Book Review: A Testament of Devotion

A Testament Of Devotion, by Thomas R. Kelly

I must admit that I am not all that familiar with Quaker spirituality except for my criticism of its inveterate pacifism and pietism which for various reasons has formed an important influence on the Church of God.  This book is a well-regarded example of an ecumenical and mystical approach to Christianity that is particularly popular in our hectic age [1].  I would not say that this is a bad book, exactly, more like it is a book that is not easy to understand or relate to.  The author is a Quaker who appears to be somewhat driven and it is difficult to take claims that he lived with a peace and tranquility within him during his short life seriously.  Rather than viewing him as a hypocrite and discounting this book entirely, I tend to see this book as an expression of the author’s hopes and aspirations to be a force for peace of not only a military kind but also a more personal kind, even if I have serious doubts that the author was a model exemplar of his ideals and the ideals of his faith tradition.

This particular book is a very short one, made up of a few short chapters that the author had written but not had the chance to edit and refine shortly before his death.  It is striking that it is these unrefined chapters in a book that even with an extensive biographical note lasts barely more than 100 pages are what made the author well-known and well-regarded within Christian mystical sources, but looking at the essays one can get some idea why this happened.  For one, these essays show a broad-minded view of the view of meditation in other traditions and engage the larger body of books about prayer and meditation that are generally well-regarded by Christian mystics.  The author also manages to discuss how we become more calm and more at peace with God and others by self-examination and reflection rather than trying to shape our world for our own convenience or think that merely changing our environment will change our mentality and approach to life.  In a subtle way, these essays on the light within, holy obedience, the blessed community, the eternal now and social concern, the simplification encourage the reader to take responsibility for the way that we live and how we relate to others.  They avoid a narrow focus on social issues while pointing out that in our search for the kingdom of heaven we are not to neglect the mundane matters of life on earth.

There is much to appreciate in a book like this.  One can doubt, as I doubt, that the author is a fitting model of his worldview, but I suppose if I ever wrote a book about peace and tranquility and not being too rushed that people would be just as eager to doubt that I really understood what I was writing about.  In a case like this, it is probably best to take what is written and to look at it on its own without trying to judge the messenger.  And on those grounds, this book does have a lot to offer in the way that it demonstrates the tension that Christians of all stripes feel about the pull of self-reflection and personal spirituality and the realization that as believers we are part of the larger body of Christ, as well as the tension between looking forward to God’s Kingdom while also trying to do what we can to ease the plight of those who suffer in this present evil world.  As these tensions are a universal aspect of Christian experience, this book is a thoughtful one that places these concerns as part of a context of practical mysticism, something not too esoteric a concern for many people with able minds and sensitive hearts to the way that life goes on down here.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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