In this episode, we talk about George Fox’s letter to Lady Claypole (Oliver Cromwell’s daughter), found in section 3I in Traditional Quaker Christianity. He tells her to “be still and cool in thine own mind and spirit,” because she was “very sick and troubled in mind.”
Consequently, content warning: discussion of mental illness.
Be still and cool…
Micah contrasts Fox’s advice to “be still a while from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in thee, to stay thy mind upon God, up to God” with how someone experiencing distressing thoughts would be handled in meditation. He says in meditation, you’re trying to empty your mind, so you try to let go of those distressing thoughts and all other thoughts. In contrast, Fox advises that she fix her mind upon God.
Mackenzie notes that Fox says to be still and cool and then “thou wilt feel the principle of God.” There’s a sequence suggested there. Often we talk in terms of still and quiet, as well. So, perhaps part of the advice is on not trying to skip ahead. Quiet the unwanted thoughts, then it’ll be possible to concentrate on God.
We talked about prosperity gospel in episode 14. It’s sometimes referred to as “health and wealth,” but we mostly only talked about the wealth side. Here’s where the health side, specifically mental health, comes in. This can easily veer into the same pattern much of Christianity has had of equating illness with sin. Micah points out that in the Gospel of John (chapter 9), the disciples ask Jesus whose sin caused a given man to born blind: his or his parents’? Jesus answers that nobody’s sin caused his blindness. So, there is a repudiation of that karma-style idea of “you sinned, therefore you get sick” in Scripture. We talk about how sins for which there is wide culpability, like environmental destruction, contribute to illness and death. Micah gives the traditional Christian explanation of sin being loose in the world.
Fox continues with instructing her to pay more attention to God than to the negative thoughts. His reasoning is one of fixation. This can be likened to when you sit in meeting for worship and get distracted, then next thing you know you’re thinking “don’t think about balloons. Don’t think about balloons. Don’t think about balloons. Oh no! I’m thinking about balloons!”
Is Fox’s advice good? If it’s a spiritual problem, sure. But how do you know whether it’s spiritual or chemical? Maybe cover both bases: talk to someone you trust in a spiritual sense and to someone who went to school for psychology or psychiatry.
PS: It was James Parnell, not Edward Burrough, who “was led to go to Cambridge” after finding out two Quaker women were being held prisoner. Made that mistake in the episode.
Mackenzie: Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast with Mackenzie and Micah. Today we are looking in the book Traditional Quaker Christianity at a section that basically titled Be Still and Cool. By cool, they do not mean with shades going, “Hey.”
Mackenzie: We’re going to have to get the Fonz in here. This section is like six lines of intro and then a long quote from George Fox from a letter that he wrote to Lady Claypool, who was Oliver Cromwell’s daughter. If you don’t know who Oliver Cromwell was, he was the guy in charge of England between the two English Civil Wars.
Mackenzie: After they cut off the kings head, somebody had to be in charge, so this military guy, Oliver Cromwell, was the protector of England-
Micah: Also known as dictator.
Mackenzie: Yeah, or that. Right up until he eventually he dies, and then they go, “Well, that didn’t work so great,” and they bring the king’s son in, go “Okay, we’ll have a king again, thanks.” Anyway, here is what the letter he wrote … Well, she was very sick and “Troubled in mind,” which I suppose means anxious.
Micah: She might have been, I’m just totally guessing here, because I don’t know, but it totally … It says she was very sick and troubled in mind. She might have been clinically depressed.
Mackenzie: Right, yeah, so anxiety, depression, anything along those lines.
Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mackenzie: What he writes to her is, “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit, from thy own thoughts and then thou won’t feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into staidness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.
Mackenzie: Therefore, be still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires and imaginations, and be staid in the principle of God in thee. To stay thy mind upon God, up to God and thou whilst find strength from him, and find him to be a present help in time of trouble in need, and to be a God at hand. It will keep thee humble being come to the principle of God, which hath been transgressed, there that wilt come to receive and feel the physician of value, which clothes people in their right mind, whereby they may serve God and do his will.
Mackenzie: For all distractions, distempers, unruliness, confusion are in the transgression, which transgression must be brought down before the principle of God that hath been transgressed, be lifted up, whereby the mind may be seasoned and stilled in a right understanding of the Lord, whereby his blessing enters.
Mackenzie: For all these things happen to thee for thy good and your good, to make you to know your own strength and means, and to know the Lord’s strength and power. Trust in him therefore.
Mackenzie: I’m going to stop there even though there’s another paragraph here in this book. We’re just going to talk about that part first.
Micah: Good job reading that by the way, because George Fox, I think they tidied this up a little bit for us, but George Fox and all the early … all the writers of that time, not just Quakers, their writing was difficult, because they’d have a whole paragraph and there wouldn’t be one period, it would just be semi colons, so it could be tough to know where you’re supposed to sort of pause or whatever.
Mackenzie: Yeah, and a lot of passive voice back in those days. Okay, maybe modern day English teachers telling you no passive voice, might have a point a little bit.
Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Quakers do love us some passive voice though.
Mackenzie: Yes. Well, was it Edward Burrow, I was led to go to Cambridge, you found out that there were two Quaker women being held in the stocks.
Micah: Passive voices loved by Quakers.
Mackenzie: Yes. Also loved by politicians who don’t want to take the blame. Mistakes were made.
Micah: That’s right.
Mackenzie: No, no, here’s how you say that, “I screwed up.” Anyway, getting off of the English grammar tangent.
Micah: Fox is writing to Lady Claypool and she’s depressed or sick or … she’s not in a good place. He says, “Be still and cool in your own mind and spirit, from your own thoughts, and then you’ll feel the principle of God to turn your mind to the Lord God, and from there you will receive power and strength, and that power and strength will still storms and blusterings, and shore you up and bring you to the place that you’re supposed to be.”
Micah: He goes on to say, “What you’re experiencing right now, the riled up space you’re in and the dark place you’re in, it comes from the transgression.” What I take Fox to mean by the transgression is, it comes from the broken state of humanity, and the broken relationship that we have with God.
Micah: When we’re in right relationship with God, we are brought out of darkness. Fox’s prescription for Lady Claypool is to keep her mind fixed on God and to pay attention to him and to wait for his guidance, rather than sort of running off with whatever state of mind is pestering her so badly, but to look past that to the substance of God.
Micah: It sort of reminds me actually, it’s not the same thing and I wouldn’t want to suggest a false equivalency, but there’s echos, it’s reminiscent of some of what I’ve read about Buddhist meditation in terms of, you have all these thoughts coming at you and in the case of someone who’s disturbed of mind, you have very distressing thoughts coming at you.
Micah: The goal is not to grab the thoughts or stop the thoughts, or prevent the thoughts, but just to let them go. Where this differs from Buddhist meditation is whereas the Buddhist meditator is seeking to simply let go all thoughts and keep attention focused on nothing.
Micah: Fox’s admonition is to look for the principle of God, to feel for the principle of God in your own heart and to fix on that, and stand in that as your foundation, so there is there there. There is a foundation, there is a center, but it’s not your own harmful or frivolous or distracted thoughts.
Mackenzie: The way that I sort of interpreted this was, if it is that she’s having anxious thoughts or that sort of thing. If she’s having intrusive thoughts, right, saying to sort of shut those out, the be still and cool, often we talk about still and quiet as going together, so trying to quiet her mind so that she can … It seems like it’s a … Because he says, “And then thou wilt feel the principle of God,” so that if first she can quiet her mind, then she’ll be able to get to Godly thoughts as opposed to trying to sift them out right from the beginning.
Mackenzie: I do have some trouble with this though, from a modern perspective, because the idea that somebody who is depressed or anxious just needs to pray more … Some while back we talked about that whole prosperity gospel thing. I think at the time we only mentioned the wealth side of things, but health and wealth is another way that it’s referred to, so that’s the idea that you wouldn’t be sick if it weren’t for sin right?
Mackenzie: I think that whole thing about the transgressions is bringing that up too. It has been very, very common in Christianity, as long as Christianity’s existed, to equate illness and sin. From people saying that forgiveness of sins is how Jesus did miraculous healing, right, that the person was only blind because of a sin that was in them, and that’s of course … That is not physiologically how that works.
Micah: Well, and to be clear, you bring up the example of the man born blind as an example of this. There are times, there are times-
Mackenzie: There are a lot of blind people in the New Testament.
Micah: Correct, but there are times for example when Jesus heals the man who is paralyzed and says, “Pick up your mat and walk.” The reason he gives for that … The first, what he says first is, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Some of the religious leaders that are hearing this says, “Why is he blaspheming like this? No one can forgive sins but God.” Jesus says, “So that you know that the Son of man has the power to forgive sin, which is easier? Just to tell him his sins are forgiven, or to tell him to pick up his mat and walk? But so that you know that the Son of man has authority to forgive sin,” he says to the man, “Pick up your mat, walk and go home.” And the man does, he’s healed.
Micah: In that particular case, it’s clearly connecting sin to his paralyzed condition, right? So there’s that, and that was definitely really strong in the culture at that time, the idea that sin … and cultures throughout time-
Mackenzie: So, if he’s just trying to do a show of strength to the pharisees, do you mean he’s trying to … because pharisees were saying, “Well, who are you to do this?” And he’s like, “Well look, hey, I just made the guy walk, so who do you think I am?”
Micah: Everyone including Jesus’s mind in that case there was a connection between sin and his illness, but then in the case of the man born blind, Jesus heals him and then restores his sight, and then I think it was one of Jesus’ disciples asked-
Mackenzie: I don’t remember who it was, but [crosstalk 00:10:33].
Micah: One of his disciples asked him, “So who’s sin was it that caused this man to be born blind? Was it the man himself?” Because he was born blind, so how could his sin … Was it the man or was it the parents?
Mackenzie: Right, because the sins of the parents shall be something upon the sons.
Micah: Right, so jesus’ reply was, “It was neither the sin of the man, nor of his parents, but it was so Gods glory could be shown in his life.” That’s just an interesting place where Jesus sort of breaks that narrative and says, no, like no ones individual sin caused this.
Micah: I think while there is a strong tradition in the Bible going right back to Genesis that sin is what causes death and illness. I think there is a way to accept that while still understanding that just because sin is the reason we have death and illness, that does not mean-
Mackenzie: That every single instance of death and or illness is-
Micah: … is the result of that person’s sin.
Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Micah: For example, just as an example-
Mackenzie: If you got hit by a car, it would not be because of your sin, it would be because of some drunk driver and their sin was driving drunk.
Micah: Yeah, or just another example would be, if someone dies from cancer, it might be that maybe they died because of our sin of nuclear weapons testing, you know? But anyway-
Mackenzie: Or power plants or whatever.
Micah: … but I think what it comes down to it in sort of a traditional Christian perspective, the reason that there’s sin and death in the world is not because any one of us is individually committing a particular sin, but it’s because Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God, and that introduced sin and death in the world.
Micah: You can be a perfectly nice person and not be particularly sinful, and still suffer the results of that, of our corporate, of our shared cosmic brokenness. I forget where we were at with all of this.
Micah: Oh, we were talking about the mental illness aspect and the-
Mackenzie: Right, and how there are often frankly ableist things that come out of that sort of theology, and even with so that the glory of God could be shown thing, it’s also certainly annoying to people who have disabilities, to be told, “Oh, well see, God made you disabled so that then people could learn to be nice to people like you.” No, that’s … No. Don’t say that to people.
Micah: Well I sort of took it in that particular case of Jesus, that the glory of God of being shown is him being healed.
Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right, yeah. That … I understand, but I mean this sort of everything happens for a reason [crosstalk 00:13:31] of it, yeah.
Micah: Yeah. Well I mean, I think Jesus explicitly rebukes that sort of thinking repeatedly saying, “God sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
Micah: God doesn’t give people what they deserve, otherwise everybody would be screwed.
Mackenzie: All right, so continuing on because we did not finish the quote. The next part Fox says to Lady Claypool is, “So then, this is the Word of the Lord God unto you all. Do not look at the temptations, confusions, corruptions, but at the light that discovers them, that makes them manifest.
Mackenzie: With this same light you will feel over them to receive power to stand against them, which light discovers the same light that lets you see sin and transgression will let you see the covenant of God, which blocks out your sin and transgression, which give victory and dominion over it and brings into covenant with God.
Mackenzie: For looking down at sin and corruption and distraction, you are swallowed up in it, but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. There is the first step of peace that will bring salvation, so in the name and power of the Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen thee.
Micah: There again, you see this contrast, right, between looking down at sin and being swallowed up by it, or looking up at God and being delivered from the sin and corruption. Again, sort of reminding me of there being some resemblance, some resonance with meditation practices that say don’t fixate on these distracting thoughts, or this darkness, but instead, in the case of Fox’s teaching, look to God and wait. Wait on God to come shine in the midst of your darkness and lead you.
Mackenzie: Yeah, but if you dwell on bad things then that brings you closer to them, which-
Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The more you fight it, the more entangled you get with it. Have you heard the story of the Tar Baby?
Micah: It’s like the Tar Baby, maybe some of our listeners haven’t heard of it. Basically, there’s Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.
Mackenzie: Bet I can just link it.
Micah: Yeah, definitely link it, but the story of the Tar Baby, I just love this story. Well, actually now that I think about it, I don’t know the story that well.
Mackenzie: See, this is why I’m just going to link it.
Micah: Well, let’s link it, but it’s like the Tar Baby, where in the story of the Tar Baby, basically every time the person who is engaging with the Tar Baby, they get in a fight with the Tar Baby and every time they strike the tar-
Mackenzie: And their hand gets stuck.
Micah: Yes, when they strike the Tar Baby, their hand gets stuck, so they strike it with the other hand, they strike it with the foot and finally they’re just covered in the Tar Baby, and stuck in the Tar Baby. That’s sort of how it is with sin, and even with distracting thoughts or other negative things in our lives, it’s when we try to fight them directly.
Mackenzie: What sucks when you’re sitting and waiting for worship and you have a distracting thought, and then you’re like, “Don’t think about balloons, don’t think about balloons, don’t think about balloons.” Yeah, that doesn’t work.
Mackenzie: Actually something I just thought of that’s around the same time period as this, about 50 years earlier, there’s this guy named Phillip Stubbs, who writes a book titled, “An Anatomy of Abuses, and this is like this massive rant about … and this guy is like, he’s basically a Puritan, but he’s like 50 or 100 years before the actual Puritans. He’s ranting about the ungodly things today, right?
Mackenzie: There’s a part where … This is really fantastic for me as a historical [inaudible 00:17:12], but there’s a part where he’s ranting about these ladies with their nether-stocks, which is knitted stockings as opposed to cloth stockings, that they’re wearing and dying in all sorts of vain colors like tawny and rose and brown, and he goes on at length about the ungodly and vain things these women are wearing and you’re just like, “Man.”
Micah: You’ve been paying a lot of attention.
Mackenzie: Yeah, you’ve been paying way much attention to what’s on ladies legs. Like, how about you keep your eyes to yourself huh? Especially since consider their skirts are ankle length.
Mackenzie: So, how many skirts has he been looking up to see what color their stockings are?
Micah: Do you think this is good advice that George Fox is giving to someone who’s potentially depressed?
Mackenzie: Well, I suppose that there’s some fine pastoral ministry in there, but that I’d also suggest the person go and see a doctor, because nowadays we have more advanced treatments available.
Micah: Yeah, I guess it would sort of be on a case by case basis, whether it’s more of just a chemical problem, a chemical imbalance, or whether it’s actually a spiritual problem.
Mackenzie: Well, if the person is anxious about a spiritual thing, right? Like if they’re anxious about … I don’t know if I’m saying it right, and actually several episodes back when we talked about baptism or communion, or one of those episodes, you mentioned communion being a recurring thing, and baptism being a one time thing, well actually, there is actually a thing in some portions of evangelical culture of getting baptized more than once, because what if I’m not actually saved, right?
Mackenzie: Then you get really anxious about it, “Well, just in case, I better get baptized again, in case it didn’t work the first time.” You got baptized, but you’re still sinning, so maybe the baptism didn’t work, so we got to try it again, because I don’t know, the first one was a dud. If you’re really feeling anxious about the state of your soul, then yeah, prayer and speaking to someone else who is good at pastoral ministry would certainly be appropriate, but if you’re concerned that …
Micah: Let’s be fair Mackenzie, most people who are actually having spiritual, deep spiritual wrestling’s, aren’t thinking about it in those terms and it might actually manifest as things that at first seem like maybe they’re depression. If you’re spending your life in a way that’s not what God’s calling you to, it’s not an illness to be depressed, it’s a good reaction isn’t it?
Micah: Because an appropriate reaction to be depressed is when you’re spending your life doing something that God’s not calling you to and that’s wrong.
Mackenzie: Like if you missed your calling type of thing? Or.
Mackenzie: Yeah, I mean certainly plenty of people have found things like they’re unhappy in a particular job, right? Or like, “I just really don’t feel like this is what I’m called to do. I think I really should be doing this other thing,” so they make that career change or whatever, then they’re suddenly happier.
Micah: I guess I would just say like, I think there are a lot of ways this darkness can manifest, where we might not think of it, especially in our society, we might not think of it as being spiritual, but in fact it really is something that would benefit from prayer, and doing what George Fox does in terms of not looking down at it, but looking up at Christ and waiting on God. I guess-
Mackenzie: I’m certainly not going to say that prayer would hurt, but …
Micah: Mental illness is absolutely a real thing, but I think while some religious people may be too quick to write off mental illness as a spiritual problem, I think it’s probably possible to go in the other direction and write off spiritual problems as just something, “Oh, you just need to get some Prozac.”
Mackenzie: Well, it’s probably doesn’t hurt to have a … to try to cover both bases right? If you talk to the pastoral care committee at your meeting, or have a clearance committee, or talk to the pastor at your church-
Micah: Or just talk to a friend who you think-
Micah: … is a mature person.
Mackenzie: Right, then also see a trained and professional counselor type person. If you talk to both of them, doing both of those things, it probably going to be beneficial.
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