In such tough times, what do we do? Meet a Quaker with some solid answers

We’ve been saving this wonderful writer—for a time like this. As we publish this interview with Eileen Flanagan, many of us are crying out: What do we do, now?
Eileen Flanagan is a Quaker writer who you’re going to hear a whole lot more about in coming years. She’s just finding her voice nationally—and what a voice it is! Start reading “The Wisdom to Know the Difference” like I did and you’ll find yourself curled up in an easy chair for a few hours—as if a best friend is sitting across from you, sharing a cup of tea and stories about the spiritual challenges we all face in life.

Yesterday, I was interviewing Samir Selmanovic, another terrific writer you’ll read about in coming weeks at ReadTheSpirit. I told him we were publishing an interview with Eileen Flanagan today. Now, you have to understand: Samir is the author of “It’s Really All About God,” an important new book about interreligious dialogue. He runs Faith House Manhattan and is a nationally known expert in the field. And here’s what Samir said:

“Oh, good! Eileen Flanagan. I’ll have to read that tomorrow. You know, Quakers have so much to teach us about discernment. Every year we bring a Quaker to our CityLights group here in New York and we ask them to tell us again about the Quaker movement. We do that every year. We look forward to it. You know, we can never get ourselves to open up like we can when a Quaker is among us.”

High praise, indeed.

Another strong supporter of Eileen’s work? J. Brent Bill, whose Quaker-themed books already are beloved guides to spiritual discernment in thousands of homes nationwide. We’ve recommended Brent’s books for years here at ReadTheSirit. Brent says of Eileen’s new book: “Blessing and inspiration await on every page.” Phyllis Tickle, another old friend, says Eileen turns daily life into “parables.”

Get the point? This is a choir of wise voices—ours and others—telling you that this book is special. More than that, this new voice is so special that you’re going to want to follow Eileen’s work in coming years.

Here’s one final reason that last statement is true: She’s a young woman who writes with a spiritual wisdom that includes insights of gender. For a long time at ReadTheSpirit, we’ve pointed out that there’s an unfortunate imbalance in American spiritual writing: A majority of the readers are women; but a majority of the authors are men. Eileen will surprised you in this book in the way she weaves gender into the mix.


DAVID: The full title of your book is, “The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change—and When to Let Go.” The main title comes from one of the most powerful prayers in the world: the Serenity Prayer, sometimes attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr but much more famous as the central prayer of the 12-step movement. So, are you part of the 12-step movement yourself?

EILEEN: No, I’m not, but there are people in my extended family who’ve had addictive issues. It’s close enough for me to know about it in that personal way.

For this book, I interviewed about 30 people and three of those people talked a lot about recovery. I am finding that the book already is sparking interest in that community. So there are connections here.

DAVID: I’ve been writing about religion in America across three decades now and I can tell you that the history of Alcoholics Anonymous has changed a lot in recent years. I mean, historians now regard the dawn of AA as a major turning point in American religious life.

We explored some of these issues recently in an interview with Rabbi Rami Shapiro, whose new book focuses on the 12 steps themselves.

Your book is quite different. You’re writing from a Quaker tradition about spiritual discernment—which may sound like a fancy phrase, but it’s probably the biggest single struggle people face on a day to day basis. So, how do you connect the 12-step movement and this basic spiritual question of why we should step out of our houses each day into a world full of so much stress?

EILEEN: I think I make that connection in a couple of ways. One thing the recovery movement has done brilliantly is to adopt the phrase “a higher power.” My husband right now is reading Thomas Moore’s “The Soul’s Religion: Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life.” We were talking about this very issue this morning—the importance of opening up our understanding of God.

When I started interviewing people for my book, I didn’t particularly ask about this—but many people began telling me that a crucial turning point in their lives came when they changed their concept of God. Either they had believed in a judgmental God—and turning away from that image of God was important to them—or they didn’t believe in God particularly. Then, they began to see a kind of higher power out there and began trusting in this greater good, this higher power.

The recovery movement gave us a lot in just helping us to expand our vision of God.

DAVID: There’s so much within the covers of this book! You touch on recovery issues, but—for example—you also take us to Africa at one point.

EILEEN: I teach a class on South African History at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I have a masters in African Studies from Yale. Yes, I think traditional African culture can teach us a lot about the ways we relate to each other in community.
DAVID: And you’re not just Quaker through some distant background. You’re regularly active in your meeting.

EILEEN: Yes, I’m the assistant clerk of my Quaker meeting right now. I give workshops on spirituality and my congregation is supporting me in this and holding me accountable for this work.

The branch of Quakerism I’m in has no paid clergy and sees every person as a minister. We also have times when people have a specific outward ministry that needs support from the Quaker community.

DAVID: That’s another theme we’ve touched upon over and over again at ReadTheSpirit—the important realization that, today, official ordination in a religious organization may not produce the most important religious voices in a community. Or, to put it another way, some of the wisest voices we’re hearing today are not officially recognized as clergy in any religious hierarchy. Recognizing this important change in our culture is part of the message of Harvard’s Harvey Cox and so many others.

That’s one reason I’m really drawn toward your new book. You write here about ways that ordinary people can gather with one another—in an intentional way—and provide spiritual ballast for the turbulence in our daily lives.

Your book really does look like a toolbox of ideas.


EILEEN: A toolbox? Hmm. I wouldn’t have thought of that phrase, but I do want to offer people tools. I want people to pick up and take what they can from me. I want them to work on these things. I’m very clear that I don’t possess all the answers. I’m not telling people: Go out and do A, B, then C and everything will work out fine.

Every one of my chapters ends with questions so that people begin to look at their own lives. I want to encourage people to take a spiritual journey by looking at their lives in a different way.

DAVID: Well, I mentioned the wide range of places you take us in the book. I’d say that you take us to the East as well. I’d say there’s a fairly strong Buddhist tool in your toolbox, when you begin to talk about the importance of “letting go.”

EILEEN: A lot of spiritual traditions talk in some way about letting go, surrendering, trusting God and turning things over. When we can truly release something in this way, it can be a powerful experience.

My concern in some of the religious writing out there today is that we can’t simply force people to let go before they’re ready. We can pretend to have let go, which is not going to bring the same kind of result. Or we can say: Oh, I shouldn’t care about that. I shouldn’t be attached to that. But this isn’t really letting go.

This is difficult.

DAVID: And some things we shouldn’t “let go,” right? For example, I don’t think we should give up on the challenges of economic or racial or ethnic injustice in the world. We shouldn’t give up on trying to help people walk out of poverty. We shouldn’t give up on a lot of dire needs in this world.

EILEEN: There is a kind of false spirituality out there that says: Oh, I can’t change the world so I’ll stop trying. I’ll let go of all those concerns. I’ll just focus on myself. But that’s really masking our compassion.

DAVID: There are some extremely popular positive-thinking movements out there today that essentially teach: Hey, it’s all about my health and wealth and happiness. They teach that if we just think positive thoughts, everything will turn out happily in our lives.

EILEEN: I do think there’s a kernel of truth in teaching that how we think really can affect what happens in our lives, especially in terms of our relationships with other people. If you walk into a job expecting everybody to hate you, then you’re likely to have problems on that job, right?

But this can also imply that millions of people are hungry because they weren’t thinking right about their lives—so it’s their fault and we should let go of it. Instead, we need to realize that the way our economy is structured actually impoverishes African farmers. This can become really cruel if we use this process as a way to give up on people who need our help.

In an earlier draft of my book, I did talk a lot more about that kind of message people are hearing these days. But, then, I decided I didn’t want to be in the position of bashing a movement that’s been helpful to people in some ways.

I’m less interested in bashing other approaches than in helping people with the hard work of changing our ways of thinking.

DAVID: You offer some very specific tools in your book. One of them is the Quaker concept of a clearness committee, which you describe in great detail toward the end of your book. Tell us a little bit about that.

EILEEN: It’s a process to help people in discernment, gathering maybe 3 or 4 people who are supportive listeners and questioners to sit with you as you’re working out a significant decision.

One time you’ll encounter a clearness committee is if you’re thinking about joining a Quaker meeting. If you say that you want to join, a clearness committee will sit with you and talk with you and listen and ask questions. Likewise, when a couple gets married, they’ll go to a meeting and the meeting will appoint a clearness committee.

But people can also ask for clearness committees for any number of situations and often find it very helpful for people in a prayerful way to listen. The committee is not there to give advice. The committee is there to listen and ask questions and help draw out the truth that is emerging in a person’s life.

DAVID: Well, a final question: Your book cover shows an ocean shore with these huge dark rocks and some big waves ahead of us. Could be promising. Could be a challenging horizon.

So, bottom line, how do you see the horizon? Are you hopeful about the future? Or are you worried?

EILEEN: I am hopeful.

I am hopeful because of what I’ve experienced in my own life. I think my own spiritual journey has been a little bit like a spiral. I think God keeps giving me the same lessons, over and over, but every time things seem a little easier and the learning gets a little broader or moves a little deeper.

And I’m hopeful about people’s ability to build community and to help each other in our spiritual journeys.


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