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Finding a Balance Between Spirituality and Social Action: An Interview with Catherine Whitmire

By Angelina Conti:

When I interviewed Cathy Whitmire from her home in the Puget Sound, the offices of Friends General Conference in Philadelphia were well into the throes of a major renovation. The sounds of band saws and drills, and the coming and going of workmen and equipment, swirled around me while I strained to hear her clear, calm voice through the phone. While our conversation about faithfulness and leadings unfolded, it struck me that speaking with her was much like reading her books: finding nourishment and calm amidst chaos, and a way to hear the clear voice of Friends amid the din of a less than ideal (albeit potentially transformative) situation.

Like many Quaker authors, Cathy Whitmire articulates her inspiration to produce books as a leading and as written ministry. While her first book, Plain Living, gathered writing from Friends on simplicity in many aspects of life, the newly released Practicing Peace focuses on Friends’ peace testimony, nonviolence and peace making. Both books are intended firstly for non-Quakers, though they offer a lot to Friends as well. What is most amazing about Cathy Whitmire’s work, especially considering not only the beauty and power of her books but also their success, is that she doesn’t like to write and does not identify as a writer. Identifying instead as an author, “someone who knows they have something to say,” her work is an example of the transformation that can occur when we follow leadings to do things we find difficult or think of as being outside our abilities.

Plain Living: A Quaker Path To Simplicity Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk Through The Quaker Tradition

AC: How is your new book, Practicing Peace, different from your first book, Plain Livingv? How are they in dialogue?

CW: I see them as companion books. They each came out of a leading, but it was clear to me that one leading led to the other. They are similar in as much that I wanted the tradition to speak for itself and I wanted to use the words of Friends directly. Both of these books are written for non-Friends about Friends testimony. And because we are an experiential people, I wanted readers to experience directly what it means to reflect on the words and journals and spiritual journeys of those who have gone before.

In terms of how they are different, there are more stories in Practicing Peace. Each chapter begins with both a Bible quote and a story of Friends response to the various topics. I would say that’s the primary difference.

AC: What has been your process for gathering writing excerpts, both for Plain Livingv and Practicing Peace? How did you gather the stories you use to introduce sections in Practicing Peace?

CW: Practicing Peace took me about five years. It grew out of a leading that followed 9/11. After 9/11 I found myself led to do watercolors of oceans of light over oceans of dark, and I just did one after another. I decided that I would turn them into cards for friends who were full time activists and were already feeling burnt out after the first week.

I was going to put the George Fox quote about seeing the ocean of light over the ocean of dark, [about] how he had great openings, [on the watercolor]. It felt to me that the message of that time was that it was [and is] a time of great opening in the midst of all of the chaos. So I started making these cards and then I thought “I have some quotes left over [from Plain Livingv] that I never used, on peace and justice and so on, so I will run those off and include them with the cards so that people can use them.”

And when I went to run them off I discovered that I had sixty five pages. It was the only topic where I had over-collected. I simple couldn’t believe it. And so I looked at it and I thought “Oh good grief, no one will ever get through all this,” so I started organizing it into little chapters and then much to my surprise I found myself putting Bible verses at the top of each chapter. I was absolutely compelled, I felt like I couldn’t leave the computer. So finally I looked at it and I thought “Now it needs a little table of contents so people know where to find things.”

And as I was doing that, I have to confess, I yelled “Oh No!” out loud in my study.

I’m an author but I don’t consider myself to be a writer, and the idea of doing a second book had never occurred to me. I looked and all of a sudden I knew that what I had been doing was the beginning of a second book. I was in total denial about it for the first forty eight hours, thinking “this can’t be happening” even though I knew it was.

I do spiritual direction groups and I was doing one for Portland Meeting, so I went to the group and during the twenty minutes of silent worship before we began somebody said “I have a message for Cathy and I have no idea what it means.” And she said “What is the pace?” Well I knew what the pace was, it was torrent. Anytime I left the computer I felt such energy going through me it was uncomfortable. I could hardly sit still. [The woman who spoke] was somebody who did body work, and – something else that had never happened in the group before – she came and stood behind me and without touching me put her hands by my shoulders. At meeting three days later she said to me, “I just want you to know, I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but you were emitting so much energy that my muscles ached.”

At that point I was not ready to say there was anything going on. I was in dialogue with God, to be really honest, saying “I’ve done a lot of things, this seems like a lot, and I’m not sure I’m prepared, there are lots of better people.” I actually actively prayed the names of other Quaker authors.

The sense of really being nudged didn’t go away. In a way of sort of proving, I took about two hours one morning and wrote up a really short book proposal and sent it off, and went and had lunch and came back twenty minutes later and there was a reply from the publisher saying “How fast can you do this book?”

So when I told my Quaker writers group, Jan Hoffman just laughed – they’d been listening to me say “never again” and she said “Do you remember that leading you had walking on the beach in prayer one day that you told us about? The leading that said the first book would make the second book possible? And at the time you said you couldn’t imagine what that meant?” And for me that was what that meant. So I started with those first sixty five pages and then I sat and I prayed about it and I went through different catalogues of Quaker materials and looked to see what I could get online, again making lists of people I wanted to contact for stories, and I kept praying about it. The first version of the book that I did – I will be honest, I was trying to get it over with – was a book for peace activists, and I knew that wasn’t the book I was supposed to write. I had to go deeper and find more about the spiritual roots of the testimony. I spent probably the most time in terms of actual libraries at Harvard Divinity School and I spent about a week down at the Peace Collection in Swarthmore. I was on a first name basis with the librarians in Cape Elizabeth who did all of my interlibrary loans with me. And I just kept following certain threads and I became clear that I was looking for people who reflected and talked about the spirituality of peace making. Those are the people whose voices I tended to use because that was what I was led to write about. It was a wonderful process and the sense of leading stayed through the whole five years, even when I got really tired. I felt like I could meet God at the computer.

For awhile I complained loudly about doing this, but towards the end I began to realize that I was going to miss the closeness that being so clear that what I was doing was a leading that I began to worry “Where am I going to meet the Spirit with this intensity, everyday in my life, again?”

It was a very powerful process for me, and when I would go to, let’s say, Harvard, there were times when I would stand in front of the bookshelf and pray. I always came with long lists of things that I had researched and wanted to read: manuscripts, various things, but often I just stood there and prayed and would have again and again the wonderful experience of reaching up for a book that was not on the list and reading it and finding something wonderful. So it was both systematic and an ongoing reflection.

AC: Could you talk more about leadings you’ve had to produce books in general and what experiences in your life have helped to foster this particular ministry to Friends and non-Friends?

CW: I never saw myself as a writer. It was not something I aspired to do. In fact, it was something that came really hard for me and something that I avoided. My background is in social service, as both a community organizer and as a social service administrator, and then I made a midlife career change and went to divinity school and was a hospital chaplain. But through it all there was one thread, and that was that I didn’t like to write. Imagine my surprise when about nine years ago I suddenly started getting a nudge to write. I couldn’t believe it and I prayed “God, I’ve been willing to do a lot of different things, but not this. I think I’m mildly dyslexic. It’s painful for me. There must be somebody else to do this.” But it didn’t go away, so I finally called my friend Margaret Benefiel and asked her if she wanted to do some contemplative writing days and so it was a process that we started together.

She started her book, and I didn’t know what I was starting. I just had this nudge to write, and I didn’t know about what. I just kept writing small things and I never sent them in for publication, but the feeling did not go away. My son was getting ready to go away to college and one night at the dinner table he said “Mom, would you write down those things that you say?” I was totally stunned and aware that he asked for the quotes and not the lecture series. For Christmas that year I gave him a book of quotations, and in the process my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I said “Well you know I’m doing this database project for Zach and I actually don’t have a database that’s really good,” so that’s what I got for Christmas. So I started collecting Quaker quotes and about that time I signed up for a class called “So you want to write a book,” and I went and everybody but me was there with a manuscript.

It’s really hard to explain a Quaker leading to non-Quakers. Everybody went around and talked about their manuscript and I talked about how I had this spiritual nudge to write and I was waiting to find out what. What we learned that night was how to write a book proposal and that was really helpful. In the next six months I remarried, we’d been planning on it for a number of years, and I moved to Maine. The day that we got back from our honeymoon I turned on the computer and much to my amazement there was an e-mail from a book publisher asking me to write a book. And that was when I discovered that among the disciples I would have been Thomas. I turned off the computer, went and did other things, came back about ten minutes later, turned it on again, and only when it was still there did I go and tell my husband. And he said “Well, what are you going to do?” And I said “Well, I don’t know. If there is a book there, a leading, then I’ll do it.” So the next day I spent some time in meditation and then I sat down – keep in mind the only thing I knew how to do was a book proposal – and I wrote a book proposal. I discovered that I had the title, I knew who I was writing for and why I was writing it, I knew how I wanted it to be organized and how long it would take. I even had in my mind market comparison books. So after a couple hours I showed it to my husband and he was amazed, and he said “How long have you been thinking about this?” And I said “I have no idea.” It really felt like a trust walk to do [Plain Livingv].

Having a leading like that is a very humbling experience in as much that you recognize that you are not necessarily the best person to do it, it’s just that you had a nudge to do it and you were willing to follow it. It often felt akin to being nudged to stand up and sing in meeting as a tone deaf tenor, which I am. I discovered that there was a sense of unfolding about it and I just kept following that sense of unfolding and so I became quite dependent on the sense of being led because it was clear to me that I could not do this on my own and didn’t have a clue. So I lived with a lot of gratitude.

When Plain Livingv had just been released and I was supposed to do a lot of publicity and things for the publisher, and I had this other leading, it meant laying all that aside. I met with a clearness committee before I agreed to do Practicing Peace. I also did discernment with my friend Margaret, and she said “Cathy, if there is really a leading you have to trust it, and Plain Livingv will do just fine on its own.” It was a very sad feeling. It was like having a little child and sending it off into the world by itself, but there it went. I just trusted that I was doing what I was supposed to do, and it turned out just fine.

Rachel Remen talks about the difference between a writer and an author. A writer is someone who loves the craft of words and is deeply involved in that, and gifted in that. And then she says there are authors, of which she considers herself to be one, and an author is someone who knows that there is something that they’re supposed to say. So that’s why I consider myself an author as opposed to a writer. Although the publisher tells me that now with two books I have to start calling myself a writer.

AC: Lucy Duncan told me that you spoke about “planting our visions deep in the furrows of the world's pain” at the Quakers Uniting in Publications meeting in 2006. Can you say more about that? How does it relate to your writing, editing, and ministry?

CW: That quote is from Thomas Kelly. I remember putting that in my QUIP notes. It seems to me that it comes from the Thomas Kelly quote that goes something like “No giant figure of heroic size will stalk across the stage of history today. But in simple, humble, imperfect people like you and me wells up the spring of hope.”

I believe that that’s what Friends do. We sew seeds of hope. In this time of despair and great turning I feel that Friends have a message that is important to share: what it means to find that of God in everyone and everything, to respond and act in love in the first motion, and to open ourselves to being guided by the spirit within.

AC: What is your hope for Practicing Peace?

CW: My hopes for Practicing Peace are that it will meet people from other denominations without peace testimonies, that it will be helpful to them in their spiritual journeys as they reflect on what it means to live with peace and find peace and make peace at this moment in history and to provide the knowledge that we’re not starting from scratch, that we’re not reinventing the wheel, that Friends are a living and ongoing tradition and example that reflects what I believe is the early Christian idea of peace and nonviolence.

When I have spoken to groups – whether it be Lutherans or Methodists or Episcopalians or Catholics – they ask by what authority I speak. And I think that was what led me to put Bible verses at the beginning of each chapter, because I’m trying to communicate with people in words that will speak to them and make this information accessible to them. And this is how our tradition is indeed rooted: in those ancient texts.

AC: On the subject of texts, what books have been powerful or influential for you spiritually?

CW: Thomas Kelly. Leo Tolstoy – I’ve read everything he’s ever written. Some of my favorite contemporary Quaker writers would include, in terms of writers I included in the book, Helen Steven, Jo Farrow. Rufus Jones is an ongoing important influence in my life, [as is] Howard Macy’s book Rhythms in the Spirit. So those would be books that have been important to me.

AC: Are you working on any new projects right now?

CW: I’m still trying to finish [some work for] Practicing Peace. As you know my parents have not been well, so there are details and pieces from the publisher that I’m still finishing. I’ve felt in the past six months that there was a stirring for another project, but that’s going to have to wait till a long ways in the future.

AC: You mentioned going to divinity school. Can you talk more about what led you to that direction?

CW: When I was in high school I felt led in that direction. I was Presbyterian then, and I was president of the youth group. And I remember that the minister called me into his office and said that various church elders had been keeping an eye on me and hoped that I would consider going into the ministry. The effect it had on me was to crystallize questions that I had. Presbyterians were not ordaining women, so they weren’t inviting me to be a minister, they were inviting me to go into youth religious education. And it was also during the 60’s and I was volunteering in the inner city. [I noted] the lack of involvement on the part of my church, and I was young and it was easier to be judgmental about the racism of the church than it was to look within myself and the omissions in my own life. So I was living with a question of “If God is all loving, all knowing and all powerful, then why am I working in the inner city with children with stomachs swollen from hunger?” It took me about ten years of struggling with that question to really make peace with it.

I had a very powerful experience where that got resolved, and at that point I was a director of a social service agency and had not spoken out loud about wanting to go to divinity school to anybody, but it had been a rising sense that this was something I was supposed to do. I couldn’t believe, it just didn’t fit with my life, but it kept coming up and coming up. [I went to a workshop and] the person leading the workshop, Sharon Parks, who is actually a Quaker, without knowing [it], at the end of that workshop called me aside and said “I just sense that divinity school is on your path, and when you do, I hope you’ll consider Harvard,” which is where I went. I simply was stunned that she said out loud what I had not said out loud. So that was how I ended up there.

It feels to me that my life has been constantly finding a balance between spirituality and social action, going from being a chaplain to working at AFSC to being a spiritual director. So in some ways, in retrospect, I realized that I had been really well prepared through my work during the war on poverty with undocumented workers in the orchards of Washington State, through my work in the inner city, through my work with AFSC. In some ways I’ve realized that I was [always] in a position to write this book, to tie it back in to writing Practicing Peace.  

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