Thomas Kelly on Experiencing God in the Busyness of Life


I'm in the process of preparing a sermon about establishing the practice of having a Daily Retreat Time (read about the Five Practices of growing Christians here). I came across some great insights about how to balance the demands of busy living in the book "A Testament of Devotion" by Thomas Kelly. Kelly is a member of The Society of Friends (the Quakers), who have a strong emphasis on the "Light Within" -- the presence of God in us, in the person of the Holy Spirit. This comes out in the excerpts that follow. He refers to God's presence within us using a variety of different words, and you get a hint that this is what he means when he capitalizes the word. You'll see what I mean.


1. Diagnosing the problem in our world today

Before we get to that, here is what Kelly says about the problem we're facing today, being so busy and overwhelmed:

The problem we face today needs very little time for its statement. Our lives in a modern city grow too complex and overcrowded.  Even the necessary obligations which we feel we must meet grow overnight, like Jack's beanstalk, and before we know it we are bowed down with burdens, crushed under committees, strained, breathless, and hurried, panting through a never-ending program of appointments. We are too busy to be good wives to our husbands, good companions of our children, good friends to our friends, and with no time at all to be friends to the friendless.

But if we withdraw from public engagements and interests, in order to spend quiet hours with the family, the guilty calls of citizenship whisper disquieting claims in our ears. Our children's schools should receive our interest, the civic problems of our community need our attention, the wider issues of the nation and of the world are heavy upon us. Our professional status, our social obligations, our membership in this or that very important organization, put claims upon us. And in frantic fidelity we try to meet at least the necessary minimum of calls upon us.

But we are weary and breathless. And we know and regret that our life is slipping away, with our having tasted so little of the peace and joy and serenity we are persuaded it should yield to the soul of wide caliber. The times for the deeps of the silence of the heart seem so few. And in guilty regret we must postpone till next week that deeper life of unshaken composure in the holy Presence, where we sincerely know our true home is, for this week is much too full.

Does that about cover it? This seems like a good summary of the struggle of our lives today, even though it was written some years ago. If that's the problem, what's the solution? What can we do about this? Before he answers that question, Kelly wants to dig deeper into what's really happening.

Let me suggest that we are giving a false explanation of the complexity of our lives. We blame it upon the complex environment. Our complex living, we say, is due to the complex world we live in, with its radios and autos, which gives us more stimulation per square hour then used to be given per square day to our grandmothers. This explanation by the outward order leads us to turn wistfully, in some moments, to thoughts of a simpler existence. ...

We western peoples are apt to think our great problems are external, environmental. We are not skilled in the inner life, where the real roots of our problem lie. For I would suggest that the true explanation of the complexity of our program is an inner one, not an outer one. The outer distractions of our interests reflect an inner lack of integration of our own lives. We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us.

Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self. And each of our selves is in turn a rank individualist, not cooperative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes. And all too commonly we follow the common American method of getting a quick decision among conflicting claims within us. It is as if we have a chairman of our committee of the many selves within us, who does not integrate the many into one but who merely counts the votes at each decision, and leaves disgruntled minorities. We are not integrated. We are distraught. We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all.

And we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow. For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center! If only we could find the Silence which is the source of sound!

We have seen and known some people who seem to have found this deep Center of living, where the fretful calls of life are integrated, where No as well as Yes can be said with confidence. We've seen such lives, integrated, unworried by the tangles of close decisions, unhurried, cheery, fresh, positive. These are not people of dallying idleness nor of obviously mooning meditation; they are busy carrying their full load as well as we, but without any chafing of the shoulders with the burden, with quiet joy and springing step. Surrounding the trifles of their daily life is an aura of infinite peace and power and joy. We are so strained and tense, with our burdened lives; they are so poised and at peace.

2. The solution

So now you might be hoping that we can get beyond describing the problem, and letting us in on the solution. Kelly doesn't disappoint. Here he moves from diagnosis to prescription. And that prescription is based on tuning in to the Holy Spirit within us.

Life is meant to be lived from the Center, a Divine Center. Each of us can live such a life of amazing power and peace and serenity, of integration and confidence and simplified multiplicity, on one condition – that is, if we really want to. There is a divine Abyss within us all, a Holy Infinite Center, a Heart, a Life who speaks in us and through us to the world.

We have all heard this holy Whisper at times. At times we have followed the Whisper, and amazing equilibrium of life, amazing effectiveness of living set in. But too many of us have heeded the Voice only at times. Only at times have we submitted to His holy guidance. We have not counted this Holy Thing within us to be the most precious thing in the world. We have not surrendered all else to attend to it alone. Let me repeat. Most of us, I fear, have not surrendered all else, in order to attend to the Holy Within. ...

We are all standing under the silent, watchful eye of the Holy One, whether we know it or not. And in that Center, in that holy Abyss where the Eternal dwells at the base of our being, our programs, our gifts to Him, our offerings of duties performed are again and again revised in their values. Many of the things we are doing seem so important to us. We haven't been able to say No to them, because they seem so important. But if we center down as the old phrase goes, and live in that holy Silence which is dearer than life, and take our life program into the silent places of the heart, with complete openness, ready to do, ready to renounce according to His leading, then many of the things we are doing lose their vitality for us. I should like to testify to this, as a personal experience, graciously given. There is a reevaluation of much that we do or try to do, which is done for us, and we know what to do and what to let alone.

This is an amazing promise. We are given guidance and clarity when we take the time to tune into our true Center, which is the Holy Spirit inside us. Now Kelly gets to the heart of "how it works." He is talking about a practice where we experience God's presence with us throughout the day, in the midst of other outward activity. But you will notice that he also inserts a qualifier that we might miss if we're not careful:

I should like to be mercilessly drastic in uncovering any sham pretense of being wholly devoted to the inner holy Presence, in singleness of love to God. But I must confess that it doesn't take time, or complicate your program. I find that a life of little whispered words of adoration, of praise, of prayer, of worship can be breathed all through the day. One can have a very busy day, outwardly speaking, and yet be steadily in the holy Presence. We do need a half-hour or an hour of quiet reading and relaxation. But I find that one can carry the re-creating silences within oneself, well nigh all the time.

I've highlighted the qualifying sentence here. He suggest that the day needs to be anchored with some kind of focused attention on quieting ourselves and connecting with God. He speaks of it as a "half-hour or an hour of quiet reading and relaxation." This seems to involve a combination of unwinding/relaxing, and reading or study of spiritual material to turn our minds to God. As busy and highly scheduled as many of us are, it might seem daunting to devote a half-hour (or more!) to something like this. But keep in mind that what he's referring to is not simply an extended time of hard study or discursive prayer. It's restful, relaxing. It's quiet.

And then Kelly goes on to describe in more detail what it is he's most concerned about: how we go throughout the day. His idea is that this time of quiet reading and relaxation sets us up for the rest of the day, where the bulk of our life becomes an experience of what we sometimes think of as "prayer." He begins with a reference to Brother Lawrence (another book worth reading).

With delight I read Brother Lawrence, in his "Practice of the Presence of God." It is reported of him, "he was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. 'The time of business' he said, 'does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.'" Our real problem, in failing to center down, is not lack of time; it is, I fear, into many of us, lack of joyful, enthusiastic delight in Him, lack of deep, deep-drawing love directed toward Him at every hour of the day and night.

I think it is clear that I am talking about a revolutionary way of living. Religion isn't something to be added to our other duties, and thus make our lives yet more complex. The life with God is the center of life, and all else is remodeled and integrated by it. ...

There is a way of life so hid with Christ in God that in the midst of the day's business one is inwardly lifting brief prayers, short expressions of praise, subdued whispers of adoration and of tender love to the Beyond that is within. No one need know about it. I only speak to you because it is a sacred trust, not mine but to be given to others. One can live in a well-nigh continuous state of unworded prayer, directed toward God, directed toward people and enterprises we have on our heart. There is no hurry about it all; it is a life unspeakable and full of glory, an inner world of splendor within which we, unworthy, may live. Some of you know it and live in it; others of you may wistfully long for it. It can be yours.

Finally, this is how Kelly sums up such a life. This, in the closing words of the book:

Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming. We need not get frantic. He is at the helm. And when our little day is done we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well.