The Gathering is an exercise in listening for God. Not being a particularly strong candidate for sainthood, I’m always delighted to be reminded that I’m always listening, wherever my feet are, wherever my mind is. Synchronicities—ways I notice that God is speaking—permeate the Gathering, and are more concentrated than those that I experience outside the Gathering (or maybe I just notice them more). Sally Campbell told a group of us, "It’s because we’re all stroking the cat the same way."
I noticed the cat purring (or its fur crackling) in Normal in too many ways to tell. Here’s a small sample, a bit of evidence that, because my intent the whole week was to hear God, I actually did, and because I was at the Gathering with so many others with the same intent, I noticed that I did.
My morning routine entailed rising early and drinking coffee in the soft, hot breezes while I waited for psycho-calisthenics to start. One morning toward the end of the week, I paused on my way out of the cafeteria, realized I could go out the other door and have a shorter walk to exercise class, and turned around. As I walked out the new-to-me door, in walked Maurine Pyle, delighted to meet me; in fact, she had been praying for it. It turns out I had presented her with a delicate problem: I had asked via a note on the message board for a ride up to a suburb of Chicago, and she had a small car, three passengers, and lots of luggage. She couldn’t respond to my request until she had laid eyes on me, to make sure my girth was no greater than her car’s capacity. I was glad I’d been doing my psycho-calisthenics (I highly recommend it, girth considerations aside), because, squished though we were, it was a great ride. My meeting had been facing a potentially racially charged decision, and two of my traveling companions had just come from workshops on race and racism—they joked at the end that they were a traveling clearness committee.
That cat’s purr is useful, sometimes silly; it can be healing, too.
Healing noises can occur in surprising settings. Last November I went to a wedding in Tribeca, down near where the World Trade Center towers had been. It was a Quaker wedding, in a large, fancy, loft-like space in a big building. In the silence into which we settled, I remember most clearly the messages from the building. I was glad to be in a building with many building noises. September 11 really hurt.
My Gathering workshop this year was "Grounding Spiritual Ministry." Our workshop leader encouraged us to share from personal experience as we explored ways to ground our own ministry or the ministry of our meetings, and specifically, as we explored what we wished to have shift for us when we returned to our homes. We all, but especially our leader, Lynn Fitz-Hugh, listened deeply, asked clarifying questions, and then offered solid, to-the-point advice to the sharer—eldering, in the best sense of the word. (I learned a lot.) Several people had shared, and it was the turn of the oldest person in our group. As she talked about the good things, and also the very sad things, in her recent past, the room filled with a deep, resonant, repeating hum. Lynn was very focused on the person sharing, holding her hand as she had held the hands of each of us, listening deeply. But I had some leisure and caught the eye of Brayton Gray, across the circle from me; we knew we were both listening to the deep Oms coming in from next door, swirling through our room, carrying the sorrow of the woman who was sharing, carrying us all. Afterwards Brayton mentioned how much he appreciated the contribution of the Buddhists next door. Lynn said, "Oh, I thought that was the building, a hum from the building."
I was very glad to have a building saying such a wonderful thing.
Lynn arranged for us all to have secret angels, and from them we received little notes of encouragement, little gifts—like grace. At the end, we decided not to learn the identity of our secret angels but to hear from each person what having and being a secret angel had meant. Among many wonderful things in the workshop, this stood out for some. And the Buddhists next door had one other contribution: while the youngest man in our group was sharing, a brief and powerful drum beat dissolved the wall behind us. I wish I had noted the actual name of the drumming, humming workshop; I’m sure it wasn’t "the Buddhists next door"! But I suppose it’s fitting that I don’t know the name of that grace-bringer either.
My last noise story is of the field trip to the Illinois Yearly Meetinghouse. I had patched together my trip out to Normal, and after a train ride from New York had gotten a ride down from Chicago with two delightful Illinois Yearly Meeting folk, who advised me to visit the meetinghouse. It is so quiet out there; it is literally in the middle of corn fields, they said. Suddenly missing the silence of the corn fields of my youth, I signed right up. We traveled on an air-conditioned bus, the kind with cushy seats, a smooth ride, and a bathroom; the kind that idles while it waits. Because of the dull diesel roar, we never heard the whisper of the corn, or the silence of the high-ceilinged meetinghouse. After an informative talk about the history of the meetinghouse, over pink lemonade and soft, sugar-sparkled ginger cookies, I got to talking with one of our hostesses. She had grown up in a programmed meeting, then had married and moved to the unprogrammed meeting that shares the Illinois Yearly Meetinghouse. She had white hair, and I remember her face as clear and unwrinkled, and her dress as flower-sprigged and fresh. I began to feel as though I was too different, very Eastern and unprogrammed. Then my hostess said, "I had friends who moved from here to Indiana. There is no unprogrammed meeting near them, only a programmed meeting. They don’t go to meeting at all. They stay home. I just don’t understand that. It’s all Quakerism."
There was plenty of silence around the diesel’s roar in which to hear that. It rang like a bell through me. Kind of like the unexpected Om. Right through me and on; I don’t know where.