Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Summing Up the Quakers: Part 1

I missed Quaker Quest again this past Sunday, and will be walking in the Worcester PKD Walk this Sunday, so it looks like I will miss all three Sundays of Quaker Quest. If you are interested in learning more about the Quakers, you can catch the last edition of Quaker Quest this Sunday from 2:00-4:00 at the meeting house on Pleasant St. Despite what you see in the logo, you won't have to wear Quaker clothes or dance to your iPod.

I hope to make it to one final Quaker Sunday worship meeting, but then I will be moving on to the practice of Zen Bhuddism—-the worship center for which is about two blocks down Pleasant St. from the Quaker house. So as I begin to conclude this first part of my spiritual journey, I thought I would write today about what I found compelling in the Quakers, and then next week about those elements to which I felt less connected.

What I know for certain I can take from the Quakers are two important values: the importance of community worship, and the connection between belief and action.

One of my Quaker books contains a great quote about the Quakers and community worship:

“Some adventurous souls attach themselves to the Society of Friends because they are attracted by the silence. They conclude that Quaker worship is simply an opportunity for meditation. The collective wisdom of the Society has never accepted that view, however, for its evangelical and liberal wings both insist that meeting is a collective activity, as its name ought to indicate. Much of what we do may be personal, but we come before the Lord in a body.”

Encounter with Silence: Reflections from the Quaker Tradition
John Punshon

I would certainly count myself as an adventurous soul who was attracted by the Quaker silence. I came to really appreciate the long periods of silence, which led—at least two times—to deep states of meditation in which I felt close to a God either within or outside of myself.

But of course there is no reason why I couldn't do that same thing at home (well, no reason except for my five children, anyway). What the Quakers insist upon is that such moments of connection with God are opportunities for us to guide one another spiritually, and to share our experiences with those around us who are also seeking. Even if I never felt comfortable enough to share my own experiences in the meeting, I appreciate the fact that we all have an obligation to testify to our spiritual lives before those around us, in the hopes of creating a more unified world.

Second, and more compelling to me, is the absolute insistence that Quaker convictions and beliefs cannot be left in the meeting house. They must be lived on a daily basis. This comes out most strongly in the Quaker testimony of peace, for which perhaps they are best known. Quakers have been conscientious objectors, ambulance drivers, doctors and nurses in all of the major world conflicts of the 20th century.

But the Quakers have been in the front lines of intervention in just about every major humanitarian crisis in the past few centuries, as well as opposing slavery in America and abroad and fighting for progressive causes like prison reform, women's rights, and humane treatment for the mentally ill. Their track record on these issues is impeccable.

Of course plenty of religions do good in the world. As my father frequently likes to remind me, the Catholic Church is the largest charitable social service provider in America.

But what I have seen in the Catholic churches I have attended has been a small handful of committed and community-minded individuals who pursue these good works and help run the church while the rest of us come and go every Sunday like tourists, stopping in for an hour out of some lingering sense of obligation.

What I saw at the Quaker House was very different. Everyone who came to the service sat for the brief business meetings afterward, and then stayed for the potluck meal. Multiple people approached me about opportunities to join the Quakers at vigils or to help serve a meal at a local shelter. These were all people who had committed to living their faith beyond their hour of Sunday worship.

I suspect this may be because the Quakers attract those who are looking for a meaningful spiritual practice than they are used to—I had conversations with several Quakers who were cast-offs from more mainstream religions. So when you come to the Quaker house, perhaps you come—as I did—because you are looking for ways to deepen your own spiritual practice, and because you hope to find new ways to live out those practices on a daily basis.

I found both of these things at the Quaker meetings, and I hope to carry them with me as I continue my journey.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Commercial Interruption

The seventh week of my sojourn with the Quakers presented two great opportunities for me to learn more, and I missed both of them. I had a school event from 10:00-2:00 pm, so I missed the morning worship meeting. But this past Sunday, and the next two Sundays, also features an afternoon event entitled Quaker Quest, which is a two-hour information session for people to learn about the Quaker faith. Click the link to learn more and to get the specific details for the next two Sundays.

Unfortunately for me, the traditional Irish group Lunasa was playing at the Worcester Hibernian Cultural Center on Sunday afternoon, and so I opted for Irish music--one of my great loves--over the Quakers. I do hope to make it next Sunday. If this blog has at all stirred your interest in the Quakers, consider taking a couple of hours on one of these next two Sundays to see whether you might have a little Quaker in you.

As I hope this blog has made clear, I find much to admire in the Quakers. They have inspired me to look very hard at my own life and spiritual beliefs, and to begin to take religion more seriously than I ever have before. Even though I will be parting company with them in a couple of weeks, to head off to explore my next spiritual tradition, I will miss them, and hope to continue practicing their form of silent worship on my own.

Check back next week for a report from Quaker Quest.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Today marked my sixth Quaker meeting; for each of the previous five weeks I have waited anxiously for someone to feel moved by the spirit of God to offer what the Quakers call “oral ministry” by sharing with us all an insight or revelation gleaned during our hour of worship.

During the course of those five weeks, while I waited in vain for someone to speak, I grew more and more accustomed to the silent hour of worship in the Quaker house—and more and more appreciative of it. Part of my reflections during the hour of silence focused on the silence itself, and upon the value it had for a spiritual life.

I have noticed that my first thirty minutes of sitting in silence in the Quaker house are usually spent struggling to remove distracting thoughts. I try not to focus on anything in particular during the hour, in order to be open to whatever messages I might receive from the spiritual realm, but that lack of focus makes it easier for all kinds of irrelevant thoughts to flit in and out of my head.

After thirty minutes of silence, though, with my eyes closed and no distractions, I do find that I enter a state of quietness and concentration unlike any other that I experience during the week. In that state I find my thoughts turning towards people I know that need prayers, or towards religious convictions that I have held or considered, or towards the bigger questions we can ask ourselves about what it means to be a human being.

As I descend into that state of spiritual concentration, tensions in my body seem to release, and I find myself in a deep state of calm and relaxation, an immensely pleasurable and contented feeling. It is only after I have reached this state that I feel open to communicating with God, or that I feel that my thoughts may come from some inspired place beyond me.

And this has begun to make good sense to me. I have never had a really rich prayer life, and I am only now beginning to understand why. Perhaps others can offer up prayers in the middle of a busy day and feel themselves connected to God, but I can see now in retrospect that such prayers never felt like much more to me than lip service.

What kind of connection can I find with God if I am trying to establish it while I am driving, drinking coffee, and listening to the radio? Should I expect God to be grateful for a little corner of my mind when I am washing dishes and thinking about class tomorrow?

So the Quaker practice of silent worship has come to seem to me like an ideal way of preparing one's mind to communicate with whatever God you might believe in. It makes good sense to me that our minds need cleaning our and purifying before we can really open them up to a God.

These reflections have evolved over my five weeks of silence, and today I was happily anticipating the hour of silent worship that I have come to savor in the Quaker meeting. Hence I was quite astonished when, around ten minutes into today's meeting, someone began speaking.

My first thought was that maybe some new guy had come in and didn't understand how things work around here. But then I opened up my eyes and saw that it was one of the meeting regulars, and I realized that he was offering a testimony. The new lover of silent worship in me immediately gave way to the writer and student of Quakerism, and I listened with great anticipation for my first testimony. According to Quaker beliefs, this was the voice of God that I was hearing.

After all that buildup, do I even really need to say how disappointing it was?

I don't want to criticize what other people may believe that God is saying to them, and no doubt I had set the bar pretty high in terms of what I expected from my first testimony, so I will not articulate specifically what this person said. I will just note that it kind of reminded me of the type of slice-of-life observation that you might hear from a late-night TV comic. Interesting, but not quite what I expected from the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe.

I was hopeful that the first testimony might lead to a flood of others, but the remainder of the meeting progressed in its usual silent mode. During the last ten minutes I felt a particularly deep spiritual connection to something beyond me, and when the end of the meeting was called the transition back to the reality of sitting in a room with a bunch of other people was a tough one to make.

In the end, I suppose I have to remember that the Quaker religion, like every other religion, consists of imperfect human beings seeking divine perfection. I have found much of value in the Quaker service and the literature of its believers, so for these final few weeks I have with them I will do my best to absorb what seems most valuable to me in their spiritual practice—which may be, first and foremost, the silence I have come to love.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Keeping Vigil

A word from the Quaker past which is still in current use in the Society today is “concern.” It means that a Friend, or group of Friends, feel a deep sense of religious compulsion, more powerful than a strong inclination, to carry out some action. Quakers are convinced that to be valid a religious outlook must always seek ways in which it can be translated into practice.

Introducing Quakers
George H. Gorman

Shortly after September 11, 2001, a small group of peace activists began standing at the corner of Highland St. and Major Taylor Blvd. in Worcester, Massachusetts every Tuesday afternoon from 3:30-5:00 pm. They selected the spot both because of its high visibility during that time of day and because it puts them in front of a World War I memorial. Some days there are a dozen or more keeping vigil; some days there may be just one or two. But they are there, every week, expressing their concern for America's ongoing war in the Middle East.

The two most regular protesters are Mike True, writer and self-described “Catholic Quaker,” and Scott Shaeffer-Duffy, a Catholic Worker who has been a longtime peace and social activist in Worcester. They were joined by just one other protester last Tuesday, the three of them keeping their lonely vigil as we showed up to participate and observe.

My brother, Tony Lang, was in town on a stateside visit from his home in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he teaches International Relations at St. Andrews University. Tony loves politics of all kinds, so he was very happy to join me on my quest to see a Quaker concern in action.

The Worcester vigil is not specifically a Quaker concern, but a number of Quakers are regulars there, Mike True the most devoted of them. As most people know, the Quakers reject all violent conflict, including and especially wars of any kind. They can date this policy back to a famous declaration made by Quaker founder George Fox, who wrote a letter to the English King in the late 17th century denouncing war and weaponry. Fox's purpose was to assuage the King's fears that the Quakers were a subversive group bent on revolution. Fox's commitment to peace has remained a mainstay of Quaker principles throughout its history.

The Quakers can hardly be accused of cowardice, though. They have consistently risked life and limb to support unpopular reforms and social movements, most of which are ones that we take for granted today. They were the first religious group to officially condemn slavery in the United States; they have championed women's rights from their founding; they fought for better conditions for prisoners and the mentally ill during the centuries when those two groups wasted away in abysmal living conditions; they have been on the ground and delivering food and supplies during many of the world's great catastrophes, from the Irish potato famine to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

All of these actions stem from the Quaker conviction that religion must be lived. The hour of silent worship on Sunday mornings represents only one part of what it means to call yourself a Quaker; acting on your “concerns” is where Quakers really earn their religious stripes.

From feeding starving peasants on the west coast of 19th-century Ireland to a handful of protesters keeping vigil in downtown Worcester can seem quite a far stretch, and I will confess that my first impression of the vigil was not all that admirable. It looked to me like a lonely and fruitless endeavor. That feeling was intensified when, just after we arrived, a man with a crewcut drove by and shouted out his window at us: “War IS the answer!”

I will confess that I was hesitant to seem like part of the protest; I immediately pulled out my notebook and camera and began acting more like an observer than a participant. My brother, though, picked up a sign and stood right next to the street, jumping in with feet first. He immediately blended right in: within a few minutes he was waving at supporters who drove by and discussing just war theory with Mike and Scott.

During the thirty minutes or so that we spent there, I spoke with both Mike and Scott about what they were doing down there. What prompted them to commit themselves to this event every Tuesday? What did they hope to accomplish?

“I'm perfectly resigned to the fact that we may be accomplishing nothing,” Mike said, with a sigh. He was holding a blue sign that said “War Is Not the Answer.”

“But coming down here helps me remember what I should be doing. If I disagree with something the government is doing, I should be out here protesting it. I should probably be in jail,” he said. Then he added, in a wistful tone, “Everybody who's really honest goes to jail.”

I had to puzzle over that one a bit, but Mike's answer struck me as a pretty good justification for engaging in political actions which might seem quixotic at times—whether or not such actions change the world, they will almost always change one important part of the world: yourself.

It also reminded me of a Quaker principle I had read about in Margaret Hope Bacon's history of the Quakers: “If you take a first step in obedience to religious impulse, a step in the Light, more Light will come.” In order for any change to occur, someone has to take that first step, even if that first step simply means changing yourself.

In the meantime, as Mike and I were talking, I began to notice that the first driver who shouted at us was more of the exception than the rule. The vast majority of drivers who acknowledged us at all did so by honking their horns and waving, or making the peace sign and waving their hands out the window, or shouting messages of support.

But my understanding of the meaning and worth of the protest really crystallized when I posed my question to Scott Shaeffer-Duffy. Scott was on his way to compete in a road race, and was decked out in his jogging outfit; he was holding a sign that said “Unite Against Intolerance” and depicted a multi-colored crew of people holding hands.

“This is a vigil, not a protest,” Scott said in response to my question. “And a vigil occurs when people stay awake while others are sleeping. Most Americans don't know or care that we are at war right now. They are asleep; we are out here to wake them up. We serve as a reminder that the war is still going on. And by standing out here, we give them a chance to remember and to talk about it.”

It was after 4:00, and Tony and I had to leave. My wife had to take some of the children to soccer practice, and we were supposed to have dinner at the Boynton afterwards—back to the sleepy routines and pleasures of two middle-aged professors with careers and families.

I know we both walked away from there, though, a little bit more awake than we had been when we got out of bed that morning.