"There was a care on my mind so to pass my time, as to things outward, that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the True Shepherd." (John Woolman, writing in the 1740s)
In his journal, the Quaker John Woolman writes of the temptations, or distractions, that he and his contemporaries faced. Two he mentions are spirits (alcohol) and spending money on fine apparel (clothing). Today, the range of distractions is much wider: the internet; films and box sets on demand; and planes, trains and automobiles that make it so much easier to explore the world, near and far. Our choices appear almost limitless. To quote the old Microsoft advert: "Where do you want to go today?"
But perhaps, in truth, this seeming myriad of choices can be reduced to one. Ours is the same decision that John Woolman had to make: which voice do we choose to listen to? Will we jump to the tune of our ego, or will we take heed to the promptings of Love?
The voice of my small, separate, self would have me seek "things outward" to complete me - but it is never satisfied with what it gets. If I observe its urges carefully but don't immediately act on them, I may discern another voice. This is the voice of what Woolman called the "True Shepherd", and which we might call our Greater Self. If we give that loving voice our steady attention, and remain true to it alone, it may lead us to a simpler life - one with fewer distractions. It will surely lead us to greater fulfilment and peace.
I blogged some time ago about one of my biggest outward distractions - the internet. I go on-line with good intentions, but frequently I fall down a rabbit-hole on YouTube, or check the Polish lower-division football scores. The longer I sit in front of the screen, the harder I find it to pull myself away. I wonder what Woolman would have made of the web? I expect he would reflect on whether or not it helped him to stay in touch with his Inner Guide. If he found it a hindrance, he would lay the distraction aside.
I sometimes think there should be a 12-steps programme, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, for people who are addicted to their computers, television or phones.
In the absence of such a group, I've devised my own rule (in the monastic sense of the word), which I'll try to observe from now on…
Questions for reflection
What outward things may be hindering you from paying steady attention to the voice of the True Shepherd?
What rule might help you remove those blocks to Inner Peace?
In all three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke), Jesus is recorded as asking his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"
The disciples' response demonstrates the extraordinary effect Jesus must have had on people who he met: "Some say [you are] John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets". At a stretch, confusing Jesus for John the Baptist could have been a case of mistaken identity: John was a contemporary of Jesus who had recently been executed. But Elijah or Jeremiah? These were prophets from centuries before whose lives were recorded in the Jewish scriptures! Did people really see Jesus as a somehow a re-embodiment of one of them?
The gospel accounts then have Jesus put a direct question to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" It is Peter who answers, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God".
Jesus doesn't deny this, though in the accounts of Mark (which was the first of the surviving gospels to be written) and Luke, he does warn Peter not to speak about him to anyone - perhaps because he realised Peter's description would, very likely, be misunderstood.
It isn't recorded in the gospels, but I wonder whether, at any time, Jesus may have asked his disciples another question: "Who do you say that you are?"
If he had done, would any among them have responded in a similar way… "We are all Christ, all of us one Son of the living God"?
Such a view would be seen as heresy by many Christians. But I can imagine Jesus's lips turning upwards into a smile if any of his disciples had uttered those words.
Was the message of Jesus that he was different from the rest of us, but that we can save ourselves from punishment for our sins if we believe in his unique identity as Son of God? Or was it, perhaps, that we are not separate from one another, confined within perishable bodies; we are eternal spirit, creations of the One Spirit? Yes, we have wandered off awhile to make our own way, but one holy instant we will remember our Divine inheritance and - as prodigal sons and daughters - return Home to be welcomed back into our Father/Mother's loving embrace.
Peter Parr: Quaker, writer and former member of the British minigolf team. (Actually those are all just roles I play. Words can't describe who any of us really are.)