Author and novelist Jessamyn West (1902-1984), best remembered for her classic The Friendly Persuasion (book and movie) was raised and shaped by a long line of Quakers. Rooted in Indiana, they wound up evangelical and Holiness-centered, as well as cousins to Richard Nixon, in southern California.
Her family left their southern Indiana Quaker homeland when Jessamyn was six. West left its Quakerism as a young woman; as her church moved in ever-more conservative directions, she wound up, not an activist, more a loyal ACLU liberal. But her Quakerism never really left her.
In West’s 1966 semi-autobiographical novel, A Matter of Time, this Holiness Quakerism is called the Pilgrim Church, Indiana becomes Kentucky, and she is renamed Tasmania Murphy. Tasmania/Jessamyn describes how she resisted her growing heretical thoughts, and departure, by trying to get saved.
It begins with Jessamyn musing about how the Indiana-Kentucky homeland she knew almost entirely through her mother’s stories often seemed more real than her everyday California . . .
And even stranger than this real, though distant in time and space, world of Kentucky was the world of the Pilgrim Church. Stranger because even though we all inhabited it, and were its citizens by birth, we did not seem truly to dwell there. What did we do to show our citizenship?
There were numerous things we didn’t do. In addition to the usual things not done by Christians, like murdering, stealing, committing adultery, taking the name of the Lord in vain, and so forth, as Pilgrims we didn’t drink, smoke, dance, or play cards.
But was that all it took? What did we do? We went to church two or three times a month, but, insofar as I could see, were uninfluenced by what happened there. (Usually nothing happened.) We made some contributions to the collection plate; Mother thought we should tithe, usually when family funds were the lowest, in the hope that the Lord, noticing the bread cast upon the water by the Murphys, would return it as cake. Mother read her Bible, or had Father, who liked to read aloud, read it to her . . .
We remembered the Sabbath enough, if not to keep it absolutely holy, at least enough to keep the garage closed, and to shut down the towing service. (Except in emergencies and for price and a half.)
But was this enough? Was this all it took? I didn’t know what was expected of Christians, of the Pilgrim, or of myself. Or what I wanted. Something ennobling? Enrapturing? Self-obliterating? Transfigured by love? Did I want to preach to birds? Lick the sores of the leprous? To be absolutely loving?
Even at twenty four, no child, no virgin, with my own kind of hardness, I was not past longing. Not past feeling a loss. This was the eve of the birth of our Saviour. What did He save us from? (In the Murphy household this was never discussed.)
Sin? We all sinned. Death? We would all die. Would anyone pray? Or read Matthew, Chapters 25 to 32?
No one. Would anyone, like Marmee and her Little Women, pack baskets for the poor? No one. Were there any poor? We hadn’t looked into it. “Give all and follow me”? Oh, no! The clothesbasket would reveal a fair and calculated exchange; the oven discharge a succulence in excess of need; the table speak of a prideful past, attested to by possessions.
At twenty-four I was already past (I judged) redemption; anyway, it hadn’t happened yet. But at seven and again at seventeen I had made my try. Believing, even then, that a Pilgrim ought to do something, I got saved. . . .
It wasn’t necessary. I was born saved, my parents being Pilgrims at my birth. But I wanted a hand in it myself. I didn’t want it secondhand. I wanted my own vision, my own burning bush and cleft rock.
I went to the altar because I was afraid to go, and I was afraid to be afraid. I went because I was ashamed to go, and I was ashamed to be ashamed. I went because I pitied the preacher. I went because I pitied Jesus on His cross, to whom, because He had suffered (for me, it was said), I owed a little debt of suffering of my own.
Above all, I went (as I remember it) because I hoped by that act, by that prayer, by that declaration, to satisfy a longing so painful I felt it as physical ache, to transcend Tasmania Murphy and become one (in love) with all mankind: never again envy Le Cid or be impatient with Marmion.
I loved myself when loving; I knew the transporting bliss of complete self-forgetfulness achieved when I worked with hot cloths to cure Mother’s headaches, or divested myself of my clothing for Blix, or went without lunches to buy Blackie a treat. I experienced the unnamable when I ran, at the close of day, up into the brown hills through a froth of sound (stirred up by disturbing the cicadas) to watch the sun go down behind the oil derricks.
I wanted by one act to nail it all down, guarantee it forever. One act was supposed to do it.
After the second birth, the reborn supposedly became incapable of sin. I never lost my capability. For a short time at seventeen I really believed I had. First of all I experienced a euphoria of the same kind one has after having gone to the dentist, the euphoria that comes as the aftermath of the complete concentration courage requires.
I mistook it for salvation. Evidently no one else did. No one, in my family or out, offered to watch and pray with me, to labor with me to keep the old Adam dead. And the rebirth of which I had on those evenings in the hills and in my acts of self-forgetfulness dreamed was never achieved.
Never forgotten, either. It was now seven years since my last try, at seventeen, to attain a perpetual state of grace. I had given up hope for it. It wasn’t for me.
Still, I had flashes of glory which kept me discontented with any other state. On Christmas Eve that thirst, undefinable, never properly slaked, made me, though relishing high jinks and joining in them, anticipating tamale pie and the surprises of the laundry basket, dissatisfied. This evening was as high and holy a time as our year could produce.
We were all brought up in the practice of “returning thanks” before eating. Nothing was said. We bowed our heads and there was a minute or two of silence. Blix told me she always counted to ten, then looked up. I actually said thanks; it was a moment of floating, of nonbeing, or of being everything; I’m not sure which, but I enjoyed it.
I continued the practice of “returning thanks” after Everett and I were married. Or tried to. I would bow my head, close my eyes, become everything or nothing, rejoicing in creamed carrots (and glad I was finished with scraping and cooking the damned things), floating, beginning to float, far away from all earthly trivia; then, just as I made it, Everett’s hand would come under the tablecloth, caressing and pinching up and down the length of my thigh.
I think he thought of it as contest between him and God for my attention; as he thought of home-coming to Baranca as a contest between himself and my family. In Baranca he lost. But at the supper table he won. This proves nothing about God or Everett, but does, I think, make some comment about me.
When Everett’s pinching and tickling recalled me from prayer, I felt as some people do when awakened from a sleep. [My brother] Blackie was like that with sleep. If he dozed off on the sofa, and you poked him so that he could undress and go to bed properly, he woke up fighting mad, and struck out at you or anyone else within flailing distance.
It’s one thing to come out of sleep fighting mad, and another to emerge from prayer mad. But that’s what Everett’s fingers nibbling along my thigh mad me: mad, and wanting to hit.
And that proved his point, I guess. He was stronger than God; and my praying, if that was the word for it, was pretty shallow. For quite a long time, I continued to bow my head, to keep my eyes shut, and to give no sign that I wasn’t in the timeless realm.
But I wasn’t. I was in the present, hearing a voice – my own – saying, “Stop that, Everett, stop it, or I’ll hit you.”So I gave up returning thanks before meals. I couldn’t endure sitting there, a whited sepulcher, posture saying one thing, thoughts another. I had spoken to Everett about it, I had asked him to stop, but he had laughed and said, “If a little tickling takes your mind off God, I guess you aren’t very close to Him anyway.”
Maybe I wasn’t. Anyway, I gave up “returning thanks,” though I missed it. For a long time, even though I picked up my knife and fork as briskly as Everett at the beginning of a meal, I had, for a second or two, a hollow unsatisfied feeling.Everett, so far as I know, never realized that I had given up “returning thanks.”
From “A Matter of Time”