Some Thoughts On “Don’t Do This” and “Do Only That!”

Last week I received an email from Friend John Edminster that spoke of his “skeptical but fascinated” scrutiny in years past of A Course in Miracles, a phenomenon that became popular with a number of Liberal Friends beginning in the ‘80s, and whose following has continued into the present-day. Recently John had received an email in a mass mailing that told of the death of Judith Skutch Whitson (1931—2021), one of the founders of the organization that published A Course in Miracles. As a result, John was led to revisit some of the tenets of this belief system and wrote about one of them in his latest essay “Do Only That?”1 In that essay, John quotes the following lesson from A Course in Miracles:

A wise teacher teaches through approach, not avoidance. He does not emphasize what you must avoid to escape from harm, but what you need to learn to have joy. Consider the fear and confusion a child would experience if he were told, “Do not do this because it will hurt you and make you unsafe; but if you do that instead, you will escape from harm and be safe, and then you will not be afraid.” It is surely better to use only three words: “Do only that!” This simple statement is perfectly clear, easily understood and very easily memorized.2

The concluding paragraphs from John’s essay reflect upon this proposal to use only positive injunctions (Do only that!) when teaching the path to joy, and to eliminate admonitory restrictions (Don’t do this!) that are intended to keep from harm. In the final two paragraphs of John’s essay, he considers whether the right course requires the use of one or both of these injunctions:

After reading this, I wandered through the next few hours of my day asking the Lord, “Is this what You’re asking of me, to direct people only to the positive side of Your teachings, like ‘Love one another,’ ‘Love your enemies,’ and ‘Forgive everyone their trespasses’?” I was all but ready to silence my own impulses to warn people against damning themselves, for, even though I believe that people knowingly do much evil, and that we must all reap what we’ve sowed, I was starting to think myself a fool for believing that anyone might listen to “Don’t do this!” who couldn’t hear me calling “Do only that!” Why not try being Christ’s flower-child?

What brought me to my senses was my remembering the many recorded warnings of Jesus, such as His powerful conclusions in Luke 13:3 and 13:5 (nrsv): “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” So I intend to continue to warn people against doing “lesser evils,” “necessary evils,” telling “white lies,” “doing evil, that good may come” (see Romans 3:8), calling evil good, and good evil (Isaiah 5:20), and in general hardening their hearts against their fellow creatures in order to continue living selfishly. There is a bondage to evil that we fallen ones won’t likely escape unless we can hear the Savior calling “Don’t do this!” as well as His blessed “Do only that!”

After having read John’s essay and email, I responded to him with the following:

Your email from yesterday brought up an idea that has been floating around my mind for a few days. I’d read your [essay] . . . on Facebook but hadn’t felt the clarity to respond. Additionally, last night in Bible study, we examined the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, and the same thought occurred that I’d been sensing as I read your essay. . . . Our tradition uses both admonitions (1) “don’t do this” and (2) “do only that” to move us from worldly (first-birth) into the heavenly (second-birth) consciousness, which is the conclusion you came to in your essay.  

Before we know the second birth, we have only our first-birth consciousness, which is hell-bent on making life good for ourselves. All the self-indulgent behaviors and ambitions (as well as the ideals, virtues, and innocent joys of life) are ways we go about trying to make life good. As we know nothing better and this can consume the entirety of our lives, we need the admonition “don’t do this.” The “don’t do this” alerts us (hopefully) to the futility of this way of being and specifically to avoid corruption/deceit. On a macro-scale, the Law of Moses was the Grand Inhibitor to first-birth methods of acquiring the good life! The Law of “thou shalt not,” or “don’t do this,” puts the brakes on the first-birth way of life. Jesus then refines the admonition when he states Moses’s Law is insufficient: “except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20).

Even pursuit of righteousness through ideals and virtues cannot bring us into the Kingdom. A diligent pursuit of righteousness . . . [a]s you indicated in your email . . . is not enough. Behaving virtuously and imitating Christ doesn’t give us the Kingdom of peace that we need. And we simply cannot do the things we’re admonished to do: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you . . . [t]hat ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Mt.5:44-45): [a few of] the “do only that” admonitions. 

Only the second birth is given power to perform the “do only that” commands. But we’re given these impossible commands in order to teach us of our incapacity and need. Paul’s state described in the Romans 7:24 passage, namely the “O wretched man that I am!” passage illustrates the place to which we’re to come: the final stage of first-birth suffering. The tradition is set up to make us keenly aware of our need for God, to make our lives unbearable without him, in fact, to raise our consciousness to the level of suffering that comes with dying to the self: the cross within. I think you know all this; this inward growth is essential and apparently not understood [or practiced] by many.

The admonition to “do only that” is [intended] to elicit the awareness of need for the power of God. Once we’re truly in that condition, God can work with us. We can’t follow “do only that” commands without Christ, the power of God (Jn. 15:5). The worldly usually think someone is full of pride if claiming to know this power (“whom makest thou thyself?” [Jn.8:53]), but it is utter humility – unknown to the worldly – that precedes receiving the gospel, the power of God.

Not only is this the predominant theme of the tradition, but it’s also stated in single Bible verses.  Matthew 6:12 is one such verse: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Our only hope of fully forgiving our debtors (I’m referring not solely to finances but to the many ways others can impact our well-being) is to know that our treasure in heaven is not subject to thievery or corruption (Mt. 6:19), and having been given that treasure, i.e., having life eternal, we are immune to loss from such “debtors” or detractors. As we are inwardly assured of Christ’s Presence—that nothing has been or could be lost—-we have nothing to forgive, which is another way of saying, we forgive our debtors, knowing their worldly ways and means are of no account. So much of Scripture is to inform us of this possibility of entering a way of life that has overcome our initial ignorance of and separation from God, and to urge us toward receiving the way of life He alone provides.

1 John writes in his email to me: “Do Only That?” . . . describes my inner processing of what I’d read on that page in A Course in Miracles, which led me from wavering skepticism to outright rejection of at least one of its tenets. And if one of its corner-posts is on a sandy foundation, I think that that house will not stand. But I may yet find sand under other of its corner-posts, too, and find words to name it.” (I’m hoping to add a link to John’s essay titled “Do Only That?” in the near future, and will provide it in the comment section.)

2 John provides information on this excerpt’s location in the text: “The page in the 2007 Third Edition of Combined Volume of A Course in Miracles on which (T-6.V-A) appears is page 104. A bit higher on that page I read a paragraph numbered 3.”

Rev. 12:13-14, Manuscript from France 1290-1299, The Morgan Library and Museum
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Righteousness Fulfilled: Some Observations on the Third Chapter of the Book of Matthew

[R]eligion is a pure stream of righteousness flowing from the image of God, and is the life and power of God planted in the heart and mind by the law of life, which bringeth the soul, mind, spirit, and body to be conformable to God, the Father of spirits, and to Christ; so that they come to have fellowship with the Father and the son, and with all his holy angels and saints. —George Fox1

Upon entering the cathedral of Pisa on a visit to that city 20 years ago, and walking a short distance along the nave toward the altar, I came across two small bronze sculptures, directly across from one another on either side of the center aisle. As I recall, each free-standing sculpted figure was about two feet high and placed on a small pedestal that brought the piece to eye level. On the right stood John the Baptist, and on the left, Jesus. As the two works had been made by the same artist in the same material and style, and placed directly across the nave one from the other, they stood in mirror-like relationship. Thus the art conveyed the theological idea that Jesus and John the Baptist are alike, and yet different.

In the third chapter of Matthew, the characters of John the Baptist and Jesus together work to convey an idea: the righteous stance of man is prelude to the divine nature of Christ. Where we are in our first-birth, earthly nature can – and must – be moved into the second-birth, the heavenly nature. In its layout, chapter 3 is structured to illustrate this idea: the beginning verses are given to John, the prophet born of woman (11:11), and the ending verses to Jesus, the “beloved Son,” born of God (17).   

In the first few verses of this chapter, we learn about the Baptist: how he lives and what he does. John stations himself in the wilderness, and what he wears and eats is of little concern to him (4). In the silence of solitude, away from society’s pursuits and distractions, he attends to the inward claim upon him, rather than the outward clamor around him. John’s work is to prepare the way of the Lord (3), and so he preaches: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (2).” His call to repentance is not some meager scolding to elicit remorse or sadness for a misstep, but a challenge to recalibrate the inward vantage point of one’s being.

The focus of the narrative widens to include John’s placement in and effect upon society. Verse 3 has settled him securely within the history of Israel: he is the prophet foretold by the prophet Isaiah, who envisioned John’s ministry to the society of his day.2 Both city and country folk flock to him in his solitary abode: responding to his call, confessing their sins, and seeking the change his baptism signifies. John draws people to righteousness and holiness . . . but not all people.

In chapter 2, the wise men from the east came to worship the new king, while Herod attempted to slay him. In chapter 3, clear lines are again drawn between those who respond favorably to the appearance of the righteous, and those who do not. In verses 5 through 10, a distinction is made between the receptive folk of “all Judea”(5) and the venomous Pharisees and the Sadducees (7). By the time this group arrives at the Jordan, they have been sized up by John and given no opportunity to speak, no chance to strike (7). Their “religion” has come from their association with others: “We have Abraham to our father”(9), they say within themselves. Relying on the pedigree of one’s social or historical connection, however, is not the substance of true religion. Rather, as stated by Fox, “religion is a pure stream of righteousness flowing from the image of God.” Each of these two diametric dispositions produces its own commensurate fruit, and John informs the hypocrites, they will be like trees “hewn down, and cast into the fire”(10).  

The first 12 verses of the chapter have prefaced the primary theme: divine nature comes to those who accept the responsibility of knowing themselves to be created in the image of the righteous God.

As we near the end of the narrative, we see the two main figures – John and Jesus – for a moment inhabiting a kind of stasis or a state of equilibrium where John (none greater born of women [11:11]), having ascended to his highest potential, hovers, as Jesus, the heavenly man, readies himself to receive Sonship. It is a touching moment of beauty, where the nobility of the human spirit is seen and quietly appreciated. A sweet exchange ensues between the two over who will baptize whom. Each defers to the other, not as polite nicety but that their course of action may be rightly ordered. For both men recognize righteousness to be their rule: the single and only pathway that leads from earth to heaven, from the earthly nature into the divine. “For thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness”(15), Jesus reasons with John, and John, in righteousness, obeys the one who is “mightier than [he]”(11).

The final verses of this third chapter of Matthew display the culminating moment to which all that has passed before has led: here is man transformed into his divine nature. John the Baptist had risen to the peak of human capacity, and from that point, Jesus, now baptized, continues upward in straight, righteous ascent: he “went up straightway out of the water” to find “the heavens were opened unto him”(16). That is to say, in Jesus Christ, God reveals Himself to man. In love to humanity, the Spirit of God descends and lights upon us (16), and in this revelation, we are given to know the divine nature present within. Through receiving the Spirit/Word of God, the rightness of being is known unequivocally and in fullness, and confirmed extant forever. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

1 The Works of George Fox (Philadelphia: Marcus T. C. Gould, 1831), 1:411. 

2 As in the previous chapter, the narrator asserts Jewish tradition confirms the new.  

   

Statue of John the Baptist, Baptistery, The Duomo, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy
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Sifting the Heart: Some Observations on the Second Chapter of Matthew

To believe that wherever the true Gospel is proclaimed with power, men will open their hearts without further difficulty, is a mistaken optimism. Rather, a living proclamation of the Gospel often sifts the hearts of men, and the more powerful the message the more violent is the hostility of the powers of darkness. Hence it is precisely those Christians who have the deepest Christian experience, who have the greatest personal experience of the reality of the power of Darkness. — Emil Brunner1

Brunner’s assertion that “a living proclamation of the Gospel often sifts the hearts of men” is illustrated in the second chapter of Matthew. Here is a story that focuses on the contrasting responses to Jesus’s birth: the response of Herod the king is contrasted to that of the wise men from the east. This topic of differing reactions to the appearance of Christ occurs very early in Matthew’s gospel, immediately after the genealogy and description of the circumstances of the birth. That these opposite reactions hold a prime position at the beginning of this book suggests their matter is of foremost relevance when considering Jesus’s purpose in coming into the world: his appearing acts as a catalyst that precipitates reaction or movement in man at the most profound level, the level at which his life is orchestrated and determined.

As did the characters in this story, each of us must answer the question posed by Christ’s coming into the world: Is this new being worthy of worship, or is he to be rejected and destroyed? Confronted with this dilemma, each from his inmost heart will declare his fealty: whether to God, or to Satan; whether to Truth or to deceit; whether to good or to evil; to life or to death; to Being or to nothingness. The power of God has come into our midst, and we can no longer entertain a clouded, indeterminate awareness; Christ the light reveals what darkness has hidden.

Verses 1 and 2 introduce the main characters – Herod and the wise men – and the contrasts between them are immediately evident. Herod is king of Judaea where the birth occurs, and the wise men have come from the distant east. Coming from another land, they have news that Herod, who sits as king in control of his provincial domain, does not have; for knowledge of Christ does not arise from the narrow localized self; it comes from another place. Interpreted, knowledge of Christ does not arise from earthly man; it is given from heaven, which is far from the earthly, and “a better country”(Heb. 11:16).

Whereas the wise men, recognize the new-born king as worthy of their journeying and their worship, Herod (and all his domain with him) are troubled by the news of the birth of the “King of the Jews”(3). In fear of being displaced by the new king, Herod marshalls his resources, calling together his priests and scribes, who correctly identify Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah.2

Herod relies on a different source for his information than do the wise men: he turns to prophetic writings to learn where the birth is to take place (Mc. 5:2). By contrast, the wise men rely on the heavenly portent – the star – to locate the place of birth. That is to say, the earthly one looks to the written record of the past, while the wise ones look to the light of heaven. The earthly have a preserved, static record to inform them, while the wise turn to the active and present light for guidance.

Though Herod can place the location of the birth, he cannot know the time, for time is a medium of change, and Herod only has access to the inert words of history. Therefore he asks the wise ones, “what time the star appeared”(7). This cooperative exchange of information of the birth’s location and time suggests the two parties share a common intent, and Herod exploits that false assumption by requesting the wise ones reveal the child’s whereabouts once he’s been found, “that I may come and worship him also”(8). Herod’s intent is not to worship (6) but to destroy (16), and with this act of deceit, Herod declares his fealty to death and the devil.  In pursuing the death of the Christ through ordaining the death of the innocents (16), it is inevitable and just that it is Herod himself who dies in this story (19). So dies the soul of any who act in deceit.

The wise ones, having departed from Herod, follow the light of heaven to the new birth. We are told, the star “stood over where the young child was”(9), which is to say the light is a reliable guide that leads its followers to a place where it rests over and upon the new birth. It is a place of rest, discovered within, where we, too, may “rejoice[d] with exceeding great joy”(10). As Herod’s act of deceit declared his dark conspiracy with evil, the wise ones’ actions – in contrast – demonstrate their fealty to the new King. They have traveled to a new place; they have sought and found; they have rejoiced, worshipped, and offered their gifts. Unlike Herod, they continue to live throughout the remainder of the story, having wisely “departed into their own country another way”(12), a way unknown to the Herods of the world.

In departing to “their own country” (their true home), the wise are given heavenly direction, this time coming from a dream. As there were four Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in this story, there are likewise four dreams that offer direction, again showing a continuity and balance between old and the new: between what has been given by God formerly and what is presently given now. Each dream directs a change of location: the wise men are to return to their country by a different way; Joseph is to take his family to Egypt; and once Herod is dead, he’s directed by the same angel to bring them back to Israel (20). Once in Israel, Joseph dreams of God’s warning and turns aside to settle in Nazareth. Thus the story ends with a fulfilled prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Judg. 13:5).

This early chapter in Matthew sets the stage for more particular explorations of the themes it’s introduced. Foremost is the message that the arrival of Christ upon earth will sift the heart of each person, resulting in either one’s salvation or one’s condemnation. Respectively, the heart will know life and joy; or it will remain captivated by fear, rage, and death: one or the other will result; there are no exemptions nor obfuscations to be had. Secondly, that although past prophecy has validity, its efficacy and influence is now superseded by the present, active light of heaven, which is Christ. Finally, this chapter’s end note and destination tells us the true Light/Word is now become flesh, and is, in fact, “a Nazarene”(23). Previewed in this chapter are the consequences that result from the momentous event of the new birth, the coming of the Lord. We are prepared to read on.

Emil Brunner. The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 145.

2As to the birthplace, the two sources (prophetic writings [5] and the star [9]) agree: both indicate Bethlehem. Thus – the narrator is telling us – the Jewish Scriptures confirm Jesus as the Messiah. Of the four canonical gospels, the book of Matthew is considered to be the most Jewish, emphasizing the validity of the Law and the prophets and asserting Christ Jesus’s rightful position within the tradition. In addition to the prophecy naming Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah (the ruler of the people Israel [6]), this chapter contains three additional references to Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in Jesus: these are found in verses 15, 18, and 23. Written between 70 and 80 A.D., the book of Matthew exemplifies a Jewish-Christian perspective.  

Adoration of the Magi, c.a.1320 Giotto
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Right Use of Our Tradition (Some Observations on Mark 12:18-34)

[A]nd many may have the Scriptures, and yet be very ignorant of, and strangers to, God’s Holy Spirit; as the Jews were, who had them read in their synagogues every sabbath day, and yet Christ told them, “Ye neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” (Penington, Works, III, 284)

The words Penington quotes (“Ye neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.”) are from a passage in chapter 12 of Mark in which the Sadducees confront Jesus with their intent to deny the doctrine of resurrection. They, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe it possible to rise from the dead, and they make their case to Jesus by posing a comic scenario through which they subtlely suggest the doctrine of resurrection is likewise ridiculous. Relying upon their knowledge and sophistry, the Sadducees appear to be satisfied with their way of using the tradition. In verses 19-23, they challenge Jesus:

Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man’s brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed. And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise. And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? For the seven had her to wife.

Jesus responds by diving deep below the surface of their silly question to reveal the error that had enabled them to ask it, namely, the words Penington quoted: “[They] neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” After identifying the underlying cause of their ignorance (and after delivering a short lesson on the status of those risen to new life [25]), Jesus proceeds to refute the Sadducees’ “argument” against resurrection. His means of doing so mocks their self-assured but limited vision that Scripture’s truth can be discovered by reason alone. And beyond that, Jesus seems to be having fun at the Sadducees’ expense, for his manner of refuting their argument precisely mirrors their own attitude and technique in presenting it: Jesus likewise begins with a reference to Moses, and then echoes the Sadducees’ flamboyant confidence by implying his logic is so obvious and unassailable that he also needn’t make the reasoning explicit. He says:

And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err (26-27).

In his brief retort, Jesus uses two syllogisms to make his point. As both are implied, I’ve deconstructed them to reveal the logic of his argument:  

Syllogism #1

1st premise: If God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;

2nd premise: And, if God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living,

Conclusion: Then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living.

Syllogism #2

1st premise: If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living;

2nd premise: And if they have physically died,

Conclusion: Then there is resurrection from the dead.

Using logic, Jesus has adeptly, cleverly beaten the Sadducees at their own game. The Sadducees’ method of interpretating Scripture is to strip words of spiritual meaning and then subject their lifeless husks to the overbearing rule of reason. The Sadducees would claim truth is served thereby, and that they – as literalistic logic-choppers – are the master purveyors of it.

Jesus does believe in resurrection but not as a result of the argument he’s presented, which is as specious as the original question the Sadducees posed. Resurrection, as a concept, cannot be proved or denied by means of logic, emotion, study, sophistry, will, or presumption. Neither can it be understood before one has come into the knowledge of God (Jn. 17:3); it is Christ inwardly known who is the resurrection and the life (Jn. 11:25). C. S. Lewis shows the limits of intellect when he states:  

What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything (A Preface to Paradise Lost).   

Had the Sadducees asked a genuine question, they would have received a genuine answer, as does the scribe in subsequent passage (28-34). The scribe has asked: “Which is the first commandment of all”? (28), and Jesus answers him:

The first of all the commandments is Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment (29-30).

Jesus refers to the Law given by Moses (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), which calls the individual to rightly order his life, to gather his whole inward being (heart, soul, mind, strength) to one end: to love God.  To prepare the individual to receive heaven’s master, integrating principle of life is the Law’s purpose, and Jesus echoes this intent by gathering the Law’s many particulars into one commandment.

Right use of the Law is primarily to guide Man toward integrated wholeness (perfection); the Sadducees recognize a different primary use for the Law: the promotion of social order. The Law becomes a means to order society through regulating social behavior and relations. Their nonsensical hypothesis of the seven brothers with one wife speaks to their need to define right relationships between and among people: “Whose wife shall she be”? they ask. That resurrection could pose an unresolvable absurdity in social relations is for them sufficient reason to discount it altogether as a doctrine of faith.

In addition to misapplying the Law, the Sadducees fragment it into minute particulars. For them, ethical life consists of fidelity to whatever precepts or duties are prescribed for particular situations. Their approach fragments moral life into something like a paint-by-number picture: when all the tiny, separate spaces have been filled with the prescribed color, there’s an image, but it lacks creativity and life, just as the Sadducees observance of the Law – point by point – lacks the Life the Creator would have us know.

The Sadducees fragment the Law, and their hypothetical resurrection story trivializes it. Neither the fragmented nor the trivial is found in Jesus’s answer to the scribe’s question: “Which is the first commandment of all?” (28) Jesus repeats Deuteronomy 6:4-5 in all its dignified formality. In so answering the scribe’s question with the original formal language given by Moses, Jesus affirms the tradition is to be revered; it stands as a repository of impermeable, sacred Truth. In his own words, the scribe recapitulates the statement he’s heard. He thereby models the right approach to Scripture and tradition, as he is “duly applying them to [his] own state[s]” as George Fox wrote in his journal (Nickalls, 31). With the truth of Scripture resonating in his soul, the scribe can rely upon his own less formal speech to affirm what the tradition has held in keeping for him and for all. Having heard the scribe join with this commandment, Jesus can encourage him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God” (34).

There is one more point Jesus makes about the tradition and the need to have its precepts live within one’s own being. This point is brought forward in verse 31:

And the second [commandment] is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

In adding this second commandment to the first given by Moses, Jesus provides an example of continuing revelation. When the Holy Spirit – that which has given us the tradition – is known, it will lead us whither it will into new understanding. Though new understanding can arise, it will be of a piece with the old, for both new and old arise from the same source, the same Holy Spirit of Truth. Says Jesus in preface to this new commandment: “And the second [commandment] is like” [unto the first] (31). Such continuity can only be revealed; it cannot be produced, for its mark is so delineated and refined as to be inimitable as life itself, for that is what it is.

These two stories in the book of Mark (the encounter with the Sadducees [18-27] and the exchange with the scribe [28-34]) are back-to-back for this reason: they contrast right and wrong use of the Scriptures of our tradition. Wrong use is displayed by the Sadducees: spurious imposters who meddle with religion – employing worldly means and seeking worldly gain. Right use is evident in the scribe who shows the Scriptures’ precepts to have become inherent to his being. The way Scriptures and the tradition are used – rightly or wrongly – is the end result of that which begins with character: that is, whether the drawings of Truth are heeded (Jn. 6:44), or whether they are ignored and scorned. The two stories show the result of each choice. Additionally, these stories contrast Jesus’s evaluation and response to these different natures: taunting mockery to the Sadducees or earnest encouragement to the scribe.

It is the authentic, devoted seeker who speaks genuinely in simplicity of heart, who alone comes into the knowledge and kingdom of God. It is he who will be resurrected to new life; it is he who will come to affirm the tradition and sustain its vitality; and it is she who will come to read and understand the Scriptures “with profit and great delight” (Nickalls, 32).   

For he that knows truth, that hath received from God the thing the Scriptures speak of, how easy is it to him to understand the words that speak of that thing! But he who hath the knowledge of the thing but from the words, how easy is it for him to misunderstand the words! (Penington, Works, IV, 27)

The Raising of Lazarus, 1642 Rembrandt
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Mind the Oneness

God hath given ability to every one according to their measure, (that are faithful to it,) and here is the righteousness of God received, and the wrath of God revealed upon the children of disobedience (Works, VII, 58).

On Seventh month, the 18th, six Friends met to read and discuss George Fox’s Epistle 46, which is found in the 1831 edition of Fox’s Works in volume 7, pages 58 and 59. Fox begins this epistle with a call to “unity, which is in the light”(58). It is Christ alone who gives faith, and all to whom this faith is given are in unity one with another. In minding the light, we are kept out of the world, “out of darkness [and brought] into the everlasting day.” The remainder of the two-page epistle contrasts the person “that loves the light [and] brings his deeds to the light”(58) with the people that “love darkness rather than light”(59).

Our discussion begins at 6:25 with several observations on the light’s activity within the soul. One participant then noticed that God’s love (although the first of Himself that God reveals to us) went unmentioned in this epistle. This topic of His love appeared at intervals throughout our discussion. The beginning theme of unity was picked up at 26:09 with a reading from Barclay’s Apology (Prop. 10, sect. 2) on the nature of the Church. The true Church – or Ecclesia – is comprised of those who have been called out of the world to enter into life in Christ, and in them alone is found the true unity. Defining “grace” occupied our discussion beginning at 42:16. At 53:14, one participant wonders about the causative relationship between putting the letter for the light and the perverseness that follows: putting darkness for light, evil for good. Here Fox writes of this reversal:

And it is thou, that puttest the letter for the light, which was given from the light, from them that walked in the light; but thou hating the light given thee, thou knowest not the conditions of them that had the light, but puttest darkness for light, and light for darkness; and so wo rests upon thee! It is thou that puttest evil for good, and the wo rests upon thee! (59)

Epistle 46 largely focuses on the contrasting conditions found in souls, according to which of two opposing forces rules within: 1) Christ, our righteousness, or 2) the devil, “a liar” and “murderer from the beginning”(Jn. 8:44). Fox ends this epistle with these words of warning:

And this light shall be thy condemnation, when the book of conscience is opened, which should exercise your conscience, which will condemn you. And the wrath of God abides upon the children of disobedience (59).   

NFF discussion 7/18/21
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He Is Gone Before

So, every one must witness Christ born in them passing through death to him, through the world, through the law, through temptations, through the wilderness, and out of the world; and the son of God ye will witness to arise, who doth overcome, who was born of God. And the same spirit, that raised up Jesus Christ, the same spirit raiseth you up, and quickeneth your mortal bodies; and he that hath not the same, is none of his (The Works of George Fox (1831), VII, 56).

On Sixth month, the 20th, nine gathered to read and discuss George Fox’s Epistle 45, which begins on page 54 of volume 7. In this epistle, Fox concerns himself with “the heirs of the kingdom of God, and how Christ was, and his saints are tempted”(54). He begins this piece by identifying the heirs of the kingdom of God as those who “live out of the kingdom of the wicked world . . . following after Christ (54): beginning in “Egypt, the house of darkness,” passing through the wilderness temptations, suffering the cross and “contradiction of sinners”(55), and “ascend[ing] above all principalities and powers.” It is the same today as ever it was, Fox affirms: “the same world . . . the same temptations, and the same devil, and the same vain worship of the world, twining into another form and colour”(55). Thus Fox presents a worldview that is centered on the Christ-assisted soul heroically passing through the deceitful, demonic forces of the world that are intent upon preventing the soul’s progress toward the Kingdom where peace and righteousness are enjoyed.

And all who can witness the second birth, and are born again, know the promises of God in and to the seed are yea and amen; and ye coming out of that which was in time, ye come up to God, who was before time was. This is a mystery, he that can receive it let him; and he that hath an ear to hear it, let him hear what the spirit saith. Abel was the second birth, he was no murderer, nor no sinner; for God called him (57).

Our discussion begins at 11:40 with a brief look at Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, and from there to parsing a key sentence denoting the Way of Christ toward his (and our) reward. An examination of verses Hebrews 2:10 and 12:3 engages several participants beginning at 20:35 in the recording. Openness to receive Christ finds metaphors in “gate” and “door,” as well as “birth,” each brought forward at various points in our discussion. At 32:45 is a distinction made between proactive and reactive approaches to obtaining Christ. Synonyms for the word “darkness” are listed beginning at 37:45. The necessity of becoming aware of what needs to change within is addressed at 45:00. At 49:52 in the recording, one participant recognizes this spiritual endeavor in which we’re engaged is a “life and death” struggle. Throughout this epistle, Fox upholds the difference between those who are born of God and those who know not God (57).

And “he that is born of God overcomes the world”; he that is born of God, is not of this world. . . . He that committeth sin is of the devil, and hath not seen God at any time. Hereby are the children of God made manifest from the children of the devil; for he that sins is of the devil, and knows not God (57).

The recording has been edited to reduce silence between speakers.

NFF discussion 6/20/21
The Tribute Money, 1420s Masaccio
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Real vs. Image

So the Lord’s power being over all, Friends were refreshed therein (The Works of George Fox, I, 393).

On Sixth month, the 12th, three Friends met to continue our New Foundation Fellowship monthly study of George Fox’s journal, and in this session, we read from volume 1, pages 391-394. The time was 1659; Fox had returned to London from his travels to “many counties in the Lord’s service” where “many were convinced”(391). At the beginning of the passage, Fox speaks of a vision of London he’d had “long before,” of the city lying “in heaps,” and of then seeing that vision realized several years later when fire had ravaged the city.  

Fox’s work in London was to lay before the city’s influential a charge of “backsliding, hypocrisy, and treacherous dealing”(392), and the majority of this three-page journal passage is comprised of a scathing letter addressed to “the several powers.” Following his work in London, Fox’s spirit was drawn to Friends in western England, and he briefly describes meetings in those parts as “precious,” “blessed,” and “great”(393). Our reading concluded with a description of “a wicked man [who] put a bear’s skin on his back, and undertook with that to play pranks in the meeting,” and who shortly thereafter met with a gory but just end. Fox attributes the man’s demise to “divine vengeance,” and writes he would have such examples “teach others to beware”(394).

Our discussion begins at 9:38 with a look at Fox’s vision of destruction in London. Then follows one participant’s recounting of intimations of future events that he’d received over the years. From there, our discussion centers on the mystery of time, and inferences drawn from experiential insight into eternity (16:27). Issues of apostacy and idolatry occupy much of the discussion from 27:20 through 47:50: the conceptual image replacing the thing itself; doctrines supplanting experience; and the mind’s reflection usurping substance: all maneuvers that presage a soul given to idolatry. At 47:55, reference is made to Lewis Benson’s affirmation of “the outsider” as necessary to the gospel endeavor, this prompting a line of thought that leads to naming the primacy of the relationship with Christ, not the social group. Concluding our discussion is a personal story followed by a summary of the main gist of our discussion: the mutual exclusivity ever-present between idolatry and faith in Christ, the Substance: the latter being where true happiness is found.

Hence all their thinking has ended in futility, and their misguided minds are plunged in darkness. They boast of their wisdom, but they have made fools of themselves, exchanging the splendour of immortal God for an image (Rom. 1:22-23 NEB).

The recording has been edited to reduce periods of silence between speakers.

NFF discussion 6/12/21

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Wisdom’s Gate

But in the light of God all wait, which will bring you to see where wisdom’s gate is; the fear of the Lord is the beginning of it. Pure wisdom is let out of the treasury into the pure heart, which sees God; and fearing the living God, it keeps the heart pure and clean, to receive the wisdom from the treasury freely, who doth not upbraid. And as ye depart from evil and iniquity, he breaks the bonds by showing mercy; and then the understanding grows pure and clear (Works, VII, 54).

On Fifth month, the 16th, nine people met to read and discuss Fox’s Epistle 44. In this epistle, written in 1653, Fox calls Friends to wait for the power to unify them into one spiritual body. Our discussion begins at 3:58 in the recording and centers on the distinct, significant change that occurs in man as he is given the light of Christ, and thereby enabled to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Discussion on the meaning of the phrase “baptizes into one body” (53) follows, starting at 13:36. The conversation then moves into the topic of our tradition’s increasingly refined standards of righteousness, which direct us toward the mind of Christ, the wisdom of God. The final standard and beginning of wisdom has been found to be the fear the Lord (starting at 22:38). A passage from Penington is read at 36:55:

The pure fear, the holy fear, the heavenly fear, which is of a clean and heavenly nature, and endureth for ever, is also in this seed. The child-like fear is in the nature of the child; and the more it grows in the true child-like nature, the more it grows in this kindly fear, wherein there is no torment, but the pure pleasure of life, and of holy obedience to the Father of life. The child-like fear is a promise of the new covenant; and given to the children of the new covenant, by virtue of the new covenant; God putting it into their hearts from the seed of life springing up in them, which preserves them from departing from the Lord (Works, IV, 343).

At 45:10 there is a moving personal testimony on the ordinary moments in which the Lord manifests himself to us through his mercy and love, allowing us to grow in heavenly wisdom. This lovely passage will hearten anyone who loves the light of Truth and delights to see it prosper!

Penington writes:

“Wisdom is justified of her children.” He that knows not the principle of the eternal light, who is not born of it . . . he cannot justify it in his paths; but he justifies the earthly wisdom and reason of man, by its setting up appearances of good, instead of good, and would make all acknowledge and bow to them as good; whereas that which is indeed acquainted with the good, living in the principle thereof, cannot bow to the false appearance, but only to the truth itself. When man’s spirit and wisdom is wearied out of all its paths, and he broken with the misery which will certainly overtake him therein; at last the path of God will be welcome to him, and that principle which, through the operation of God, is able to rectify him and make him happy (Works, II, 197).   

The recording has been edited to reduce silence between speakers.

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Icon of Christ as Holy Wisdom

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Point to the Kingdom

Our monthly study of George Fox’s journal took place on the morning of the 8th of Fifth month. Eight were present, and we began by reading volume 1, pages 389-391 in The Works of George Fox (1831 edition). The material covered comprised two sections: the first featuring an epistle in which Fox cautions Friends “to keep out of the powers of the earth” (389) and “fight for [the kingdom] with spiritual weapons . . . and set up as many as ye can with these weapons” (390); in the second segment, Fox tells of a large meeting in Norwich in which a priest accused him of blasphemy (390). Fox responded:

Then said I, all people take notice, [the priest] said this was error and blasphemy in me to say these words; and now he hath confessed it is no more than the holy men of God in former times witnessed. So I showed the people, that as the holy men of God, who gave forth the scriptures, were moved by the holy ghost, did hear and learn of God, before they spake them forth, so must they all hearken and hear what the spirit saith, which will lead them into all truth, that they may know God and Christ, and may understand the scriptures (391).

Our discussion begins at 9:02 in the recording with responses to Fox’s epistle. The peace one seeks to secure through outward strife is instead to be found within: in Christ where relief from conflict is instantaneously afforded. Christ does “real things” witnessed one participant (found at 36:45 in the recording). The power of fear to influence behavior was acknowledged (beginning at 24:47) and wove throughout a number of comments, including reference to fear’s unconscious expression: aggression. Likewise, “conformity” was identified as another refuge taken in fear.

In the last third of our conversation, we threshed whether or not armed force has a rightful place in society. All agreed that those who knew Christ Within are led to not use carnal weapons, yet some of us   realized destructive behavior must at times be forcefully contained, a position supported by early Friends’ acknowledgment of a legitimate use for the magistrate’s sword. They themselves engaged in the Lamb’s War, using spiritual weapons to turn people to the Spirit of God, where the occasion of war and the necessity of the magistrate’s sword had been superseded.

Following our discussion, I researched early Friends’ stance on “magistrates’ or people’s defending themselves against foreign invasions” and found their position confirmed the view offered in this discussion (at 52:34 and 1:03:07): namely, that society’s use of physical force to suppress the violent and evil-doers is necessary (“for this the present estate of things may and doth require”). At the same time, there must be a forward movement in society precipitated by those who know the inward Christ, “which the Lord hath already brought some into” (157). In the following excerpt taken from volume 2 of his Works, Penington holds forth the requirement to protect society from destruction through armed force, even while the spiritual work goes forward through those to whom the Lord has made Himself known, those who through speaking the Word and teaching the doctrines of faith are to lift and move society into “a better state. . . which nations are to expect and travel towards.” Here is the Penington passage:

I speak not this against any magistrates’ or people’s defending themselves against foreign invasions, or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders (for this the present estate of things may and doth require, and a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly to that end, and its use will be honorable; and while there is need of a sword, the Lord will not suffer that government, or those governors, to want fitting instruments under them for the managing thereof, to wait on him in his fear to have the edge of it rightly directed); but yet there is a better state, which the Lord hath already brought some into, and which nations are to expect and travel towards” (Penington, vol. 2, p. 157).

The recording has been edited to reduce pauses between speakers.

NFF Journal Study 5/8/21
The Crucifixion, 1515 Grunewald
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A Conversation on Faith

The following is a copy of an email exchange that occurred May 4th – 6th between Marilyn Vache and me. Marilyn has been attending our New Foundation Fellowship (NFF) Fox study group, as well as Zoom classes offered by Henry Jason under the care of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative): classes I also attend. She begins her correspondence by referring to an essay by Lewis Benson titled “The Future of Quakerism.” Benson, along with several others, founded NFF half a century ago to be a vehicle for presenting the writing of Fox to modern Friends, who had wandered far from the original faith. Our NFF work today continues his own: to proclaim and speak of Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).

Marilyn wrote:

Dear Pat,
As an introduction to Lewis Benson’s work I am reading  None Were So Clear (nice to see you and the Heins acknowledged). In the lecture on “The Future of Quakerism” he describes much of modern Liberal Friends’ thought and states it more clearly than anyone I’ve read before: I find your answers to questions to be deep and wise, so I’m addressing mine to you.

The religion of the modern Friend is a philosophical structure whose chief cornerstone is the affirmation of the inherent native spirituality of man. This is what the modern Friend means when he uses George Fox’s phrase “that of God in every man”…Christ, or rather Jesus, is understood to be a rabbi who taught that we must follow our Inner Light…He is not the Light, but he received it in the same manner we do. Thus, the Inner Light is one thing and Jesus is another (Benson).

I think somewhere else in the essay he indicates that modern Friends no longer see the necessity of Christ as intermediary between God and man.

The support for this modern belief seems to come, as well, from early and current-day Quakers’ universalism, saying that the Inner Light existed in all people well before Jesus and exists within everyone. My question is this: What were the early “evangelists” doing when they traveled as far as Turkey to talk with a Sultan or when Fox encouraged Friends to speak with American Indians? Were they saying that the full expression of the Light required familiarity with or acceptance of the direct teachings of Jesus? Did they believe that only with that could the Light be fully present or active? Another way to ask this is, can there be two legitimate tracks for Friends, one that relies on Christ as both message and messenger and another that relies on a shared sense of the presence of the Light?

I think that Benson goes on in that lecture to say, basically, that the second form of belief is anemic, that it won’t support an eternal fellowship in the same way the first one does. The argument against that might be (within a very time-limited framework) that modern Liberal thought seems to be more robust and attractive than the Benson version. It’s a small group, of course, but all mainline denominations are. And the reply to that is yes, of course, they’re small because they’ve lost nearly everything of early Christianity to secularism.

Well, I will be interested to see you reply if you have the time. If you’d rather just talk, I can be reached at [xxx-xxx-xxxx] most mornings. I want you to know that I am still interested in the Fox studies, though I believe that I have a conflict again this Saturday. I’ll be certain to listen to the session when you post it in “Abiding Quaker,” which I greatly appreciate.

In grace, Marilyn

Pat wrote:

Thank you for writing and for posing these questions, Marilyn. I’ve often felt that your questions in our Fox study groups show a seriousness and an intelligence that is welcome. I’ve been considering your email since first reading it yesterday, and feel I may be able to shed some light, though perhaps not fully clear up the matter for you. If that’s the case, please let me know, and I’ll try again.

You had asked about the evangelical work of early Quakers to non-Christian people, such as the sultan in Turkey and the American Indians: whether in evangelizing, Friends were saying that “the full expression of the Light required familiarity with or acceptance of the direct teachings of Jesus. . .that only with that could the Light be fully present or active?” Barclay in his sixth proposition in his Apology refutes that idea when he states “that as some of the old philosophers might have been saved, so also may now some – who by providence are cast into those remote parts of the world, where the knowledge of the history is wanting – be made partakers of the divine mystery, if they receive and resist not that grace, ‘a manifestation whereof is given to every man to profit withal'” (1 Cor. 12:7). He goes on to identify where the true distinguishing event of salvation lies: “they may be made partakers of the mystery of his death (though ignorant of the history) if they suffer his Seed and Light (enlightening the hearts) to take place; in which Light, communion with the Father and Son is enjoyed” (italics mine). Verses 9 through 12 in the prologue of John likewise state that the light is universally given but not universally received.

Benson recognized that modern Friends – for the most part – had not entered in at the strait gate, had not received the light of Christ, but instead had misconstrued the relationship between Christ Jesus and themselves. As he wrote in the passage you quoted, they attributed the divine nature to themselves as an “inherent” function of their human nature. It is this claim of a natural inherency that stands in opposition to original Quaker faith. Early Quakers received Christ, knowing his being to be wholly other than themselves, having a different will and wisdom beyond their natural human capacity but which, nevertheless, could visit, enlighten, and direct them. Benson picks up on Fox’s use of the idea of “the offices of Christ” which emphasizes the distinction between Christ and human beings, who yet, though distinct from one another, can be in relationship: one entity to another.

Modern Friends sometimes claim to be in unity with early Friends and feel entitled to use the same terms to describe their spirituality, but the way in which they use these terms show that their understanding is different from early Friends. For example, a modern Friend believes he possesses his own unique “inner light,” which “leads” him in ways that differ from the ways others’ unique inner lights lead them. (This idea is held forth in the Quaker song “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”) For early Friends, the light of Christ is not a personal possession, and one cannot control whether or not it shines within. They felt and knew Christ reveal himself to them within. This specific revelation brought them into unity with others who likewise felt the same being descend upon them from above; Fox wrote: “your faith being in the power you are all one if ye be 10,000” (The Works of George Fox, vol.7, p. 58). Unity in Christ, arising from an inward conviction, engendered an assurance and strength both in individuals and in the corporate body that is evident in their writings and history. They had a clarity, power, and unity which is non-existent in modern Quakers, leading Benson to use the term “anemic” to describe what the Society has come to.

In your email you asked, “can there be two legitimate tracks for Friends, one that relies on Christ as both message and messenger and another that relies on a shared sense of the presence of the Light?” Perhaps the previous paragraph has answered this already in presenting the idea that a legitimate shared sense of the Light will occur only upon the visitation from Christ, the transcendent Being. Unity can be engineered by human means, but it is not the unity of spirit that is revealed from heaven, which exhibits a specific quality of grace and truth that leads those who have known it into a unity with one another. This unity extends beyond the people gathered in a particular space; it is found among those from different times and cultures, allowing us to read and understand the Scriptures, understanding them as did the early Friends, because we know – as they knew –  the Spirit of Christ in which the Scriptures were written. Modern Friends tend to avoid the Scriptures, whereas early Friends highly valued both the Scriptures and the Spirit they spoke of; they knew and loved that Spirit, in which they lived and moved and had their being (Acts 17:28). 

Please let me know if this response has sufficiently clarified the matter, or if not, feel free to pursue it further. 

Pat

Marilyn wrote:

Dear Pat,
This was most helpful, and I appreciate the time you took to think it through and write back to me.

The main question that remains for me, the larger body aside, is about receiving Christ. About thirty years ago I had a “born again” moment in which, in accepting Christ, I was promised abundant and eternal life. As satisfying as that was, I recognize that receiving Christ is not a one-time event. Since I first heard of it, when I was young, I was moved by the instruction to “pray without ceasing.” I am still trying to understand what it takes to maintain that connection: some study (I know scripture is important), willingness, openness, desire, paring away of distractions, or….something. How do you see that continued work? How do you listen for Christ’s leadings? Are there early Friends who speak of it and might help me expand into that state?

With much gratitude,

Marilyn

Pat wrote:

Dear Marilyn,

I appreciate your writing of your present condition and doing so in such a concise, essential way. My condition mirrors your own: I was given knowledge of God several decades ago, and since that time, have been striving to “maintain that connection.” To live in the fear of God is one principle that has become a part of me. It is within our human capacity to sustain and is usually present, a consequence of knowing and desiring life: a spiritual survival “instinct.” Like an instinct, the fear alerts me to situations where I’m spiritually endangered. It preserves me, keeping me safe from sin that would take my life. But that’s all it does; as an embodied principle, fear of God doesn’t and can’t precipitate the bestowal of grace, as grace is God’s alone to give. 

You also asked how I listen for Christ’s leadings. I am open to being judged, knowing what has prevented my receiving Him are my natural – perhaps unseen – shortcomings, sometimes subconsciously hidden so that I’m unaware of them. To get these errors visible, I open myself to receive any information that I’ve kept hidden away from sight; I trust God to reveal whatever is necessary and to sustain me through the indictment, as I’ve experienced this process so many, many times. Listening also requires focus, and one technique I find helpful is to repeat the Lord’s prayer at the beginning of worship, one phrase at a time, allowing each one to deepen and focus my attention. Following that exercise, I simply wait, alert and scanning the inward horizon for signs of any movement of the Spirit. 

Having friends who are honest and dedicated to the same goal is helpful, for the obvious reason that having another’s perspective can add information and understanding. Reading of Scripture and early Friends writings are useful for the same reason. I like Isaac Penington’s writings for his sensitivity to and articulation of the inward workings of mind and heart. His four-volume Works are available from Quaker Heritage Press http://www.qhpress.org/books/penington.html#v1 and Friends Library has published a two-volume set of his Works, “conscientiously abridged,” https://www.friendslibrary.com/isaac-penington/writings-volume-1. Here’s an example of his insightful writing taken from a treatise that is titled “Some Questions and Answers, Conducing Towards the Further Manifestation and Opening of the Path of Redemption And Eternal Life to the Eye of Spiritual Israel”:

Now the more the spirit is broken by the hand of the Lord, and taught thereby to fear him; and the less strength it hath in itself, to grapple with the persecuting spirit of the world; the fitter it is to stand in God’s counsel, to wait for his strength and preservation, which is able to bear up its head above all the rage and swelling of the waters of the worldly spirit in the men of this world (vol. 2, p. 249). 

Thanks again for sharing your interest and progress in these matters. I look forward to engaging in joint efforts in the work with you.

Pat 

Marilyn wrote:

Dear Pat,

Once again I feel deeply heard and attended to. You have set before me a banquet.

Marilyn

          

The Visitation, 1306 Giotto
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