Poem for John Banks, 1654

There has been some new interest lately in the quaking that earned the first Friends our nickname. (Of course, experiences of trembling or quaking in worship happen today in churches associated with the holiness or pentecostalist movements. But truly, pentecostalism is not a group I'm familiar with at all.) A few weeks ago, the front page of QuakerQuaker included a blog completely dedicated to exploring physical, bodily quaking as an element of renewal in modern-day Quakerism. (Scott Martin's The Ecstatic Quaker) While not everything in his recommendations is true to my own experience, it was very thought-provoking.

Liberal Friends (like me) find the Inner Light to be a useful and treasured name for a central experience. But early Friends had a really nuanced understanding of the Inner Light --the Inward Light, the Light of God shining inward into our souls-- which took account of how sometimes becoming more enlightened can be a painful experience, when it involves becoming aware of parts of ourselves we should change. How many of us have struggled, and taken good refuge in the Comforter we found shining inside?

Poem for John Banks of 1654, from 2008

there’s something you have to know first

huddled on the bed (usually)
or on the dorm room floor,
or the dark library stacks,
or my armchair,
That fear, unseen, no reason, no warning,
and sometimes the knowing it was coming was the worst part
because I was completely at the mercy of that overgripping passionate fear.
Twitches first, then shudders, now in a ball wrapped in covers, now flailing in the dark.
My friends whom I trusted told me the way out was through,
but I kept getting stuck.
Discovering over and over that my body existed, and the one feeling it was feeling was fear.

And what was it like for that Quaker, young man my age, in the dawn of his age?
When no one had invented all that -ology of psych.
That John Banks, he used the words of his age to describe....

“...and the same day at evening... I was smitten to the ground with the weight of God’s judgement for sin. ... Great was the warfare and combats that I had with the Enemy of my soul, who... did what in him lay, to betray me from the simplicity of the Truth, that was begotten in me, and to persuade me to despair... I had passed through great tribulation, in weeping and mourning in woods and solitary places, alone, where I had often desired to be.”

He quaked.
They were quakers!
It sounds to me like the same experience.
He wrestled with the Enemy. He found Truth begotten in him.
And if "sin" is condemning himself when he simply needed to unite Love and Truth....
and if I had to try so hard to remember to be gentle with myself.....
but away with these negotiations.
We look back at that age, and say they received spiritual gifts a hundredfold, an outpouring unstoppable of the water of life.
We think they had some secret.
Did we not both quake? Were we not both smitten to the ground, and despairing?
Do we not both have the same dawn to thank, the same grass and wind?
The same Spirit?
What does this mean for us?

(The quote by John Banks is found in Early Quaker Writings, edited by Hugh Barbour and Arthur O. Roberts, page 183, in selections from "The Journal of John Banks." See especially footnote 34: "Physical seizures of this kind were fairly common among early Friends, along with the more usual quaking.")


  1. Hmm, it makes me think of a panic attack. I've had a couple in my life, and usually they involved something that felt beyond my control, so maybe it was God, or could be if channeled correctly. They weren't pleasant, certainly.

  2. It also reminds me of countless stories of saints (lowercase "s" and in all traditions) who had mystical experiences.

    I am a poet who regularly performs in front of audiences. I usually have a shivver before I begin to read. It goes away the minute I start.

    But it doesn't feel the same to me as that quaking sense of impending vocal ministry that I feel when the Spirit prompts me to rise and speak in Meeting. Most people wouldm't be able to sense it from the outside, but I can feel it inwardly.

    I suppose it takes a great deal of self-knowledge and discernment to understand how our bodies are reacting.


  3. Thank you for this post. It inspired me to revisit one of my older posts.


  4. Allison, yes, in psychology terms, panic attack is a useful label. And thank you for the solidarity. This is a delicate area, because some (many?) people describe having panic attacks that have no source or reason, and I wouldn't want to equate their experience and John Banks' experience. I certainly use non-spiritual explanations such as brain-chemical imbalances to understand many psychological phenomena. But... John Banks was also talking about being attacked by "the Enemy" (that would be the devil), and about "God's judgement for sin" (so, two different sources). The comforting part of the Inner Light came second (or third), after the painful self-discovery (and possible combat with the devil). It was a multi-step process. As far as the evil spirit thing goes, I have to refer any intellectual-post-modernist readers like myself to Walter Wink's "Powers" trilogy, where he relates "the powers that be," described in the Bible as spirits, to modern-day descriptions of structural "evils" conceived as social or cultural structures. But they sure feel like spirits sometimes... http://www.walterwink.com/books.html#UnmaskingPowers
    But my larger point is, spiritual life involves dealing with painful things as well as joyful things, and the quaking can be part of that too.

    Cath, yeah, that quaking which signals a message the Spirit intends for the whole meeting --that's some great quaking. And I do find it different than the rough panic of the poem. I guess you're right that we can do discernment with our bodies, too.

    Hystery - thanks for the reference. Sometimes that meeting-message quaking can get pretty intense.

  5. Having had panic attacks, I can promise that they are NOTHING like the experience of trembling before God. A panic attack is more like grappling with the "Enemy" or with negative spirits. When you are touched by God, the ego trembles, but there is another part of you that feels held, whole and joyful - we never feel God's wrath without feeling his love also. If the Holy Spirit in us doesn't feel uplifted, then it isn't God who is touching us.

  6. Here's an additional reference I found many weeks after posting the original poem and responding to the comments. Will Taber's blog is an excellent read by itself, but he called my attention to a passage in Barclay which gives another eyewitness account of the original, quaking, Quaker meetings:

    For those with copies of Barclay's Apology look up Proposition 11 (Worship), Section VIII.

  7. Oh, and one more afterthought: For those of us who have had panic attacks, or any other negative psychological or life experience, and are trying to reconcile it with our spirituality... such a tender subject really deserves a book-length treatment. Let me highly recommend Sandra Cronk's book "Dark Night Journey" published by Pendle Hill.

  8. I love the poem.
    "Discovering over and over that my body existed, and the one feeling it was feeling was fear."
    Definitely going into my favorite quotes.