By Brian Drayton
In 1820, British Friend Thomas Shillitoe* wrote a lengthy general epistle to Friends in Great Britain and Ireland. Among many pieces of advice, he says “Endeavor to keep that ear closed, which will be itching to hear the news of the day, and what is going forward in political circles…”
Thomas Shillitoe was living in a world with a lot fewer “media” than we have today—newspapers and magazines were the only means of mass communication. His advice is of interest to us, because he gives us an inside look at how he discerned faithfulness in the use of media. Interestingly, his position on this is not just a variation on warnings against the evils of music, theater, and such worldly instruments. Thomas knew that sometimes we have to read the newspapers—but that we can get caught up in it:
I have found it one of the many crosses I have had to take up, and avoid reading political publications, and, as much as possible, newspapers… I am well aware that men in trade, and sometimes those who are free from its encumbrances, have occasion to resort to those channels of general information; but when this is my case, I find it safest for me, after I have received information on the subject in question, then to put the paper away from me. I am aware that it requires firmness so to act, [or toact in thismanner] there being something in our nature so anxious to know what is going forward in the world…
Once the information starts to flow, pouring into eyes and ears, it gathers momentum, tickles our novelty-detectors, triggers our reflexes for pattern-making, and awakens our curiosity. Maybe reading just one more story, following just one more link, consulting one more pundit or reference—and then we’ll “get it.” What is it we’re trying to “get”?
There is a real satisfaction, deeply seated in us, that comes from finding the answer to a question solving a puzzle, or hearing the end of a story. We can get into the habit of reading or listening or watching without a specific question (aside from maybe “What’s happening?”), or intent, driven by the desire for that sense of fulfillment or completion. We never can tell when something might come along that’s “important.” Better check it out…
When is it too much? How much news or information or narrative or amusement is enough? From the vantage point of Quaker spirituality, the only answer is: When our peace is about to be broken. In his letter, Shillitoe does not lay down any rule about what content to avoid, how much time is too much. His metric is: What does it take to keep my inward peace, stay gathered and near the Guide?
[The practice of stopping when one’s purpose has been achieved] …is the only way for us to experience our minds to be preserved tranquil, amidst all the commotions, all the turnings and overturning, that may be permitted to take place, when the measure of inquiry may be [or has been] filled up…I have found, if we suffer [or allow] our minds to be agitated with political matters, our dependence becomes diverted, by little and little [or little by little], from the true center and place of safety, where perfect peace is experienced, though the world and all around us may speak trouble.
This is not a counsel of retreat, though the emphasis on “quiet” can seem so. I am reminded of a time when I was talking about the spirituality of John Woolman’s time to divinity students in Kenya, and one young man said, “All this sounds very good, but with all that waiting, when do they ever do anything?!” It was important in that conversation to bring our social, connected, bodily selves into the picture: We can not ever really disconnect, nor cease from acting, as long as we are alive.
Jesus told us not be anxious about what we will eat or wear. He did not say, “You don’t need to eat or dress: physical things don’t really matter.” He fed the five thousand, got wine for the wedding feast, healed people of their miseries—he understood the realities of incarnation! But we need to take time to live in the New Birth, care for that fragile life, with its gentle imperatives and quiet voice—otherwise, the more familiar native urges will overwhelm it. We can count on our bodies and our emotions to do their work—so there’s really no danger in restraining ourselves for the time it takes to live into the new perspective, the new possibility, of more abundant life.
Penn testified: True godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it. ( “No Cross, No Crown,” in Works (1726), vol. 1, 296.) The question is: How by yielding to the Holy Spirit, can we so order our lives, our doing, our waiting, and our use of powerful tools like media, that we more and more live in the delight, freedom, integrity, and love to which we are invited by the Light of Christ?
Thomas Shillitoe was a prominent British Friend (1754-1836). He was a fascinating blend of Quietist practice and truculent defender of orthodoxy. He traveled extensively in the British Isles and Europe (including Scandinavia and Russia), and was fearless in his obedience to the least prompting of Truth. When traveling in America during the time of the Great Separation, he was among the most engaged of the British ministers fighting (the word is not too strong) against the views held or attributed to Elias Hicks. Hardly more remarkable than his travels is his documentation of them in a lengthy journal full of detail found in the Friends Library, vol. III, pp. 74-486. The letter cited here is from page 178, column b.1