In a fascinating article written in 2011 and published in The Friends Journal Chad Thralls evaluates the cost of the spiritual wisdom that Thomas R. Kelly acquired and so I draw on that paper to consider the psychological effects and suffering involved in his search for God.
In the last chapter of his spiritual classic, A Testament of Devotion Kelly writes about the cumulative outcome of complex and overly busy lives: ‘Even the necessary obligations which we feel we must meet grow overnight…and before we know it we are bowed down with burdens, crushed under committees, strained, breathless, and hurried, panting through a never-ending program of appointments.’
Admittedly quite a bit of the pressure that Kelly experienced was driven by his own desire to be recognised as a scholar and find a place that accorded him prestige. (Perhaps an inner insecurity resulting from his childhood experiences of loss and economic struggle). Finishing one PhD he started a second enrolling at Harvard and hoping for an appointment there; when this did not happen partly because the Depression was on he felt crushed returning to the mid-West. Eventually accepting a post at Haverford College in Philadelphia he reached his goal but the work for this second thesis led to ill health with kidney stones, nervous exhaustion, depression and a severe sinus condition. During the spring of 1935, Kelly ‘got out of bed only to go to his classes and returned at once to rest again.’ He had surgery for the sinus condition but there was added pressure with a young family and much debt.
Paying to publish some of the work done for his second thesis Kelly went for his viva but during this he had an anxiety attack where his mind went blank. This had happened with his earlier viva and there he had been given another chance but the Harvard committee failed him partly out of concern for his health. Kelly was devastated and sank to such a low place his wife worried that he might try to take his own life.
In the midst of this dark place his biographer writes that in November or December of 1937 he was ‘shaken by the experience of Presence— something that I did not seek, but that sought me.’ As Kelly hit rock bottom, he realized that he could not reach perfection and completeness through his ability and intense drive for success. He writes in a letter to his wife,
‘In the midst of the work here this summer has come an increased sense of being laid hold on by a Power, a gentle, loving, but awful Power. And it makes one know the reality of God at work in the world. And it takes away the old self-seeking, self-centred self, from which selfishness I have laid heavy burdens on you, dear one.’
Later in the same letter, he writes, ‘I seem at last to be given peace. It is amazing.’