Someone once told me that organized religions run the risk of losing membership for one of two reasons: on the one hand, the danger of communicating too prescriptive a message, and on the other the lack of definition or too vague a message. In other words, both the church that insists on a too tightly defined notion of what the beliefs of the spiritual community should be, and the church holding too loose an idea of what that spiritual community’s beliefs should be, will find that people drift away.
This brought to mind the idea of pathfinding when I am hiking in the woods. I am not an especially adventurous hiker—most times I prefer to follow a trail that is clearly marked, where blazes are painted onto the trunks of trees at varying distances. As I pass one blaze, I look for the next, and this way I am never unsure of where the path lies. Between each blaze is a lovely stretch of walking where I enjoy the clear direction of the journey. It makes for easy hiking.
But every now and then I encounter a path that is less well indicated, where the blaze markers have weathered and faded and the distance I walk between them feels fraught with uncertainty. I head from one blaze out into a direction which I think is the right one, based on my own assessment of the terrain, the undergrowth, and the surface of the ground beneath my feet. I’m uncomfortable. My senses are heightened, and I observe the forest with keen attention, watching for obstacles, looking for easier footing. Is there too much plant growth that obstructs my progress? Or does the undergrowth seem to flank me on either side? Is the ground beneath my feet full of forest clutter, or is it well-worn and clearly traveled by others before? Is the straight way too steep, or is the travel over the ground more gently sloping and easier to manage? As I am gauging all of these indicators, I am also hoping that I will encounter another blaze, proving that my assessment that I was indeed on the trail was correct. These are the hikes that seem to me to be the most important and the most memorable.
The experience of setting off into the uncertain distance seems to me to be a good lesson for life in general, as well as a useful metaphor for spiritual progress. As Quakers, we are each following a trail, marked now and then with indicators of various kinds and at various intervals. What kinds of markers do we need, and how many are enough? The answers vary for each of us, and when we set out on the journey of Quaker faith, we implicitly accept that it is up to us individually to discern our path. The ground may have been trod by others before us, but each of us must make his or her own journey as seeker, ever watchful and listening for the signals that we are headed in the right direction.
And Friends receive indicators of the right path from many sources, from the Bible and other wisdom literature, to the still small voice that calls us forward, to other people whose Light shines bright to guide us onward. Our way is lit by others, even as we light the paths for fellow travelers; and just as I strive to guide, so others are guiding me—all the time!
I am grateful for the path, for the distance to cover, and for the blazes along the way that lead me—sometimes surefooted and confident, sometimes uncertain and wary, but always forward.