A Model of Spirituality in a Time of Tribalism and Chaos

There is a certain passage in John Woolman’s Journal that has always moved me deeply. It has to do with Woolman’s description of his own spiritual growth and transformation. It begins with the words: "While I silently ponder on the changes wrought in me, I find no language equal to it nor any means to convey to another a clear idea of it. I looked upon the works of God in this visible creation and an awfulness covered me; my heart was tender and often contrite, and a universal love to my fellow creatures increased in me. This will be understood by such who have trodden in the same path. Some glances of real beauty may be seen in their faces who dwell in true meekness. There is a harmony in the sound of that voice to which divine love gives utterance … yet all these do not fully show forth that inward life to such who have felt it."

In this statement, Woolman succinctly captures the meaning of spiritual growth and transformation. Transformation is expressed in the tenderizing of one’s heart and issues in an increase of universal love to one’s fellow creatures. What does having one’s heart grow tender mean? What are the marks of such a process? How do I begin to experience, and how can our society experience, that sense of awe that finds expression in a tender and contrite heart?

A profound sense of spiritual humility is the first mark of a tender heart. Those persons with tender hearts do not boast or intimidate. They are not braggarts or bullies. The tenderhearted are not self-righteous or judgmental. They do not insist on their own way, espousing certitudes that love and reflective thought have not tested. Humility has been a part of the lives of all who seek to grow in spirit and is an important signpost for our own journey. John Woolman possessed a humility born of a tender heart.

A second mark of a heart growing in love toward God and one another, and which is beautifully illustrated in the life of John Woolman, is a sense of connection with human suffering.

Within the Christian tradition, a tender heart is a heart that is broken by what breaks the heart of Jesus. John Woolman felt this connection in profound ways with those who suffer, which issued in his concern about human slavery. He was particularly concerned with those Quakers in the south who owned slaves.

Woolman had a dream where he saw a mass of matter to the south and to the east, and as he reflected on this dream, he recognized that this mass was human beings in great misery (African-American slaves.) The misery was so great that he could hear their crying and their wails of pain.

As he continued to reflect on this dream, he recognized that he, John Woolman, was "mixed with them," and he could no longer consider himself as a distinct, singular human being. He was connected with them spiritually. A sense of connection with human suffering is a characteristic of a tender heart.

John Woolman’s tender heart was also demonstrated in his caring and sensitivity toward the entire created order. A love of all God’s creation is a component of a tender heart. Woolman’s heart would break if he were to see photos of big-game hunters posing by the corpses of lions, tigers, and elephants that these hunters had shot. A tender heart cares for the entire created order.

It was Charles Lamb, the former president of Harvard University, who said of Woolman in his introduction to volume one of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf, "Get to know the writings of John Woolman by heart." By heart is really the only way to ‘get’ the writings of Woolman. They defy the world’s traditional reason.

And so, as we begin a new year, it is a time for new resolutions. One of my resolutions, and perhaps you are feeling the same way, is to try and live by the signposts that John Woolman has given us … to live in a profound sense of spiritual humility, a sense of connection with human suffering and to recognize that as a human being, I am connected with the entire created order. As Quakers, we believe in a God of new beginnings, and of these new beginnings, there is no end.

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