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.


  1. Jim,

    This is an interesting foray into spirituality. The Quakers are unique in many ways -- and yet there are at least some commonalities with other denominations. The notion of a "priesthood of all believers" is something I grew up with, and my Unitarian Universalists harken back to the individualistic spirituality of Emerson and Thoreau. But views are thus more divergent on issues such as peace. I love the focus of the Quaker commitment to protesting on Tuesdays.

    You might consider a foray to New Bedford and the Whaling Museum and such, as Quakers dominated the city and the whaling industry in the 1800s. Captain Ahab was said by Melville to be a "Quaker with a vengeance." That's more about the general culture than what happens in the service, so it may be off course from the focus of the blog, but, hey, any excuse for a road trip.

    Good luck with the blog!

  2. Hi Jim! Bill also thought he was having a heart attack last year, but, tests came out normal. Interesting... Do you think its turning 40? Well, I admire you for doing something about it. This is very intersting. I too have had a recent disaffection for Catholicism. Can't wait to hear what you discover about other religions.

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