Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - N for Nostalgia

I've been thinking about nostalgia quite a bit recently, partly because I've been spending time scanning old family photographs and partly because I have been considering the question of what it means to be a Quaker today ahead of Yearly Meeting Gathering.

My younger self
Looking back does not always involve nostalgia, which can be defined as 'a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past'. The memories evoked by the photographs of myself and my family that I discovered were not always entirely happy ones although I did sometimes feel a wistful affection for my younger self and the times in which I lived. 

It is as true now as it was in the past that as we grow older we may feel that things have changed and not for the better. I have heard it said with regret in my own meeting that 'This is not the Society of Friends that I joined'. Samuel Bownas was perhaps in the grip of the same kind of nostalgia when he wrote, towards the end of his life in 1751, to his old friend and fellow minister James Wilson ‘The church seems very barren of young ministers to what it was in our youth, nor is there but very little convincement to what was then.’ 

From the second generation of Quakers onwards there have always been those with a nostalgia for a past that probably never existed looking forward with trepidation to the possible demise of Quakerism that so far has not in fact occurred. In the 19th century John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about his idea of an ideal Quaker in an ideal past who he felt that his contemporaries should aspire to emulate- 

Whittier aged 45 in 1852
'The Quaker of the olden time!
How calm and firm and true,
Unspotted by its wrong and crime,
He walked the dark earth through.
The lust of power, the love of gain,
The thousand lures of sin
Around him, had no power to stain
The purity within...'

Did such a paragon ever actually exist and is this nostalgic view of any help when considering how we may best be Quakers today?  For me a study of Quaker history can be helpful to us now when it reveals the reality of our past failures and inadequacies as well as inspiring us with stories of Friends going forward in faith in the best way they can. However if history is only used to confirm our present day positions and prejudices it is no better that the sentimental longing of nostalgia.

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