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.


  1. Really great post, Jim! Just remember that the Society of Friends is not an alternative spiritual tradition. They are a foundational religion in America. Brother Billy founded Pennsylvania in 1680. :-)

  2. I love the power of silence (especially sitting in silence with others) and the ease of sitting, allowing the empty space to be just empty. Makes me think that as a Christian the empty tomb might be the better symbol rather than the cross. Hard to live with emptiness in our busy American culture. Thank God for the Quakers and their sitting tradition. Peace, Nicki