More than 27 years ago, I stood in Carlton Hill Quaker Meeting in Leeds, West Yorkshire, and declared to my F/friends and family that I took this, my Friend Philip to be my husband,
‘promising, through divine assistance, to be unto him, a loving and faithful wife, so long as we both on earth shall live.’
The text of the declaration used in the solemnisation of marriage has changed slightly since we married in 1992, so that it can be used by couples of any gender, but the intention to be a loving and faithful spouse for as long as we both on earth shall live has not changed.
My husband and I are now both 67 years old. What I am interested in, is how can Quaker values and guidance help me to continue to live adventurously in my marriage, as we grow older and hopefully mature together?
It is often said that, as we get older, we become more interested in religion. Why that is, is not known, but one might hazard a guess that in some cases, this has to do with fears of death, and a wish for reassurance about an after-life. Quakers don’t have any teaching about an after-life. Some Quakers might believe there is one, some that there is not, and still others will, as some very dear Friends now departed once told me, accept the uncertainty and decide to focus on doing the best they can in this life, because this might be the only chance we have to live our best life (as opposed to hoping to earn a place in heaven through good deeds).
There may be other reasons why spirituality is more possible as we get older. As a grandparent, I find myself watching the young people in our family, struggling to hold down full time, demanding jobs and raise the next generation, and I am reminded of how little time I had at that stage in my life for contemplation. Now, of course, I have plenty of time to write this sort of blog post, to sit in silence, to feel my connection to all life and to experience the wonders of nature. I feel blessed.
But spirituality, and in particular perhaps Quaker spirituality, is not all about being blissed out, or doing good deeds. It is also about living adventurously, and that means being open to the leadings of the Spirit wherever they may take us. It means being prepared to give up what is comfortable, to take responsibility for being the change we seek.
When it comes to marriage, I am guessing I am not alone in admitting I have not always stepped up to the plate in being the loving wife I promised to be. So what guidance can I find, in order to help me to become the change I seek?
Quakers claim not to have a creed, but that doesn’t mean we shy away from having a few guidelines on how to live our lives. One of the key ideas in Quakerism was articulated by George Fox, who started the whole Quaker movement in 1652, 300 years before I was born. In 1656, he urged us to:
‘Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.’ (Quaker Faith and Practice, 1.02)
It is this last bit, answering that of God in everyone, that I want to pause and reflect on further. If I respond to that of God in my spouse, then I am bound to see their divinity. It behoves me to look beyond whatever is happening in the moment, and see the pure light that shines within them, honouring and loving that. If I am caught up in what I like or don’t like about their behaviour, their choices, their clashes with what I think and feel, surely I am not in that moment answering that of God in them (or in myself). This has been a lightbulb moment for me, and leads me to a question:
Next time I feel irritated, want to get my point across about something or take my spouse for granted, can I press pause, and focus on that of God in me, meeting that of God in him?
Next, I’d like to turn to the Quaker testimonies: Equality and Justice; Peace; Truth and Integrity; Simplicity and Sustainability. How can each of these help me, as I age (and hopefully mature), and as my marriage matures, to continue to live adventurously within my marriage?
Put simply, Quakers believe everyone is equal. That means my views and needs are no more, nor less important than those of my spouse. This can be a hard one to live out. I know there are times when I can get pig-headed and opinionated, and want things my own way! I am no wallflower. I am not the sort of woman who easily bends to the needs of others. What would help me to live out the testimony to equality is the very thing I have already examined, concerning that of God in everyone. When I focus on that, the contest between my needs and the needs of the other should, at least in theory, disappear.
The peace testimony is often associated with a pacifist stance and the refusal to engage in military action, but it goes much deeper than that. Once more, this comes down to ‘our belief that love is at the centre of existence and that all human life is of equal worth’ (https://www.quaker.org.uk/about-quakers/our-values). All roads seem to lead back to this central idea, that we are equal, and that this equality derives from our shared divine spark.
A commitment to truth and integrity demands of me that I don’t shy away from speaking about difficult subjects, and that I am honest and fair with my spouse. Phew! This is one that I find relatively easy, not least because before we even got into a relationship we sat down and agreed three things. The first was that our children come first (we already had two each), the second was complete honesty, and the third that if we felt at any stage the relationship had become destructive, we would end it. I learned a valuable lesson in honesty when I was very young. I found a threepenny bit on the carpet, and immediately took it to my father, assuming it was his property. He gave it back to me, a reward and reinforcement for my honesty.
Finally, simplicity and sustainability is not just about avoiding waste and excess. It is also about finding ‘space for the things that really matter: the people around us, the natural world, and our experience of stillness’ (https://www.quaker.org.uk/about-quakers/our-values). It is also, arguably, about not over-complicating relationships. I know I have a tendency to over-complicate, and my spouse is really good at getting to the point, cutting through the dross and seeing the wood for the trees. Solutions to problems can be elegant in their simplicity.
So here is my second challenge:
Next time I or we perceive a problem that affects us both, whether it is clearing out our DVDs or reconciling different viewpoints, can I, or we both spend some time in nature or stillness, seeking the elegant and simple solution?
I am sure there is more I could do, to live adventurously as we grow older together, but I am excited by the guidance being a Quaker offers me.