Chaos in Friends Meeting

In a Palm Beach Friends meeting for worship in 1999, I felt moved to speak about chaos, as the word is used in mathematics and science. I submit that chaos, in the scientific sense of the word, is a necessary ingredient in a living meeting for worship. In order to explain why I believe this, I shall begin with a simple, nonmathematical explanation of the concept of chaos as it is used in mathematics and science.

In general English, the word "chaos" usually means something like frantic, uncoordinated activity. The word has a somewhat different meaning in mathematics and science. The simplest definition of the term that I have found is "a sensitive dependence on initial conditions." This means that when there is chaos, very small differences in initial conditions result in rapid divergence to very different results.

This does not imply that the results are random, although they may appear to be. The outcome is the direct result of the initial conditions. Results can be calculated by mathematical formulas and models. But if the initial conditions are changed very slightly, the results of the formulas and models will change drastically. In systems where it is difficult to measure the initial conditions precisely, the actual results may be unpredictable.

A chaotic system does not have to be noisy, busy, or energetic. One example of chaos is the quiet falling of leaves from a tree. Different leaves fall in very different ways, swirling, zigzagging from side to side, or falling almost straight for a time and then zigzagging, to give a few examples. The place a given leaf will land is unpredictable. This is true even of the silent falling of leaves on a calm day.

Probably the most cited example of natural chaos is in weather. Scientists refer to the "butterfly effect" to describe it. Theoretically, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Africa can cause a change in air pressure that will spawn a hurricane that will eventually hit Florida. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this conjecture, but certainly weather can be very chaotic. The chaotic nature of weather combined with the large number of measurements required to predict weather and the difficulty of getting enough precise measurements result in frequently inaccurate weather forecasts, even though meteorologists keep improving the weather models.

Considering the definition of chaos as "a sensitive dependence on initial conditions," we see that in a weather system, the initial conditions are the air temperature and pressure, humidity, wind direction, and wind velocity. The future weather is determined by these initial conditions, plus the amount of sunlight falling on Earth over time. The longer the time period of a prediction, the more likelihood that small errors in the measurement of current conditions will result in large errors in the forecast of weather conditions in any given place. Notice that weather forecasts do not usually predict specific weather conditions more than three or five days in advance, and the predictions are updated frequently as the models are rerun with new data. This is because of the chaotic nature of weather. Due to small inaccuracies and gaps in the initial measurements, the accuracy of any local weather prediction breaks down after a few days.

Now, what does chaos in the sense I have just described have to do with Friends meetings in general and with meeting for worship in particular?

Consider that we often talk about listening for the still, small voice of God in meeting for worship. Over the course of history, many Friends have been deeply moved by this still, small voice in meeting. Some have had life-changing experiences.

For the still, small voice to reach us, and perhaps move us, requires more than an absence of noise in meeting for worship. We must be in chaos in the sense that we are in a state where a small impetus from the Inner Light can make a difference in us. We must be sensitive to the unexpected insight in our own meditation or in a message from another.

If we are in this state of chaos, we do not know what the result of our listening or speaking may be. And there is no mathematical model we can run to tell us, even roughly, what effect it will have.

Those who are familiar with the mathematical concept of chaos may take issue with my reference to this concept in the context of meeting for worship. A mathematically chaotic system is also deterministic, which means that the results follow necessarily from the initial conditions and forces. To apply this very literally to Friends in meeting for worship would be to deny free will in human beings. That is not my intention. I use the mathematical concept of chaos here as analogy rather than as a literal explanation of the dynamics of meeting for worship. I am not advocating the release of individuals from responsibility for their actions in or out of meeting. Nor does my advocacy of chaos in meeting diminish the need for discernment of whether an urge to give a verbal message comes from the Inner Light or from an egotistical desire of some sort. However, it has been my observation in a number of meetings that most Friends are more likely to resist the urging of the Inner Light than to go overboard in the other direction.

In what way can chaos as I have described it work in the life of a Friend or a meeting? How can it enhance the ability of the meeting to respond to the Inner Light?

Have you ever had the experience of receiving a sudden insight during meeting? Have you ever been deeply moved by a message that another person has given?

Before a person speaks in meeting, he or she has usually been meditating on the message for some period of time during the meeting or, sometimes, for days or weeks before the meeting. The speaker’s mind must be receptive to the initial insight for a message to take hold and grow. When the speaker gives the verbal message, many other people have an opportunity to consider it, interpret it, expand on it, and perhaps take it in several other directions. Sometimes others feel moved to speak and there is a thread that builds through the speaking during the meeting. Other times Friends consider the message silently. One or more of them may take away an insight that will come back to them at a later time. And so it goes.

The original speaker has no idea, when the first glimmer of insight comes to him or her, what the ultimate result will be. And it would be so easy to suppress and ignore it. That is why I believe an appreciation for chaos is helpful in meeting for worship. We need to allow initial small insights to grow, to pass from one person to another, to be shaped and changed, and to change us. We also need to be tolerant of the leading of others. If a silent meeting were too dry and predictable, if no emotion could be shown and no disquieting ideas expressed, I believe it would indicate that there was not enough chaos, that the meeting was not a good environment in which insights could develop.

I take it as a sign of a healthy level of chaos that a meeting is not the same from one week to the next. Sometimes there are several verbal messages, sometimes none. There is a large variation in the content of messages. Different people experience each meeting differently. Some messages are very meaningful to me and others have little impact on me but may be meaningful to someone else.

Sometimes things happen in a meeting that are disturbing to some Friends. Such occasions may be a "popcorn" meeting, in which one person right after another stands up and speaks, or when someone speaks at length or seems disturbed, or the distraction of restless children or people coming in or out. If the same "problem" does not occur week after week, I believe such unexpected occurrences are actually a sign of a healthy meeting. A good degree of chaos in the meeting should result in unexpected things happening, even if not all of them seem desirable at the time.

By the same token, we may occasionally derive wonderful insights, moving experiences, and even life-changing revelations in meeting for worship, if we allow ourselves individually and corporately to be in a state of chaos in the silence.