On Seeking Membership (and Other Things)

After seven years of regular attendance at University Friends Meeting, Seattle, I decided to seek membership in the Religious Society of Friends. While some people might well ask, "What took you so long?" I feel I should add in my own defense that in my family, seeking membership in a group that one has attended, well—religiously—for seven years is seen as a blinding, headlong plunge into the abyss. Things simply do not get accomplished in a timely manner in our family, and changing our religious affiliation ranked low on the list, well below eating and sleeping, neither of which we seemed able to do with any regularity. My husband and I are raising two young children, and we consider taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times every time we get them off to school, fully clothed and each with the correct lunchbox. Luckily, as this seldom happens, our advertising costs are kept to a minimum.

Our family tries to adhere to many of the tenets of Quakerism, with varying degrees of success. We would probably score fairly high on following the Peace Testimony, if you didn’t count peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that had been chewed into the shape of a revolver. And we could check to see if we would pass muster on the Testimony on Simplicity, if only we could find our copy of Faith and Practice under the piles of unwanted stuff that clutters up our house. Our family seems to be engaged in a private backlash against the voluntary simplicity movement. I call it "involuntary chaos," and I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.

In short, though I believed all that the Quakers stood for, I never felt that I could live up to their ideals. I knew that no matter how long I attended meeting, I wouldn’t deserve membership until I had figured out the answers to life’s big questions and become less religiously confused. I knew that every other person in my meeting had already been examined and had been certified to possess All The Answers, else why would they be sitting there week after week, secure in their religious beliefs and with no doubts in their hearts? I had repeated visions of my clearness committee meeting with me about membership and seeing that I was a fraud, that I was terribly religiously confused, that I did not have any of the answers. I was more confused, in fact, than I had been 25 years earlier when I knew I was an Episcopalian because my father was an Episcopalian and that was where we went to church on Sunday. My clearness committee would rise solemnly at the end of meeting and state that it was their responsibility to report that after careful consideration, they had found that I was the only person they had ever come across who had not one whit of that of God in her.

My father’s Episcopalianism was the last link between us, and giving up that affiliation did not come easily. The Episcopal church is still where I go on Christmas Eve, where if I close my eyes I can hear my father’s rich tenor voice ring out above all the others to sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful" to the angels in the firmament. Sometimes I will get lucky and catch a whiff of another man’s Old Spice after-shave, and I will be a girl again and my father will be holding my hand at the stroke of midnight and he will whisper in my ear, "Merry Christmas." Gradually, as I became more involved with my meeting, it began to dawn on me that that was all that was left of my former religious affiliation: the echo of an ancient melody and a whiff of scent from a man who had been dead for five years. Without realizing it and in spite of my religious confusion, I had become a Quaker.

Recently, my friend told me a story that made me know it was the right time to seek membership. She had just returned from a wedding in Las Vegas. The wedding had been held at the Liberace Chapel, in the palatial monument to excess that had served as Liberace’s home. Every surface inside the house, even the bathroom ceilings, was lined with mirrors, so that one was forever surrounded by oneself, vanishing into the distance. My friend is a park ranger, used to spending an entire day alone in the woods, and so to escape the wedding hubbub she went for a walk. After walking for several blocks, she came upon a small pond, where she sat for a moment to commune with what passes for nature in Las Vegas. Presently, she became aware of a great musical swell and of the presence of a great number of people. The pond she was sitting by erupted with activity: loudspeakers rose out of the newly-lighted depths, colored searchlights appeared from nowhere and began to scan the heavens, a laser show danced on the surface of the pond, and from out of the water leapt two 30-foot-long fiberglass porpoises. My friend was so startled that at first she couldn’t place the music that blared from the loudspeakers embedded in the plastic rock she was perched upon, but after a few bars she was able to identify it:

‘Tis a gift to be simple
‘Tis a gift to be free
‘Tis a gift to come round
Where you ought to be

When my friend told me this story, I felt that maybe on the scale of things I wasn’t as religiously confused as I had thought I was. I thought that maybe, after all, I was doing just fine.