source here that local citizen groups are working to restore to health and abundance along the shorelines.)
A word like “responsibility” can be problematic. For me it carries too much of the inward weight of obligation and not enough of the levity and outward motion of an authentic call to respond, which I believe to be the original sense of the word. I am tempted to replace this word with “kuleana” in my vocabulary, and here in Hawai`i I can perhaps get away with that in certain situations. But even still, some Hawai`ians take offense at the appropriation of their words by non-Hawaiians, and understandably. “They stole our land, repressed our culture, usurped our rightful government and now they want to take our language, too!? And they don’t even really understand it!?”
I will admit to this offense myself. In the first draft of this chapter I tried to make the case for ‘“kuleana” and offer my interpretation of the word. Only thanks to my editor was this cultural faux-pas averted. I tell this only because it shows how a “well-meaning person,” in this case myself, is capable of delivering offense to persons of another cultural and experiential background without so intending, an example of unconscious ignorance obviously still alive and well in me. Not proud. And I hope my readers will kindly give me feedback of this nature if something offensive slips past my editor’s eye.
While I digress a bit, this is relevant to the topic of “responsibility” at hand. Reflecting on the feedback I had received I came to some realizations. I already advocate for people of European descent to connect with their own personal ancestors, as challenging and painful as that often can be. Even to identify with the earth-connected side of one’s European cultural heritage and history can be difficult and painful. Corollary to this, I must somehow reclaim the language of my birth and ancestry, not just borrow (steal) words from other cultures that seem to already have the meaning I am reaching for. First of all, every language is deeply nuanced. It is probably not possible to fully grasp the meaning of a foreign word without completely absorbing the language, customs and culture, and possibly even the landscape, that the word springs from and lives within.
To engage full responsibility for my use of language does not mean that I may not use Hawai`ian words, but rather when I do , I must become fully aware of why I am choosing Hawai`ian over English, and consider the audience where I am speaking or writing. I am assuming permission is granted to me based upon the relationships that are present to the utterance.
For example, I am a beginning hula student. My kumu hula (hula teacher) has taught me a protection chant for entering the forest, in particular if my intention is to collect plant materials. If I am with my Kumu, I may use this Hawai`ian chant. In fact, it is respectful and expected of me, as a student, to do so if he gives me the nod. He has given me permission to use the chant outside of his presence as well, and very occasionally I do. After all, I have permission. However, usually, if I am leading a group into the forest and we pause to pray before entering, which is a cultural protocol not unique to Hawai`ian culture, I almost always choose to honor my own ancestry,culture and language by making my prayer in English. English words work fine for speaking to the unseen world. At this point in my cultural education, English is better, because it resonates more deeply inside me. I am attuned to my daily language and therefore it is a more effective way for me to communicate with the spirit world and with people who understand English. However, English words do not resonate as deeply with the land here in Hawai`i and in that way perhaps carry less power (and they sound much less beautiful to me.) At some point, I may feel the Hawai`ian language and have permission from my cultural elders to use it, perhaps even a responsibility to do so. Because of the rich gifts I have received from the process of learning the language and culture, it may become my kuleana, my responsibility, to use the Hawai`ian language as a way of honoring and giving back to the teachers and elders who made the effort to educate me and to the culture and ancestors that host my presence here. That would be an example of reciprocity at work. What I am reaching for here is a nuanced understanding of the word “responsibility” and how our “ability to respond” is linked to the natural law of reciprocity.
There is something inside the human being that the Friends Meeting for Worship (Quaker Church) calls “the still, small voice.” I remember vividly the “meetings” I attended as a child. Meetings happened on Sunday, just like other churches, but there was no priest or preacher in front of the congregation. Members would arrive dressed in their Sunday best, take their seats facing front and sit quietly, as if waiting for the sermon. Nothing at all would happen for the longest time, just a room full of quiet adults and children. Sometimes the fifteen minutes that we kids were required to sit in silence (adults kept on in sitting for a full hour) felt like an unbroken eternity to me. No one would speak. There would only be the sounds of nature coming in from outside and the small sounds of people shifting position or coughing in the high-ceilinged room. On what I considered to be “better days,” before we were allowed to go downstairs to our Sunday School class where we could TALK, someone would speak during the meeting’s first fifteen minutes. It was commonly an older person of my grandparent’s generation.They would usually tell some kind of story, often about something that they observed in nature. Birds seemed to be a common theme to tell stories about. First would come the story in slow detail, usually about something that seemed pretty ordinary to me. And then would come a reflection on the experience that had meaning to the person, spiritual meaning, which they would share with the group. Sometimes the person speaking would refer to the Bible. But it was equally possible that they would quote Rumi or Ralph Waldo Emerson or something from the Bhagavad Gita if it was relevant to their message. When they were finished, no one said anything, the silence continued. On very rare occasions this would happen twice before I left the room. I was always relieved to go, but I liked it when people spoke. Quaker Sunday School was much like I imagine other Sunday Schools to be. We studied Bible Stories,played games,made crafty things and got ready to “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.”
It was only later, as a young adult, that I returned to a Friends Meeting in Seattle, Washington. I had not attended a meeting since I was nine years old, when my mother died. She was the force behind our family’s participation.. At nineteen, I was living in a group house in the University District, working temporary and part-time jobs to support my full-time peace and anti-nuclear activism. Many of the older persons who were leaders of this movement happened to be Quaker “grey hairs,” and I was very curious. One of my good friends, whose mother was a Quaker and had grown up in Meeting, invited me to come one Sunday morning. I attended irregularly for some years after that. This is when I began to reflect on the unusual character of this “church” more deeply. I never spoke for the hour we adults would sit together in silence, but I always came away enriched and renewed, with a feeling of support for the work I was doing in the world. My friend, Roger, did on occasion offer something during Silence. It was not forbidden to speak as a young person. The Quaker youth had plenty to say, including me, when it came to Meeting For Business, the forum where all the business and policies of the Meeting were discussed and decided by a process of spiritually guided consensus. There was a deep respect for elderhood in Friends culture, as well as a deep respect for the voice and power of youth. It was inspiring to find a pocket of this quality of respect within a culture that generally respects neither their elders nor youth.
The silence held within the Meeting for Worship was the place where the community of faith would gather together to listen for this sacred thing that they called “the still small voice.” This is the voice of guidance that lives and speaks within every person, if one takes the time to sit quietly,reflect and listen. To hear the still small voice does not necessarily move one to speak. When I asked about the conditions expected for speaking at Meeting I was told only that one must feel moved by spirit to share. Sitting in a receptive silence with others brought me many personal reflections that came from the still small voice within. And very, very often, the words that were spoken at Meeting touched that still small voice within me in profound ways.
The belief in Friends Meeting is that God speaks to and through each of us, if we take the time to listen.The voice is not usually a booming or prophetic voice, though it can be sometimes. It is a deeply quiet voice. And that voice is most commonly heard in a state of profound, reflective silence. Scripture is considered to be an important, sacred basis for interpreting the inner voice, but not an exclusive one. There are Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and others who attend Meeting for Worship as equal participants. Pretty profound, really. Here was a “Peace Church” that practices peace and tolerance without preaching. Instead of “practice what you preach,” the moral instruction becomes “practice what you hear when you listen to the still small voice within.” Quakers through history are perhaps best known for the attention they give to conscience in the spiritual life and in their insistence that one must not only listen to conscience but act on it in worldly affairs.
Of the last three centuries, the Quaker church is perhaps the spiritual movement originating in Europe most historically committed to equality, democracy, religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and to peace and the practice of nonviolent social action in the United States. Philadelphia was founded by English leader William Penn in 1682 as a refuge for fellow Quakers who held the majority influence in politics and business in this important city for a full century. The movement for independence and the emergent federation of independent states was shaped in profound ways by Quaker values and thought, though Quakers themselves backed away from direct participation in politics because of a crisis of conscience stemming from their spiritual commitment to pacifism. Quaker Friend John Woolman was one of the early supporters of the 1755 tax-resistance movement that led to the Declaration of Independence. He wrote a spiritual diary that was published posthumously in 1772 which came to have a profound influence on the Religious Society of Friends. Woolman looked to nature as a powerful direct source of spiritual truth and guidance and a direct reflection of God and spiritual wisdom. He advocated harmonious relations between humans and nature as fundamental to a righteous life. “I believe that where the love of God is perfected and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to, a tenderness toward all creatures will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation which the Great Creator intends for them under our government.”
Quaker Friends have been important leaders and supporters of progressive currents within United States history from the very beginning: tax resistance against the British, abolition of slavery, religious and cultural tolerance and respect, women’s suffrage and rights, the labor movement, civil rights, the antiwar and antinuclear movements and the environmental movement. Their primary tool in these reformist movements has always been passive resistance, civil-disobedience and nonviolent direct action, since before those names were coined in the English language. The Quaker spiritual, cultural and political contributions give persons of European heritage one example of a cultural legacy of European descent that we can embrace and be proud of. It was surely deeply influenced by its contact with the philosophies, customs and wisdom of the original inhabitants of their new continent.This openness to influence is to its credit, especially considering the cultural attitudes of dominant European religious movements toward non-literate peoples at the time.
John Woolman remarks in the Journal, “The marks of famine in a land appear as humbling admonitions from God, instructing us by gentle chastisements, that we may remember that the outward supply of life is a gift from our Heavenly Father, and that we should not venture to use or apply that gift in a way contrary to pure reason.” To Woolman “pure reason” was roughly synonymous with what I call “natural law.” He is saying that signs of famine in nature, whether human famine or animal famine. They are communications to us, instructions, reminders, from the Creator to respond to the laws of nature and live gratefully in harmony with them. We should clearly not use the gifts given to us by life and the Creator in ways that run contrary to natural law, if we do, famine will ensue. Embedded within this very simple quote are profound understandings of reciprocity, responsibility, and the way the natural world communicates to the human conscience.
I am striving here to express the connection that John Woolman has obviously put together between presence to the natural world, the natural law of reciprocity and the human capacity to respond: responsibility. I am reaching for a deeply nuanced understanding of two English words that are in some ways very simple in their origins. Reciprocity comes from the root word reciprocal. This comes from Latin reciprocus and simply means back and forth, re- meaning back and pro- meaning forward. Responsibility is easy for the layperson to break down: ability to respond. The word “respond” comes from the Latin verb respondere meaning to “answer, to offer in return.” Because they share the same root prefix re-, meaning back, responsibility and reciprocity are connected in root meaning to a notion or a sense or a description of giving back or offering back. The natural law of reciprocity states simply that the forces and materials that generate life and abundance are gifts to the living and that the recipients of these gifts must give in return for the forces and materials that generate life to remain vital and not be diminished.
The animal and plant and microbial world all live by this law without thought, though not necessarily without consciousness. Thought is the quality of consciousness particularly assigned to humans. Thought is capable of being aware of itself, of making conscious choices about behavior and of reflecting upon those choices and evaluating their consequences later. Self awareness, choice and the ability to evaluate and alter behavior may exist in less developed ways in the animal world, but these qualities are developed in humans to a much more sophisticated order of magnitude. In this way, while animals certainly act on the basis of self-interest, they are not capable of greed, for example, in the way that humans are. The privileges of thought and choice come to humans at a cost. If they are not tempered with the responsibility to care for all of creation, to follow the natural law of reciprocity and to pay very close attention to the signs of nature, then we may destroy the very sources of life that nourish us by making poor choices – choices that benefit us, or some small minority of us, in the short term but diminish the very sources of life that nourish and sustain us and our fellow creatures in the long term. This seems obvious and sensible, but the ecological and social crisis that human history is now propelling us into at a global scale is no laughing matter. It is a direct result of choices we make individually and collectively every day. Reciprocity is not merciful, it’s a law. When the balance of life is put in jeopardy, it will be restored by the most direct means possible. Taking without giving back cannot be sustained long term. The beings, mineral resources and energy resources that are taken from without replenishment will be exhausted eventually in the short term resulting, as John Woolman pointed out, in the “marks of famine” followed by famine itself.
The good news is that each of us has within us the capacity to listen with a highly developed quality of attention and observation to the still small voice of conscience that vibrates to the rhythm of nature. Our sense of reciprocity can be awakened. Our sense of responsibility can be restored to its authentic activity in our lives. Our sense of gratitude can be renewed. All of these things flow naturally from reflective silence and time spent immersed in nature, doing the things that we evolved to do with our minds and bodies and sharing those experiences with our friends and families. This is the subject matter of the New Old Way: finding ways to connect to kin and nature in a modern world as profoundly and skillfully as our ancestors did following the Old Ways