Is It Dangerous to Let Teenagers Read Thomas Kelly?

On Sunday, there wasn’t a First Day School program at our Quaker meeting, so our boys were going to be with us all through meeting for worship. I pulled out the two little books that were in my purse and offered them to my 13 year old son: a very small print King James Bible or Thomas Kelly’s The Eternal Promise. He chose TEP and proceeded to actually read it. At that point it occurred to me to worry, “Am I going to regret this?”

Have you read any Thomas Kelly? (1893-1941) His more famous book is A Testament of Devotion. He writes about Quakerism and the religious life as if he was serious about it. Back in the late 1930’s he had some kind of mystical experience after a professional heartbreak in the middle of his career. Then he wrote several classic essays on religious experience: “The Blessed Community,” “The Gathered Meeting,” “The Simplification of Life,” “Have You Ever Seen A Miracle?”, and “Holy Obedience.”
"I have in mind something deeper than the simplification of our external programs, our absurdly crowded calendars of appointments through which so many pantingly and frantically gasp. These do become simplified in holy obedience, and the poise and peace we have been missing can really be found. But there is a deeper, an internal simplification of the whole of one's personality, stilled, tranquil, in childlike trust listening ever to Eternity's whisper, walking with a smile into the dark."
His lines about a life lived in accordance with a divine center, that takes no time, but yet all our time, are quoted in many Quaker books of Faith & Practice. If you are even a little bit religious, it is wildly inspiring to read Thomas Kelly’s words about the need and desire to give ourselves fully to God, to live a life of uncompromising devotion.

But teenagers don’t have enough knowledge or experience of life to know that Kelly can’t possibly mean it, that nobody really lives like that, that his kind of passion is excessive.

That made me ask myself how much I have let myself think that the world doesn’t really work that way, that nobody really lives like that, that he can’t really mean it.

And then I wondered how much trouble would I be in? How would I be held accountable for the life that I do lead if the young people in my life caught on to that thrilling vision?

Maybe we should encourage more young people to read Thomas Kelly.

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Anonymous Jon Watts said...

You've touched on the danger of not including teenagers into the religious conversation in general. If a general rule is that as you get older, you become more accustomed and accepting of the parameters of the culture and it's systems and institutions and less likely to believe in radical change, then it takes someone like an 18 year old George Fox to call for an actual awakening.

12/26/2011 11:23 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I don't think you have to be 18 to call for an awakening, or to have an awakening, but it's a ripe moment.

12/27/2011 9:53 AM  
Anonymous Jay T. said...

I read Testament of Devotion in my teens. I still alternate between trying to live into that vision and trying to adjust it to fit my spiritual and life experience. I hope and think it's been a good way to grow.

I remember from those teen years a discussion at meeting of different mystics. All of us who were youths and young adults loved Kelly. The older Friends, not so much. Since then, I've recommended his writing to many young people, suggesting they read it before aging. So, I think no time better than 13 to 25 to read Thomas Kelly.

12/29/2011 11:57 PM  
Blogger ChristelJorgenson said...

Hi Robin,
Thanks for your blog, interesting reading. I still refer back to some comments about the spiritual life by the Quaker teens I've known.
I just wanted to wish you a fruitful, not-too-hectic New Year. You've been on my prayer list since our anchor group at NEYM this summer. I'm glad we had that chance to meet.
Blessings for you and your family.

12/30/2011 10:20 AM  
Blogger forrest said...

Yes, Thomas Kelly wasn't trying to write about some impossible ideal, but about how he was living and experiencing his actual first-person life.

If you make that kind of practice an ideal... The closest thing in my own experience was a period when I was editing Street Light, careening frantically from one problem to the next, describing my life as "bouncing from one rope to another" ala a losing boxing match... But there was always just enough time to get the paper out, even though "I" didn't feel up to it.

"Stillness" & "motion" can both be ways of riding the Tao...

Kelly got into his sort of outlook... when his "practical" ambitions and ways turned out to be unworkable. Learning that early, without driving themselves to a crash along the way, should be good for young people.

12/31/2011 8:30 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

So just in case, because irony doesn't play well on the internet, I don't really think it's dangerous, I think it's probably healthy for teens to read Thomas Kelly. What better time to be inspired to religious greatness?

I first read Testament of Devotion in my 20s. I think it's a better start than the Eternal Promise. I still find those essays thrilling everytime I read them, now in my 40s.

Chris, thank you for your kind words and prayers. My New Year's has been quiet and productive, and just home with my family other than Meeting this morning. Perfect.

Ah, Forrest, for me this last year has been a great example of running ahead of the wave, just trying to keep up. But God's presence has made it worthwhile.

1/01/2012 4:38 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Oh and today, my son started on Shane Claiborne's Jesus for President. Just because it's healthy for teens, doesn't mean it's going to be easy for their parents.

1/01/2012 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Christine Greenland said...

Dear Robin --

By the age of 10-13, my son had read the entire Bible -- and we had discussed bits of it, particularly when his 1st day school teachers didn't cotton to his interpretation of Ecclesiastes..., among other things. I think he'd read Eternal Promise and A Testament of Devotion as well. I know from some of the things he said that he had sneaked several peeks at some journals (George Fox, John Woolman, Joseph Hoag), and had sat in on discussions of Quaker journals.

The "danger" comes when adults in a meeting/church are age stratified, or stuck in their own understandings.

That said, I think we need "youngering" more the "eldering" ... it's certainly kept my faith with a well-honed edge.

1/01/2012 6:47 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

Yes, I did catch the irony... but I also know that The World's pressures on young people are heavily towards "Get out there and accomplish something! (Or maybe you won't, oh no!)" So I don't think you were entirely kidding about a little parental trepidation.

We don't know what our kids will pick up from us, or what they'll make of it, and that's truly scary! But letting them come to God is really what they need!

I miss being chased by that wave, myself! But God just keeps on teaching me stuff, a lot of it things I'd thought I already knew!

1/02/2012 12:50 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Christine, it's good to know. and to be able to remind my children when necessary, that they aren't the only ones reading these things.

I think the real danger is if young people come into their passion and the knowledge that another life is possible without knowing any adults who are also living that life. The fact that Thomas Kelley was older than my grandparents reminds me that I am not the first to be inspired in this way. And my prayer this year has been that someday my children will understand, and maybe even be proud that when God called their mother, she went.

Forrest, yes, yes, I hope that my children will also find their way to God, now, in their young adulthood, and all through their lives.

1/02/2012 7:40 AM  
Anonymous web Design London said...

The fact that Thomas Kelley was older than my grandparents reminds me that I am not the first to be inspired in this way.

1/02/2012 3:16 PM  
Anonymous ChrisBartlett said...

I really don't think its dangerous..such a thing is not really popular to teens anymore..faith is good though..but mindless fanaticism is not.

1/04/2012 9:07 AM  

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