Monday, October 11, 2010

Summing Up the Quakers: Part 2

Spirituality seems a lot like sin to me in one important way. When you find yourself in the habit of doing something you know you shouldn't, it gets easier and easier to do the thing you know is wrong. Every time you do it, you feel a little less guilty about it, and pretty soon it hardly seems wrong anymore. This principle, of course, works in the reverse. The more you can stop yourself from doing what you know you shouldn't, the easier it gets.

To paraphrase Aristotle very loosely, we are not born “good” or “bad.” If you want to be good person, just start doing good works—every time you perform one, you are building yourself into a good person.

Likewise, if you want to be a spiritual person, you need to establish and stick to your spiritual practices, whatever they may be—praying, singing, volunteering, attending church, and so on. The more committed and regular you can be with those practices, the more spiritual you will become.

This principle definitely applied for me to the spiritual practice of Quaker worship, which consists of an hour of communal silence, broken occasionally by unrehearsed testimony from those who feel inspired. After I had been to three or four meetings, I found it easy to walk into the House, sit down, and begin to meditate. Thirty or forty minutes later I would find myself in thoroughly embedded in spiritual communion with something beyond myself. And I definitely found myself sympathetic to many Quaker ideas and ideals, which made me look forward to coming back each Sunday.

This past Sunday, though, was my first visit to the Quaker house after a two-week hiatus, and that lapse in practice made it just about impossible for me to get back into the Quaker spiritual groove. I sat in the room with fifteen or so others and did my best to pray in ever means and manner I could think of. One person gave a testimony, describing a recent talk he had attended which had spiritual implications, but other than that it was sixty minutes of silence—and, for me, sixty minutes of fidgeting and distraction. I felt no deep connection to myself or anything beyond me.

That's my fault, of course—I had lapsed in my practice, and I am mentally preparing for my next spiritual tradition, so neither my head or my heart were as committed to it as I should have been. But the experience highlighted for me what ultimately left me wanting about the Quakers, and what will make it unlikely for me to return to them when I finish this year of spiritual searching.

Initially I found myself appreciative of the Quaker rejection of ritual and ceremony and hierarchy. Since the Quakers believe that God is within each one of us, they see all of the formal elements of religion—priests, churches, ceremonies, worship rituals, songs—as superfluous. If God has something to say to me, according to the Quakers, or if I have something to say to God, we'll communicate directly. All of this seemed to me like a welcome change from the Catholic worship ceremony, which sometimes feels like an acrobatic act in which you are constantly being directed to sit, stand, kneel, shake hands, come up front, go back to your seat, sing now, be quiet now, and so on.

But I have begun to realize, in the absence of such formal rituals, how they can be helpful in preparing us for worship and marking its transitions. Beginning a worship service with a song, for example, provides a way to focus your attention from the outset; the music guides your mind to an ordered place, and the lyrics sound spiritual themes. When the three minutes of the opening hymn are up, you are standing and ready to begin, with your mind and heart on the hour in front of you. Your eye can look just about everywhere around you and see signs and symbols of your religion. The song at the end of the service provides a similar function—it helps transition us out of worship back into the world.

When you walk into a Quaker service, by contrast, you walk into a bare, empty room, and sit down in a padded folding chair. You can't help but wonder what everyone else is thinking about, or whether anyone else might talk, or what everyone brought for potluck. Even on my best days of Quaker worship, it took a good fifteen or twenty minutes of start-up time before I really began to feel like I was getting somewhere spiritually. And once I found myself really deeply engaged, all of the sudden I would hear people rustling around and it was over. I had a terrible time smiling and shaking hands with everyone a minute after I had been sitting in deep meditation—it was a weirdly disorienting sensation, and I would sometimes feel irritated at everyone for interrupting me just when I felt I was getting somewhere.

So, in the end, what drew me to the Quakers is ultimately what turned me off. Communal worship, at least for me, needs to provide me with a little more help and guidance than I received from the Quakers. I certainly learned from the Quakers the value of silence, and the importance of spending time in quiet prayer, but I also learned that one can perhaps get too much of a good thing.

I am terrible at saying goodbyes, and the conclusion of my time with the Quakers proved no exception to this rule. This past Sunday's service concluded with the usual meet-and-greet, followed by a potluck lunch. When we had all introduced ourselves to one another, and the time came to stand and re-arrange the chairs for the meal, I slipped quietly out of the room. I returned the library books I had borrowed to the shelves in the reading room, and then I walked out without a word to anyone, back down Pleasant Street to home.

Next Monday evening I will begin phase two of my spiritual journey, just a few blocks down the street from the Quaker House, when I sit in for my first session with Boundless Way, one of Worcester's Zen Bhuddist communities.

I'll look forward to telling you all about it.


  1. I consider myself a Quaker-Buddhist. I am a convinced Friend who regularly attends meeting and serves on various committees, and yet you speak my mind. I am easily distracted by the others in the room and thoroughly dislike reverie disruption when another attender is moved to speak, especially when it seems self-serving rather than spirit led. I much prefer the solitary meditation of gardening, but I believe that what my children get out of First Day School makes it worthwhile. And the potlucks are fabulous!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anon. I am curious and excited to see what connections might exist between Quakers and the Bhuddhist tradition.

  3. Jim,

    Interesting thoughts you share. It is hard to sit in silence for a while, especially when you find that your mind is so busy and you can't seem to settle, but I think the practice of paying attention to where you are in your thoughts, labeling them as thinking,and then letting them go (a Tibetan Buddist method), proves a useful strategy for practicing why we sit in the first place. I guess what I am trying to say is that we will always have distraction and it is how we deal with it that is the key to meditation.

    And just a little theological challenge. I do not agree with Aristotle that we are born sinful. Rather, just the opposite. We are born carrying the Divine. What happens is that as we grow we move farther and farther away from that sense of the Divine we all carry from birth. The spiritual journey, as far as I can see, is about the return to that acknowledgement of the goodness (as you call it). The practice of silent meditation open a path for us to find what we have lost.

    Peace, Nicki