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.


  1. I have enjoyed reading your accounts of Quaker worship: they have taught me quite a bit about a tradition I heard of but did not know.

    Having said that, I do believe that you should attend two extra meetings in place of those you have missed, one of the reasons being that this will help with the methodological side of the book you are working on.

    Thank again, and I am looking forward to new accounts.

  2. I discovered your blog today. I followed it from The Chronicle.

    I like the simplicity with which you express your thoughts - well you're a language expert.

    I read your thoughts on Buddhist meditation.

    Have you tried Muslim prayer meditation?

    I think the right place to start is from a book titled "Even Angels Ask"
    The writer is your compatriot, also a professor (but of mathematics)and above all, shares your name!

    I can send you an e-version if you want.

  3. Hey Professor Brainy:

    I have not tried Muslim prayer meditation, but I would certainly be curious to learn more about it. I will look into the book you recommend.