When attending a Quaker workshop, be prepared to be watched. Oh yes, listened too, but also watched.
“When you sit in worship, I noticed your energy change when you sit up straight from when you fold over. You have so much joy when you sit up straight.”
A great workshop weekend titled “Cultivating Ministry” held from Friday evening through Sunday lunch at Powell House near the Hudson River Valley in New York gave the 26 of us in attendance and leadership a chance to get to listen to each other and Spirit/Divine/God speak through each other’s words and in the silence. Quaker worship in the New England area is primarily unprogrammed in style, meaning that the group gathers, sits facing each other, and grows quiet in order to listen inwardly for the “Still, small voice” of God to speak. God lays a message on you at times and, out of the silence, you can be pulled up as if by a force outside of yourself to speak what has been given you. Usually messages sound like good advice or scriptural interpretation, or tell a story of something that happened once that tells us something about the activity of goodness in the world, implying the positive work of Spirit. Because the Quakers have, since their origins of the 17th century, believed that there is that of God in everyone, then everyone has the possibility of receiving and delivering a message. This message is called “vocal ministry” and forms the foundation of Quaker worship practices. The structure of worship is to cultivate the ground for Spirit to make itself known through human language. It reflects the larger belief that all of creation speaks of God’s goodness.
And so, I went to the workshop because of my own questions about what to listen for in the silences of life. Perhaps it is my musical training, or my love of sleep, but I really like the contrasts of sound and silence, and appreciate the quality when a group of people can be quiet together. It seems as if there is a magical quality to the piannissimo parts of music, when the hush of music pulls us closer and a room of people listening get all attentive… or just fall asleep. Whatever that is makes me feel at ease and also expectant. The Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) have a great tradition of sitting and listening. I went to hear from those practiced in this tradition about what they are listening for, what they are striving for when they listen, and what the results of their practices are for themselves and for their community.
A man came to Quaker meeting for the first time. He had heard about Quakers as peaceful people working for peace in the world and was impressed with what seemed like a nice group of people. He walked into the meeting house on a Sunday and sat down in a chair next to another man, joining a group of about 20. No one was talking. A few more folks showed up, sat down, but no one said anything. The new guy finally plucked up the nerve and whispered to his neighbor, “When does the service start?” His neighbor whispered back, “At the end of worship.”
The rise of worship is the end, when “all hearts and minds are clear,” meaning you don’t have anything that is burning to be said at the moment. And in modern practice, the “end” is an hour after the worship was advertised to begin. But it would seem that keeping worship to an hour or so is only a relatively recent practice, and that through the first half of the 20th century, Quakers could meet for several hours. They still do on special occasions. But they will let you know in advance so you aren’t feeling stuck!
But at no time in the weekend did I feel stuck or trapped. We mixed 30 minute worships with 1.5 hour workshops on topics about types of spiritual gifts, activities to practice discerning gifts in others, looking at how spiritual gifts might effect a community of Quakers, and how one is faithful to the gifts that they are given. Like all religious groups, the Quakers have a coded language—words that weigh heavier or that reflect thick concepts for those inside the group. Instead of the typical Christian codes of “salvation” or “Jesus’ redemptive love” or “God’s grace,” Quakers in this part of the United State more often sound like well-mannered hippies. (And actually, many of them are. There were six of us 26 40 or younger). The effect of their intention in listening to Spirit or God or whatever may move in the silence is no less radical or counter-cultural than what traditional Christian language is also trying to break through: they want to show that love, not greed or competition, is the foundation of all relationship. What distinguishes Quakers from other Christians for me is that they do this by privileging listening. Yes, there is talking, and sometimes, lots of it, but they have a mechanism for countering the habits of mind and society that attaches effectiveness exclusively to expression.
And so, am I happy that this person wanted to tell me that I have poor posture and that I would do better by myself (and the community) by sitting up and letting my body be a channel for some sort of naturally-or divinely-occurring joy?
I am definitely uncomfortable about it: who is watching me? Are they seeing something profound or only a projection? What is the concern exactly? Is it about my back or about my ability to receive something like a Divine message?
But also, someone just told me that they are listening with all of the being they have—eyes, ears, gut, heart, mind. Expanding what to pay attention to, being back pain or voices of the divine, is going to first start with listening.
After a weekend, I can’t say that I know what I am listening for or if I am being addressed by the divine. Of course, I admired the confidence that this gathering possessed and that they came to remarkable sound and sane conclusions from their unorthodox processes. Also, let me be clear: I would not be hanging out with these folks if they said that God told them that gays are sinful, Muslims are misguided, etc., and there is a lot in this process that can look like finding God telling them what their liberal, egalitarian valued selves want to hear and promote.
But, after a weekend of white folks from New England talk about what comes from the divine, I am not discouraged about this process. I am still committed to listening AND I am now more prepared to recognize that it is the liberal conclusions that these folks arrive at that attaches me to them. I don’t get the divine, this is true, but I get the people: I get that they are inspired, that they are moved, that they want to improve the world. And I get that they think it starts with listening in the silence. I don’t get to say that it’s what God wants, but it is what I want. And that, my Friends, is a relatively harmless want and that is my truth. and Friends say that is enough.