Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Light Shines Forth

[The fourth blog entry documenting my visits to the Quaker Meeting House, where I am beginning a year-long study of alternative spiritual traditions in the United States for a new book project.]

I walked into the Quaker Meeting House this Sunday, a gorgeous late summer day here in New England, just as folks were beginning to take their places in the meeting room. I stepped into the library and quickly swapped out the books I had read in the previous week and grabbed a few new ones from the shelves. I am double-dipping into the Quaker experience right now: attending the worship meetings in the hopes of spiritual insight, all the while approaching them from the more comfortable and familiar route—for me, anyway—of study and research.

A few young children were present today, and they squirmed in their seats as I joined the dozen worshippers seating themselves in a rough circle of chairs. The mother in front of me had a fidgety seven or eight-year old next to her, and had to continually remind him to stop whispering. After around ten minutes with the children in the meeting, the door opened up and one of the ministry leaders beckoned them to go with her out to the playground in back. Although I know that sometimes the Quakers hire babysitters to take care of the children during silent worship (since my eldest daughter has done the job), sometimes one of the ministry leaders will take on the task of playing with the children and mixing in some informal religious instruction.

Of course, with the Quakers, informal religious instruction is the only kind you can get.

When the children were gone, I settled into my chair and closed my eyes, hoping for a repeat of last week's experience, when I felt profoundly moved by a spiritual insight—even if, in the end, I failed to stand up and share it with the group. But I was hopeful that in this, my fourth visit to the Meeting House, I would at least get to see somone stand up and give a testimony.

Alas, neither hope came to fruition. I am either in the midst of the longest drought of oral testimonies in the history of the Worcester Quakers, or this is a group that much prefers its silence to its spoken ministry. I feel that I have to hear at least one oral testimony before I can finish my time with the Quakers, so I will keep trudging my way up the hill to the meeting house every Sunday until Jesus speaks to someone in that room.

But today, instead of fruitful spiritual meditation, I found my mind wandering all over the place. The topic of what I would be having for lunch occupied a pretty prominent place. I did spend time thinking about all of the people in my life that needed prayer or healing, and asked for God's blessings on all of them.

It was probably near to the end of the meeting when, realizing that my meditation was going nowhere, I squeezed my eyes shut tight and popped the big question in my head:

“Jesus? Hey! Jesus? Are you in here? Are you in me somewhere?”

Like the Quakers, Jesus kept his silence.

I rephrased the question in a more helpful way: “Jesus, how will I know if you're in here?”

This time I got a response. I don't mean that a strange voice spoke in my head. It was my own voice, but it responded very quickly, and it didn't say what I would have liked it to say—which may be the best reason for believing that it came from somewhere outside of myself. The voice said this:

“You have to believe.”


“OK,” I responded, “how will I know when it's true?”

The voice came right back again without hesitation.

“You'll know it's true when you believe.”

This tautological, forehead-slapping response made me feel like letting out a Charlie Brown “Arggghhhh!” and walking right out of the meeting.

Thankfully, I didn't—because the profoundly spiritual moment, it turns out, was to come after the meeting ended.

When the hour was done, the woman caring for the children brought them back into the room.

“We've taught the children a song today,” she said, “but they only know the words, not the tune. So we were hoping that we could all learn the tune together.”

She turned to the two oldest girls and gave them a nudge.

“Go on,” she said, “ask her.”

The two girls approached an elderly woman who was sitting with her head bowed and her hands folded on her lap. This woman has been at the last few meetings I have attended; she was thin and frail, very stooped, and moved slowly and painfully with the help of a walker. During the hour of silence her head inclined so deeply towards her lap that she almost folded in upon her self. She had to be at least eighty years old, if not older.

The girls looked at each other shyly, and then one of them spoke to her.

“Would you play the song for us on the piano?”

The elderly woman looked confused at first, and sought confirmation from the children's leader, who nodded and smiled. Then the woman stood up, grabbed her walker, and approached the piano that sits in the corner of the room. I had been wondering what it was doing there, since the Quakers have no singing or music in their worship. The children's leader took a hymn book and placed it on the piano, opening it to the page of the tune the children had learned.

The elderly woman adjusted her glasses and peered closely at the hymnal, and I thought perhaps she was going to say that she couldn't see.

“Even if you just play the top melody line,” someone said, “we can sing along.”

And without another word the woman put both hands on the piano and began to play. I could see the notes from where I was sitting, and her hands, and she played it perfectly, in tune and in time. She shook her head angrily at the end, at some mistake she heard but I didn't, and then immediately started again. Halfway through this second time, the children began to sing. She finished the song and then immediately started up a third time; this time the entire congration, led by the children and their caretaker, sang through it perfectly.

I wish I could remember the lyrics now—they had something to do with God and his light shining forth in all of us, pretty standard Quaker stuff.

But what really struck me was not the meaning of the lyrics, or the quality of the woman's playing, or the way the congragation joined together in this touching moment. What I found most moving was the gesture to call the light forth from this elderly woman, to give her a meaningful place in the worship ceremony, and to demonstrate that the light in which the Quakers believe can shine forth from even the most unsuspecting places.

Next Week: My brother, an International Relations professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland, is here visiting me for the next few days. When he heard about my plans to join the Quakers some Tuesday at their afternoon war protest, he couldn't have been more excited. So he and I will join the protesters down by at the corner of Highland and Commonwealth Ave. this Tuesday, and hopefully have a chance to learn more about their commitment to peace and their belief in the power of political protest.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Small Voice Inside

God reveals Life, Truth, and Love to every human being of every race and religion, directly, without the requirement of an intermediary such as church, priest, or sacred book.

Howard Brinton

“Friends and the Spiritual Message”

Quaker Press

After twenty or thirty minutes of distracted meditation in this Sunday's Quaker meeting, my mind and body unexpectedly lit up. At the moment that the hour turned for me, I happened to be thinking about golf. Much as I would love to read this sequence of events as Jesus instructing me to take up my golf clubs and play, I am going to assume that I had just been sitting there long enough, doing my best to ignore distracting thoughts of golf and food and music, to allow me to sink into a deeper state of meditation.

I have achieved this deeper state a few times on my own, during meditation sessions which pushed into the thirty minute range. It may simply be a function of what happens to your mind when you sit quietly concentrating for an extended length of time.

Or it may be, as the Quakers would assert, the inner light of God beginning to manifest itself in you.

For me it comes as a physical sensation which seems to pulse through every every limb and muscle. You know that feeling you get when you spend a few hours plunging into waves in the ocean, and then you go home and sit on the back deck of your vacation home and have a few drinks? Your body feels simultaneously relaxed and alive—an intensely pleasant sensation, one that could lead equally to blissful sleep or to deciding to jump up and head for an evening out.

As my body relaxed into this state in today's meeting, I tried to open my mind to listen to whatever message might be in store for me. No voice thundered in my head; I heard nothing but what sounded to me like my own thoughts. And yet, very gradually, I heard those thoughts telling me something that seemed new—or at least something that, if I have perhaps heard before, startled me with the simplicity of its insight.

I pondered on this thought for a while, and rode pleasantly on the blissful physical sensation that accompanied it. The impression grew stronger in me that this insight was indeed coming from somewhere beyond myself; that perhaps I was finally hearing the God within me. The thought flitted through my head that perhaps this was the kind of insight that led people to stand up and give testimony.

When I heard the clerk of the meeting stand up, I opened my eyes, thinking that the meeting had come to a close. I was still so deeply engaged in my own reflections that the first words he spoke sounded like complete gibberish to me, and for a moment I wondered whether he was speaking in tongues.

But then his words became clear, and I sparked up at the thought that I was about to witness my first Quaker testimony. At last I would get the chance to hear what the voice of God sounded like as it emerged from the mouth of a fellow worshipper.

“There's an old joke,” the clerk said, with his hands folded and his eyes to the ground, “that says 'Lord, let me be chaste, but not just yet.' I have the feeling that some in this room are thinking the same thing about testimony right now: 'Lord, let me speak in a meeting, but not quite yet.'”

I looked at him in astonishment; was it possible he was speaking to me? If he was, he betrayed no sign of it. His eyes remained firmly fixed on the ground.

“For the last ten minutes of the meeting,” he said, “I invite you to share any thoughts you have had during our session today, so that our worship may bear much fruit. I feel that some here are ready to speak today.”

Then he paused, and shrugged slightly.

“Or,” he said, in true Quaker fashion, “perhaps not.”

And he sat down.

So this was it. I had been sitting for three weeks now, waiting to hear someone's testimony, to know what it sounded like to hear the voice of God, and of course that was not how it was going to work. I was being called upon, as if the clerk could read my mind, to share the insight I had gleaned during the meeting.

The physical sensations in my body intensified. Perhaps this was God's way of steeling me up for the testimony; or perhaps, as I like to think now in retrospect, it was simply a rush of adrenaline as I prepared myself to stand. I shuffled my feet; I rehearsed in my mind exactly what I was going to say:

“A little while ago I started thinking about all of the people in my life who need healing right now. And as I went through the list in my head, I realized that—in every case—there was something I could do to help promote the healing they needed. And it occurred to me that perhaps this is what you all mean by the idea that God exists in each one of us. That we shouldn't expect miracles to come from the sky; that God does his work through each one of us. That when we act in kindness and love to one another, we are cultivating and revealing the God within. And if that's what you mean, then I'm grateful to have learned that from you.”

I looked around, seeing if anyone else was preparing to stand. A man across the room was staring at me; I looked away from him and met the eyes of a woman a few seats away. I closed my eyes and prepared to stand.

But doubts now clamored for my attention. Was there a specific form into which you were supposed to put your testimony? Should I introduce myself first? Did I need to explain that I was not really a Quaker, but that I was just visiting? Should I mention that I was writing a book about my spiritual experiences this year?

More importantly, I began to wonder whether I really had anything insightful to offer. Were my thoughts anything more than basic greeting-card inspiration?

The minutes ticked away, and my doubts outweighed my inspiration. I never stood, and nobody else did either. The clerk eventually reached out to shake hands with his neighbor, signaling the end of the meeting. I shook a hand or two, and then remained seated, confused and uncertain, as we went around the circle, introducing ourselves and listening to announcements.

Walking out of the meeting house, I had the heartsick realization that I had betrayed the very insight I hoped to share. I had come to meetings for three weeks now and been waiting eagerly for God to speak through some inspired person in the room, to break the silence with divine guidance, to demonstrate for me workings of the small voice of God inside.

I can hear now, clear as a bell, what any Quaker might have told me afterwards: that all the time I was waiting, there was indeed an inspired person in the room—but he sat there silent and afraid, ignoring the small voice of God inside.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Living the Faith

Living the Faith

Today I attended my second meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, at the meeting house on Pleasant Ave. in Worcester. This week was a much fuller session, with around 20 people in attendance, ranging in age from 80+ down to an infant. The children left after the first few minutes, and then it was exactly like last week: one hour of complete silence.

I was certain that today, in such a larger meeting, I would get to hear someone stand up and give a testimony, but no such luck. I have the slightly paranoid feeling that perhaps the Quakers are just tolerating my presence in sullen silence, and that as soon as I stop coming to the meetings, they'll return to their normal weekly practice of guzzling small beer, wearing old-fashioned hats, and testifying like crazy.

Actually, though, everyone at the meeting house was incredibly friendly. I wasn't in the door for more than thirty seconds by the time three people had introduced themselves to me. One of them explained that, after last week's meeting down in Providence, she thought the attendance would still be lower than usual today.

“Everybody's had their fill of Quakerism, huh?” I said.

“That's right!” she said, with a laugh, “We're all Quaked out!"

I had a chance to sort through a lot of the literature they had out in the side room today, and noticed for the first time a library of books on Quakerism and religion in general. I picked up a dozen little booklets on everything from Quaker attitudes towards marriage (the pamphlet included vows to be read at both heterosexual and homosexual marriages), violence (they're against it), and other religions (they are all for them).

Reading through everything afterward, I was really struck by the way in which Quakers reject almost every form of authority when it comes to religion. Not only do they reject the use of priests or bishops or even church leaders—they don't even accept the ultimate authority of the Bible, although they consider themselves a Christian religion. The Bible, according to their literature, is a testament to God's revelation through history—and since God's revelation throughout history is an ongoing process, no single statement or document should be treated as final and authoritative. The most fundamental principle of Quakerism is the idea that God lives within each one of us, and hence every one of us has the potential to receive a revelation as true and binding as those received by the scripture writers, saints, popes, and so on.

As someone who has chafed against every form of authority I have ever encountered, I find the Quakers kindred spirits in this regard. I also have never been much for the pomp and circumstance of religion, or for spending lots of money on buildings and religious finery, so the simplicity of the meeting house—an empty room with chairs in a circle—has a tremendous appeal to me.

I suspect that the aversion to authority creates some strange administrative moments in the meeting house, though. After our hour of worship, a member of the Buildings and Grounds Committee stated the committee's recommendation that some bushes in front of the house be cut down prior to the house being painted. He asked for approval from the meeting. Nobody spoke. He looked to the clerk, who didn't seem too sure what to say. Finally, someone shot his hand up in the air and said: “Approved!”

I couldn't tell whether this statement came from reading some spiritual decision barometer that I didn't have access to, or whether it was simply the affirmation of the most decisive person in the room. In either case, it ended the discussion. The bushes were goners.

I'll finish this Sunday's blog with one final note that really struck a chord with me as well. Several people talked about the plans for the meeting house being painted, and reviewed with us all the different quotes they had, which ranged pretty widely in price. They explained their decision for the quote they accepted, and that explanation included the following information: a group of them had gone over the quote, the number of workers who would be painting, and the cost of supplies, and calculated what the hourly wage of the workers would be. Only after they had satisfied themselves that the wage was fair were they willing to accept the quote. They also made sure the company had worker's compensation, unemployment insurance, and so on.

“And,” added a woman, “they are a family company and seemed to be people who lived simply, so we thought they were right for the job.”

I couldn't help think to myself, as I was listening to this conversation, how many churches would have reviewed the numbers like that, and made sure their painters were getting a fair wage, before hiring them? How many of us would have done that?

How many of us should?

If you're here in Worcester, you know that the Quakers stand down at the corner of Highland and Lincoln street every Tuesday from 3:00-4:30, protesting the US's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of protesters range from two or three to up to a dozen. This protest has always struck me as a strange and quixotic quest, given the limited nature of the US engagement they are protesting, and the tiny number of protesters. But they are out there every Tuesday, no matter the weather. A fundamental principle of Quakerism is living the faith. If you believe in ending violence, you find ways to live out that belief.

I will join them at their protest next week to see for myself the Quakers living their beliefs, and talk to them in more depth about what they believe and why.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What Do I Do with My Mind?

I am embarking on a new nonfiction book project this year, and I hope to provide updates and occasional reflections on it here. I conceived of this project six or seven years ago, and pitched it to my then-agent as a follow-up to my first memoir, Learning Sickness: A Year with Crohn's Disease. She was pretty skeptical about the sale-ability of the idea, so I took her advice and shelved it. I was younger then and more desperate to get my books into the hands of the public. Now that I have published a few books, I'm going to write what I want to write.

The book will be a participant-observer account of a handful of spiritual traditions and religious practices, in the wake of my 40th birthday and growing disaffection with the Catholic church in which I was raised. I am taking it slow, so I haven't yet decided which traditions I will focus on. I will update here as I go, and as I make decisions, and I welcome suggestions from readers. I do hope to focus on traditions that are somewhat out of the mainstream of contemporary American society, to try and dig down and find out what turns people towards religious ideas and practices that are outside of the typical American avenues for worship or spirituality, and which perhaps require deeper levels of commitment than an hour of Sunday mass. I do intend to travel to some sacred places as a part of the project--I'm hoping to learn of unusual religions located in the Bahamas.

But I'm starting closer to home. I began today by attending the Sunday worship of the Quakers, otherwise known as the Society of Friends. The worship house is located just a few long blocks from my house; I have driven, walked, or biked by it a thousand times, and never set foot in until today. I was inspired to begin with them because I have been reading The Great Hunger, an account of the Irish potato famine of 1845-49, and learned from it that the Quakers were one of the few organizations that stepped in and provided real help to the starving peasants in the west of Ireland during the famine years--doing as much, if not more, to save people from starvation than the British government did. Reading about their work during the famine made me want to find out more about this religious tradition.

In case you don't know--and I didn't--a Quaker service consists of everyone sitting for an hour in chairs in a circle, in silence, and listening for God's voice within them. No priest, no books, no music, no spoken prayers. Nothing. IF someone hears God speak to them, and IF he or she feels inspired, they can stand up and state their "testimony" for all to hear. Then it's back to silence. If God happens to be busy that day mowing the lawn or something, and doesn't speak to anyone, then the meeting consists of an hour of complete silence--which is what happened on the day I went.

As it happened, I showed up for a Quaker service on the day when most local Quakers were at some regional meeting in Rhode Island, apparently having a meeting in which they talked to one another instead of sitting in silence, discussing Quakerism and all things Quaker. So there were just five of us there at the meeting house--three regulars and two newbies, myself included.

For someone raised on the Catholic mass, where the sitting and standing and praying and singing portions of the program are pretty continuous, this format is quite a departure. It must have been for the other newbie, who asked the person who greeted us how the service worked. The leader replied that we would sit in silence for an hour, to which this man then responded:

"But what do I do with my mind . . . while we're sitting here? What do I do with my mind?"

And that seemed to me like as good a question as any to help launch a year of living spiritually--what do I do with a mind that always seems to be roaming in search of something new, and that has never seemed to me capable of finding rest in this world alone.

What do I do with my mind?

I'll be back at the Quakers next week, to see a fuller worship session in progress, so I'll write more about the Quakers next week--and perhaps about some of my sensations and impressions during my hour of silence, which ranged from trying to ignore the growling stomach of someone in the room to some more profound meditative--and perhaps even transcendent--moments.