John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel

English-speaking Quakers today are in dire need of some new “spiritual” books, and I have a top candidate to recommend here. It is John Calvi’s How far Have You Traveled?

Amid all the wonderful stuff that’s in it, some of what makes Calvi’s book so excellent is what’s not in it.

For example — and this fact alone made me an instant fan — in its 200 or so pages, the word “transformation” occurs only once.

Further, the bogus cliche “spice” shows up only thrice – and each time, thank goodness, it’s part of “hospice,” programs that bring comfort and peace to the often painful work of dying; in his career John has very often been a two-legged hospice. “Spiritual journey” likewise is limited to  three appearances.

John Calvi

For that matter, “theology” is mentioned only ten times, and then mostly not from John’s pen, but in quotes by one of his elders/mentors, the late Elizabeth Watson.

But be not deceived; How Far Have You Traveled? is indeed a Quaker theological work, a  substantial and serious (while often hilarious) one. For one thing, while Calvi is pretty loose on doctrine, Jesus pops up about twenty times. The book is not academic. John is an avid learner, but school academics have not been his forte.

Instead, he introduces us to what I would call “un-systematic theology,” and without argument he shows compellingly why it is so much needed. Instead of riffing on the trendy banalities of much “devotional” writing, or wandering into the  mazes of academic abstractions, John’s theology grows out of reflections on decades of hands-on work as a massage therapist.

This calling has taken him into the lives of hundreds of people facing very concrete traumas of war, torture, rape, imprisonment, AIDS, other diseases, and often enough, facing death itself. Those  he has worked with very much include himself, and his own healing is intertwined with the unfolding experience of becoming a Quaker, a process he has now worked on for more than half a century.

Yes, worked on. Instead of “transformation,” “bliss,” “enlightenment” or other tame, tedious buzzwords of the spirituality genre, John’s writing is pervaded with another term, one which recurs several hundred times here.

It is old, but new; it is too often avoided or diluted; but crucial for the life of the spirit; it is everyday, yet profound, and necessary.

You may have heard it before: it’s “work.”

“Spirituality,” religion, and in particular Quakerism, can be many things, but most abidingly, for John Calvi, they are work. He makes this plain from his Introduction:

Introduction: I’ve been watching people in the places I work. I watch very carefully to see something in particular. Who is serving long term in a crisis and not becoming a victim of burnout? How is it that one can witness ongoing pain and suffering and continue to offer their best? How does that work?

The core of this book is about goodness and knowing your goodness. I am suggesting that knowing your goodness offers strength and balance for hard work, specifically the hard work of healing one’s self and others. While my first book, The Dance Between Hope & Fear, speaks to healing trauma, this second book describes an underlying dynamic that makes the path smoother.

So there it is. I’ve seen something I want to show you. It’s about goodness and knowing it yourself. Seeking how things become is great work. I hope this will be part of your seeking.

Three short paragraphs, and “work” recurs five times. Twice, for emphasis, as “hard work.”

Further, genuine religion/spirituality is not only work, but if it is to be engaged seriously, it takes time. Calvi does not teach this; he describes the way he learned it. How? His method was a radical departure. Rather than deciding he and a few others had essentially discovered/reinvented Quakerism, he asked his elders. And he listened.

What a concept:

A couple of years ago I began to talk with old Friends . . . . I began to pose the question: how do Friends bring their spiritual life deeper in so it isn’t just skin level, it’s not just intellectual? How does it come to be that someone reflects their connection with the Divine in Meeting for Worship, their communication with the Divine, in an ongoing way, with their breath, with their walk, and with the way that they respond in everyday living situations? I am not talking about weighty Friends, the kind that you hope might accept the job of clerk of your Meeting. I am talking about people who are power generators of the Light.

I spoke mostly to Friends who were in their eighties. One of them was a young 55. Two of them were in their 90s. . . .

The first thing that I heard from these Friends is that it takes a really long time to grow up. There is an idea that you become an adult in your 20s. . . . Friends told me that if you were lucky and did your homework, you would be awake in your 60’s; if you worked really hard, maybe in your late 50’s. But if you were really going be awake, if you were going to live in the Spirit, you had to wait until later because it took a long time.

It took a long time to get a broader view, to get more discernment. It took a long time to get out of your own way.

For clarity, Calvi does not say it takes a long time to get anything meaningful out of Quakerism, or another religion. Calvi himself took to Friends immediately, at sixteen. Nevertheless, these elder Friends spoke a basic truth: serious religion is like a tree, which can grow and change for centuries as it reaches full maturity. Even for us short-lived humans, it can look very different after twenty, forty, or sixty years.

This admission is of course utterly counter to the current of miniaturization and ever-shorter attention spans shaping much of our “spiritual” consciousness today. It’s also a complete non-starter as the basis for “church growth” marketing plans, which require concrete results, as in attracting a sufficient number of attenders/donors before the seed money runs out and the staff must be laid off.

But work and time. That’s Calvi’s recipe.

Well, almost. Besides “work” as what must be done (washing dishes after potluck, committee meetings), there is also grace, mercy — and lucky for his readers at least — humor to leaven the labor. As in this dispatch, from his small house in rural Vermont, 2003:

I have been devoted to a spiritual discipline lately whose lessons I believe may help us to bear with some of the difficulties in discussing the important tasks of social change and civil rights. The discipline I’m involved in, of taking the worst from the dark and bringing it out into the light for the miracle of growth, might teach us much.

I speak, of course, of shoveling out the outhouse.

I want to relate this task to the great Quaker tradition of seeking, and especially seeking around controversy and conflict. There are several common parts and principles that can help us. I offer them here to encourage us all to continue to share deeply and honestly.

This shoveling task is not reasonable. I have an image of summer being spent at a swimming hole, of sipping iced tea, even of bringing in hay on a bright sunny day from open fields of great light. So, to take a shovel and go into a cavern never meant to be stood in is quite out of the ordinary, not regular life.

Thus it is with seeking, especially where there is any pain, urgency, or intimacy. And because it’s out of the ordinary we can expect to bump into things and move without grace at times. This doesn’t mean we should turn back. It means we should go carefully, and remember how to say, “I don’t know what this means” when that is our condition. We can all expect surprises that will make us uncomfortable, whether it’s seeing what we don’t understand or having to say what we don’t want to say.

Just know, as in The Wizard of Oz, that we are not in Kansas anymore and that’s partly why we are seeking.

I take off the outdoor panel on the low part of our house’s slope and there, filling the doorway and overflowing its way into my heart, sinuses, and sneakers, is a mixture of poop and peat moss. I take a very large shovel, like the one my Uncle John used after every milking to clean the barn, and I fill a small garden cart with four shovelfuls. Then I have to push the cart up a little hill, past the vegetable bed with its growing population of snakes, and then a bit more uphill to where my husband, Marshall Brewer, has dug a long trench for the new iris bed. It will take four days and over 100 trips to do this.

Likewise, to sort out, hear deeply, speak honestly, and accommodate all the discomfort with this topic will not take a short time. It will take many, many trips back and forth. So let’s pace ourselves for the long haul.

Oscar Wilde. He had many good points; but he was not a Quaker.

Community is worth the time and care. . . .

Fortunately, for Quakers, there is plenty of work to do (Even more fortunately, only rarely does it involve actual outhouses.)


The problem is there’s too much to do. Why is there too much to do? We have got both serious greed and serious suffering on the planet.

The first thing is that we do not do good works to save the world. We do good works to come closer to the Divine, to reform our interiors, to find the Light within us that is our God-given gift to the world.

Our task actually is to clean that Light and make it bright. It is our task to do our best. It is not our task to do our most. Your best is fabulous. My best is fabulous. What do I need to do my best for a long time?

We need a certain amount of work. It’s always going to be less than what’s needed. You can look in any corner of the world and see a hundred things that need doing. Out of that hundred you might actually have talent and expertise for ten. Out of the ten you might have time for doing two. If those two fit you — if you make friends with them and make a commitment — then you can do that work for a long time. The planet does not need for us to do good works for a short time, but to do them for a long time.

Also, the work, to be tempered for lifelong service, needs to be weathered by an exposure to betrayal.

There is another topic that came up [in the talks with old Friends] that was a surprise to me. Friends talked about betrayal as an event, a situation, that could help you deepen your spiritual life. Something extremely painful where your trust is broken, where there has been a trespass or abandonment. There was the feeling that when something is so painful that part of you dies, if you can still speak your truth, if you can maintain your integrity, betrayal will teach you that Light is the main reality. Examined troubles teach and failures teach. After trouble, we can learn more and deeper. One Friend said to me, only one, “I have no experience in betrayal.” . . .

In my work, healing from trauma is sacred learning. Can we gather up all of our calm and all of our compassion and sit down next to the monster without trying to kill the monster, without being afraid, but share a nice cup a tea with the monster and understand what it means?

Betrayal is not simply misfortune. It is a form of evil. It comes in many forms, both to individuals, and groups, and Quakers are certainly not exempt.  John does not wallow in horror stories, of which he knows perhaps too many. But his book would lack credibility, as so many others do, if it had passed by or trivialized this sobering realization.

Another common trope of much contemporary “spiritual writing is what I call “Handbasket Theology,” as in, you, me and our religious groups are all going to hell in our respective handbaskets, and we will only speed up  our descent unless we buy into the author’s gospel, program, or political (disguised as religious) agenda.

Calvi doesn’t have much truck with this; he seems almost upbeat about Quakerism and its prospects. But circumspectly so:

We have done a lot of spiritual homework and we’re no longer volunteering for work that is inappropriate to our skill package. We know what we’re good at and we’re doing it. The problem is there’s too much to do. Why is there too much to do? We have got both serious greed and serious suffering on the planet.

We need a certain amount of work. It’s always going to be less than what’s needed. You can look in any corner of the world and see a hundred things that need doing. Out of that hundred you might actually have talent and expertise for ten. Out of the ten you might have time for doing two. If those two fit you — if you make friends with them and make a commitment — then you can do that work for a long time. The planet does not need for us to do good works for a short time, but to do them for a long time.

Calvi could have been pompously vain about his outhouse. But the most rollicking piece in the book must be, “Is That The Toilet Ringing?” which mocks his own mixture of country boy twee and Iphone technology in an account of how he once dropped the phone into the very retro facility. It compresses his clumsy efforts to retrieve it into a single, brilliantly funny run-on sentence of 471 words, which concludes that the phone had

. . . then tobogganed down the slope to a nice dry resting place awaiting me patiently like a Zen lesson to say no it’s not the worst but the day is young!

Yes. These are most of the crucial ingredients for the best “spiritual” writing: Hard work. Time (to figure it out.) Facing and overcoming betrayal. Un-systematic theology, plus belly laughs. And here is one of the best Quaker examples I have seen in forever.

NOTE: How Far Have You Traveled is available in paperback and for Kindle, on Amazon.




3 thoughts on “John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel”

  1. Readable and understandable writing about spirituality and outhouses just sounds like a must-have! Thanks for letting us know.

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