Thomas Edison's Experimental Light Bulbs, 1993

by Christine Hall

“Thus, when God doth work who shall prevent it? And this I knew experimentally.” —George Fox, 1647 (Quaker)

WHAT DO YOU KNOW THAT YOU KNOW ABOUT THE HOLY? What’s unshakeable because you’ve lived it, felt it in your bones? How did you come to trust this? How do you sense this?

It’s completely natural to name only a few things. This is no test or a statement of personal belief. It’s the experiential foundation of your faith and growth with God.

Months of big changes or challenges invite us to reexamine our spiritual lives. Pandemic, economic insecurity, social shiftings, and losses can call us to grow in knowing what we know “experimentally” as early Quaker George Fox says in the quote above. In modern terms, “experientially “might describe that inner knowing.

Experimental/experiential… I like to play with the overlap between the two—to experiment with experiences in prayer. It’s a kind of testing, but not of the Holy, of ourselves. We can test our inner receptivity like testing a light bulb for connection to electricity, a cell phone connection to data, or radar scans for objects nearby. We can try things and watch our awareness to the Divine come alive. How could you be more connected, attuned, or energized by your relationship with God?

With a wide working understanding of prayer and spiritual practice, I like to invite people out of boxes into possibilities. Prayer is a relationship with Ultimate Mystery. It can be once in a while, or all the time. It can be with words or without. Movements, images, silence, or song can open into an intimate and immersive communion. Prayer is natural, part of being human, like inhaling in awe, or jumping for joy, or pleading for help in suffering.

No one tool or practice “does it.” for everyone. There’s a Holy generosity of options. That’s why we need to experiment. Stretch in unfamiliar directions. Explore. Notice what happens.

Because the practice is NOT the relationship.  A particular type of prayer does not make a connection with the Spirit happen. It’s more like training wheels on a bicycle. Prayer help us recognize what’s happening within. Little shiftings and postures that aid balance and allow us to move more freely with God. The point of prayer is inner awareness to the Life and Power of the Holy that’s always there.

Quakers have been called everyday mystics for how they integrate spiritual practice and ordinary living. Private prayer can weave into daily tasks or relationships and guide us into Spirit-led action. Experiments can expand our capacity to pray on behalf of others. They build clarity and courage for sharing our giftedness in communities. Like engaging new muscles during a workout, when we strengthen inner spiritual awareness on our own, we gain agility in movement in other contextsdoing, engaging, collaborating for the New Creation.

What’s needed for the most helpful experiments with prayer or spiritual practice? I’ve thought a lot about this through a decade of walking alongside participants whose experiences in Way of the Spirit have been truly transformative. Here are my top suggestions:

  1. Willingness: Your “yes” matters in the spiritual life. If you want to know the Inner Guide, you can. The Spirit is always open to encounter. Intentionally invite the Holy into each new practice. Be willing to allow what happens to touch you.
  2. Curiosity. Ask questions of yourself. In prayer and practice, ask where you feel drawn. What old approaches have become dull or lifeless? What hums with energy? Foster a gentle, warm-hearted wondering about yourself. If you’ve got a strong inner Critic or Judge, you can send it on vacation for 20 minutes at a time while you experiment. If not 20 minutes, set a timer for the most you can manage.
  3. Trust yourself. This is still big news in some faith circles! How much do you trust yourself in the spiritual life? The Goodness of God is big enough to work with all of who we are—our thoughts, emotions, and physical experiences. We can befriend our unique inner lives with the help of the Holy.
  4. Notice what is actually happening as you experiment in prayer: Observe yourself as you try things—feelings, thoughts, sensations, niggling intuitions, or imagery that rises. It all matters. Recognize any expectations and hold them very lightly.
  5. Reflect afterward: Find words for your experience. The act of fumbling for a fitting phrase can be challenging but rewarding! Describe what happened in a journal or to a trusted friend. It’s surprising how easily spiritual awareness can slip away in the hubbub of daily life. Mark it somehow. Return in memory and prayer to what you experienced.
  6. Notice your response to others’ words about prayer or spiritual practice. Find authors or speakers that describe your sensibilities. Or join a small contemplative group that can respect diverse language for the inner landscape. Others’ experiences can illuminate our own in affirmation or by contrast.
  7. Let go of results: There’s no right or wrong “answer” to a spiritual experiment. What we try offers information, no matter the outcome. Do you know how many light bulbs Thomas Edison tried before one lit up? Think hundreds! “Results” of spiritual experiments vary by one’s mood, time of day, prior experiences, nature, and inclinations. One person’s experience will differ widely from others.

Taken together, these approaches are hidden ingredients of the courage sometimes needed for spiritual growth. They anchor us when discomfort arises, help us stretch beyond the familiar with Grace. They build toward a fullness of trust in God’s Presence and movement in our lives.

If these suggestions are already part of your orientation to prayer, I give thanks! If you’d like to grow into them in supportive company, please join next month’s mini-course with Way of the Spirit. All are welcome—Quakers and others drawn to Quaker spirituality. Group size is limited to 14 for three highly participatory online sessions:

  • Follow the Life in Prayer and Practice
  • Over three Saturday sessions: April 3, 17, and May 8th.
  • 9:30am-1:30pm Pacific Time (incl 30 minute rest period)
  • Online through Zoom videoconferencing
  • Details https://goodnewsassoc.org/spirit/
  • Fees: $450 to Good New Associates. Inquire for scholarship support.
  • Apply by April 1