First Time at Quaker Meeting

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A yearning for a spiritual community spurred my husband, Jerry, and me to a Quaker meeting three decades ago. Though I’d grown up in the Lutheran church and Jerry had been brought up as a Baptist, we both had questioned those traditions as college students.

 

In our late twenties, we’d found each  other – and a more relevant church home in an intentional ecumenical community in the inner city of Evansville, Indiana. Mutual friends had started the community, and they introduced us and nurtured our spiritual lives, our social justice consciousness, and our relationship. In 1979, two community members, ordained United Methodist ministers, had married us in the living room of the small house our group used as its base for neighborhood ministry and worship.us (1)

Two years later, Jerry and I recognized we needed more education to pursue our respective careers; Seattle offered programs for both of us. By that time, I was pregnant and due in July. We moved in the spring, hoping to settle in before the birth and the start of fall classes.

Part of our settling in included hunting for a church home without the formality of traditional worship services and one that was involved in peace and justice work. Quaker Meeting had made our list of places to check out. At that point, our only acquaintance with Quakerism, more formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, was through the American Friends Service Committee. We’d handed out anti-war brochures from the organization a couple of years earlier in Evansville when registration for a military draft had been re-instituted.

One Sunday in April, we made our way to University Friends Meeting. We paused in the doorway of the worship room, scanned the rows of molded plastic chairs arranged in a circle, then chose two seats near the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Called Meeting for Worship, this hour of sitting in silence with no minister, no liturgy or sermon, no hymn singing or scripture reading, and no kneeling and standing, was nothing like the Lutheran services of my youth. Neither did it much resemble the house church we’d attended in Evansville, with folk songs accompanied by a guitar and communion with homemade whole wheat bread and a common cup of wine.

At first I fidgeted, wondering when someone would say something. Eventually I closed my eyes, focused on my breath, and blocked out the sounds of crows skittering across the skylight and the whoosh of bus doors opening and closing at the Metro stop on the corner. I don’t remember if anyone spoke that day, but I recall I found comfort in the quiet presence of a hundred others doing the same.

Jerry and I talked later about how we both had felt at home in that simple space and service. A sense of “being at home” is commonly expressed by people when they talk about their first time at Quaker meeting. In fact, those are the words that Scott Holmes used to describe his first meeting in the recent episode of QuakerSpeak – My First Time at Quaker Meeting: “I felt like I had been wandering around a long time and had come home.”

Charlotte Cloyd explains that during her first time she was preoccupied, just as I had been.

“The first time I went to Quaker Meeting, I didn’t know how to listen, and I sat and was uncomfortable and noticed the silence and was too analytical of what the silence meant… I had to work on the process of figuring out: what am I listening for? Am I listening to myself? What’s going on? What is everyone else listening to and how does that affect the community and me?”

After our “first time,” Jerry and I attended University Meeting regularly. We were welcomed by other couples having babies, as well as seniors and singles who, when our baby unexpectedly turned out to be twins, became surrogate aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

We came to recognize that Quakerism was our path. For me, it was a place that not only allowed, but encouraged, my questions about God and faith. Anthony Smith found solace in the questioning he experienced at Quaker meeting, too.

“What impressed me about it was that there were people struggling. Not that they had the answers, but that they had questions and difficult questions that they were wrestling with, and they were trying to do so in a spiritually informed, but also very intelligent way.”

After many more times at meeting, Quakerism affirmed my belief that my faith, my work, and the way I live my life are all of the same cloth. It also gave me a vocabulary—such as the terms leading and calling—as well as tools and to open to a source of love and wisdom outside of myself to discern what I’m meant to do with my life. I remain grateful that my “first time” was a homecoming.

 

If you’ve found a spiritual home—at a Quaker meeting or elsewhere—what was your “first time” like?

 

 

 

When Process Shimmers

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Picture this. Nearly 200 people gather to define federal legislative policies and priorities. They begin their meeting in silence—a quiet that lasts for ten, fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes. They likely will return to that silence, more than once, throughout their deliberations. Their goal might be to set a legislative agenda, but equally important is the process they follow to achieve it.

That process is what most excited Dorsey Green, a Quaker from Seattle, when she served on the governing committee with Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). Dorsey explains that she cherishes Friends’ decision-making process in the recent QuakerSpeak Video, “Why Quakers Value Process Over Outcome.”

I’ve written about my view of Quaker decision-making (Decision Time) as, in the words of Eden Grace, “a sacramental encounter.” Dorsey adds to this conversation with her experience of the process during FCNL meetings.

“It’s radical to be more concerned with the process than outcome, especially in today’s culture,” Dorsey says, “but I trust—I completely trust—that if our processes is on, if we’re really looking for the God Way or God’s will for our group, we’re going to come to the right place.”

Radical indeed. That doesn’t mean that results aren’t important to FCNL; after all, the organization “… acts in faith to create a world free from war, a society with equity and justice for all, a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled and an earth restored.” But the getting there—the acting in faith—is so different from what we witness in our results-driven society. Whether it’s in sports, sales, fitness, elections, even the arts, the focus (and value) usually is on the outcome, rather than the way the outcome was achieved.

FCNL describes its purpose is to “bring spiritual values to bear on public policy decisions. Through individual and corporate worship, we try to be open to the will of God and to express the spirit of Christ in all relationships and levels of interaction, whether personal, community, national or global.” Dorsey explains how that process is different from secular decision-making:

“…our job as Quakers is not to figure out, what does everybody think will work, it’s what we feel led to do as a group and what that means is we’re not doing a competitive voting system.”

consensusWhat we’re led to do as a group. Barry Morley discusses this process in Pendle Hill Pamphlet 307 Beyond Consensus as opening “…ourselves to being guided; we turn the matter over, allowing Spirit/God/Light to show the way” and as “…a process that cares for the whole of the corporate body as well as individuals.”

Dorsey has seen what can happen when people open themselves to being guided in the way Morley describes: “… people go, ‘Oh. Right. That’s right.’ Even if no one thought of it before we walked in the room. And when you do it in a group as large as FCNL’s annual meeting …it’s like the whole room shimmers.”

I’ve seen—and felt—that shimmer too, in my own small Friends Meeting as well as in larger Quaker decision-making groups. It’s why I value this process the way Dorsey does. When we gather in thoughtful and respectful listening, open to guidance from whatever we call that Wisdom, that Presence, that Love—the sense of what we’re meant to do shines.

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Forty Hours of Silence

IMG_0768Last weekend found me again at the Quaker Silent Retreat I’ve attended almost every January since 1992. And, as usual, it was muddy and rainy at the forested Huston Retreat Center near Wallace Falls State Park. Woodstoves in the dorms dried damp socks, shoes, and jackets after hikes. Candles and flaring logs in the stone fireplace cast buttery light around the Long House where 27 of us gathered for meals and worship.

For most of us, even though we seek the silence for spiritual nourishment, remaining quiet and inward for forty hours is a challenge. Yet, we keep returning, and this retreat continues to thrive, now for somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 years. That longevity strikes me as warranting a written history, a task I felt called to begin two years ago. It’s a work-in-progress as I interview the two women who organized the first one (so far, I’ve been unable to pin down the date of that initial gathering), re-read the Common Journals that attenders write in during the retreats, survey current attenders, and send the staff at the Huston Center to their archives to answer questions about its history. At this year’s retreat, I shared a draft entitled Forty Hours of Silence: A History of Pacific Northwest Quarterly Meeting Silent Retreat, 1984-2015. Here are a few excerpts:

A longing for sustained silence compelled Kristi Rozdilsky in the early 1980s to propose to her University (Seattle, WA) Friends Meeting women’s group a silent weekend. She explains, “It just didn’t seem fair that you have to be a monk or a Buddhist in order to get a sustained period of silence where you can reach a depth to your worship and totally focus on your relationship with God.”

 When there wasn’t enough interest in the small women’s group to organize a retreat and rent a venue, Kristi approached Pacific Northwest Quarterly Meeting (PNQM) in hopes of drawing from a larger number of Friends.

 Kristi’s memories of the first retreat are dim. “I looked in my journals, but I did no reading or writing during silent retreat as a practice, so I can’t tell you anything specific. Except that everything went easy and sweet the way it does when the way opens.” Kristi’s reaction to realizing her dream of a silent weekend echoes the views of many who have attended over the years. “It’s so great not to have to talk with people, but to be close with them. Not to have to explain yourself. Not to have to follow someone else’s idea of what will nurture your spirit at that exact point in time.”

The retreat remains “easy and sweet,” even as it’s become a bit more organized.

Every fall, the Silent Retreat conveners send a call throughout the Quarterly Meeting to register for the gathering, typically scheduled on a weekend near the end of January. Current invitations describe the retreat this way:

 This retreat offers an opportunity to reach more profound depths in the Silence of Quaker worship. The weekend is not a retreat in the sense of turning away from life. It is a temporary intentional community where we seek communion with the Holy Spirit, the world around us, and each other. With God’s help, we may be led to new priorities and insight for our lives. We may reach a deeper communion with our authentic selves, our spiritual community, and with the Divine.

 Numbers of registrants range from 20 to 40. They come from meetings or worship groups on islands and inland from Port Townsend, WA to Sand Point, ID, and from Bellingham to Olympia. Often, a few isolated Friends without worshipping communities attend, and sometimes there are attenders who are friends of Friends for whom this is a new experience of Quakerism. Children willing to accept the discipline of silence are welcome, and several have attended over the years.

The Common Journals reflect a range of experiences, perceptions, and reflections about the silence. For some, remaining silent is stressful.

“I’m beginning to get over the panic of not being able to talk with all these people around me, and relax into trust that I don’t have to explain, direct, or do things exactly right.”

Many use the words fed, filled, and nourished, literally as well as figuratively, to describe their experiences. For some, it’s the river, moss, and ferns that feed and inspire. Others are filled by the mist of Wallace Falls, the crackling and dancing flames of the fire, or the wind.

“We have had the ministry of wind strongly throughout this retreat… Perhaps it helps awaken us to weather, the song of the earth, to feeling the invisible, the very air itself. Perhaps it helps strengthen our gratitude and tenderness toward each other as we feel the shelter our silence somehow creates for us.”

At the rise of Sunday morning Meeting for Worship, the group breaks the Silence, with participants typically sharing reflections on the weekend. This comment reflects the experience of many Silent Retreat attenders: “I had wondered whether 40 hours of silence would be too much—now it seems not enough.”

In 2015, the gathering experimented with the option of returning to silence after lunch on Sunday and continuing the retreat through lunch on Monday. The extension was offered again this year, and I was among the five who stayed on. My final journal entry describes my reaction to the additional 22 hours of quiet:

“It’s even harder to leave this time and place after an extra day. I want more of this quiet, this rhythm, this attentiveness to the clouds, the firs, the crackling fire, every morsel I consume, every pair of eyes and hands I encounter.”

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Next year, I expect I’ll sign up for “Sixty-two Hours of Silence.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterthought #46 – Quaker Meeting Online

My final Afterthought* of 2015 reflects further on my efforts to maintain a regular practice of centering. In my previous post, One Day More, I confessed to trying to cram a year’s worth of that practice into my Quaker meeting’s annual Silent Day. Since my visit earlier in December to Ben Lomond Quaker Center, I’ve found another resource to support me in daily silence.

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Before arriving at this Quaker retreat & conference center outside Santa Cruz, California, I’d read about the Center’s online meeting for worship. I was skeptical. But during a weekend conference there, I sat in worship in the Redwood Lodge each morning from 7:30 to 8:00 AM. At the end of worship, Center co-director Kathy Runyan read the names of folks in other locations who had logged on and sat in silence during that time, wherever they were. Since returning home, I’ve done the same many mornings, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the sense of connection I feel knowing that a dozen or more people from across the West (and sometimes beyond) are logged in, too.

You can learn more about the Quaker Center programs on the website. I’m looking forward to leading a workshop next October 28-30: Journaling as Meditation: From the Blank Page to the Divine. Perhaps we’ll worship together—there, or virtually.

 

 

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.