It’s customary, at least among Liberal Quakers, “to hold in the Light” someone who’s died, sick, or otherwise in a difficult situation. For some Friends this phrase is the equivalent of “to pray for”; but many Liberal Friends just interpret it as an exhortation to remember someone in distress. A few people may be moved to actually do something for the person held in the Light. Others may simply meditate—perhaps visualizing an actual beam of Light passing through the body of the person so “held.” The meaning of “hold in the Light” depends on the person who says the words.
Interestingly, the expression—according to Western Friend—is only about forty years old. Of course, the “Inward Light” dates from the earliest days of Quakerism and refers to God illuminating or acting upon a person’s spirit. “Inward” indicates motion from God “out there.” So, the Inward Light does not have its origin in the individual soul. God, or the Holy Spirit, is shining the Light.
Early Friends also used the phrase “Inner Light,” which became increasingly popular during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Rufus Jones, founder of the American Friends’ Service Committee, analyzed the phrase in these terms: “The Inner Light, the true Seed, is no foreign substance added to an un-divine human life. It is neither human nor Divine. It is the actual inner self formed by the union of a Divine and a human element in a single undivided life” (pp. 105-6, Friend of Life by Elizabeth Gray Vining).
This definition laid Jones open to the dreaded charge of being a “humanist”; and, in fact, the Quaker use of light is ambiguous. Light could come from a transcendent God, or it could be a metaphor for human personality—one’s most important values and traits. In any case, the historical shift from “inward” to “inner” probably reflects the increasingly secular nature of the society at large AND the secularization of The Religious Society of Friends (progressively less religious, at least in its liberal iteration).
By the 1980’s non-theists—agnostics or atheists—were being regularly accepted as members of Liberal Quaker Meetings. Traditional religious language like prayer and God was awkward for these folk; and so, I hypothesize, “hold in the Light” was born as a phrase acceptable both to theists and non-theists. A religious Friend may interpret holding someone in the Light as praying. A non-theist Quaker may simply regard the words as a motive for mentally attending to a particular person or situation.
In short, the expression is a way of “papering over” an ideological and spiritual divide among Liberal Friends. This phrase may help prevent conflict among Friends, but it may also hinder psychological and spiritual intimacy. Atheists keep their atheism to themselves, Christians cover up their Christianity. Very different Friends with very different spiritualities hide behind these ambiguous words, refusing to reach out to one another in the meeting, never really getting to know their brethren.
I wonder if God approves of this superficiality. Or, put another way, is the lack of spiritual intimacy in our meetings consistent with humanism and morality?
~ Richard Russell
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