Eldering and Listening

Reading Friends Journal has become a fruitful habit. I find it timely, relevant, and frequently speaking directly to me.

In the November 2002 issue I read the narratives about the Friends General Conference Gathering and was vividly reminded of an intense experience I’d had. What inspires me to share it are the following excerpts from Lucinda Antrim’s article, "Divine Noises": "The Gathering is an exercise in listening for God. . . . I’m always delighted to be reminded that I’m always listening wherever my feet are, wherever my mind is. . . . Synchronicities—ways I notice God is speaking—permeate the Gathering and are more concentrated than those I experience outside the Gathering. . . ."

At the Gathering, my ministry was leading a workshop titled "Being Centered in Feeling and Communication." I had asked two participants in the workshop to companion me.

In the second class session, we were focused on assessing the meaning of Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion for our lives. As individuals shared and after a pause, I might make a comment expanding on what had been said. For me, building on what a participant offered seemed an appropriate opportunity and a more interesting way to share than a formal presentation might be. Suddenly a woman spoke out, "I wish to goodness you would quit making comments after a person speaks." Others in the class immediately protested her remarks. I was taken aback momentarily. Usually, I might have asked the woman to say more. The best I could muster was, "I certainly will reflect on that." Actually her remark struck an undefined chord in me. Was there something I needed to learn?

At lunch in the cafeteria right after this class session, I was approached by another woman I had met earlier at registration (I shall call her Beth). Previously we had connected easily and I welcomed her invitation to eat together. It turned out that the workshop person who had complained in class was a friend of Beth, and had told Beth about her problem with me in the class. In response to a question from Beth, I agreed it would be fine to discuss what had happened.

First, she asked how things were going with me and she listened. She told me the good things she sensed about my leadership. She was encouraging; I listened. She shared her experience of facilitating and teaching, and asked for my comments and questions. I listened and responded. I told of my view of facilitation and teaching and how it was different. She listened. We engaged in a non-defensive exploratory exchange of comments, questions, and responses. And as we continued, I felt we were covered in the Spirit. Something in me broke loose. Something in me opened up. I received a different view that changed my understanding, and ultimately, my practice of teaching and facilitation. I felt the power of the Spirit released in me. I was nurtured.

What characterized this eldering?

  • Although my contact with Beth had been brief, we shared mutually.
  • We listened and spoke to each other in such a way that I could hear and had a sense of her hearing me. There was a space created for respectfully calling forth the goodness and truth of each.
  • We took time and space apart from the situation in which the difficulty occurred.
  • We cut through pretense and nicety.
  • She expressed genuine concern about Gospel Order (living in a way that nurtures and maintains the covenantal relationship to God; listening and responding to God to harvest the fruit of faithful living).
  • She was thoughtful and sensitive to me so that I felt cared about as much as being the object of her concern.
  • She shared from a centered place.
  • She was plainspoken but spoke truth in love.
  • She saw an area where I was not clear and offered her help in discernment.
  • She viewed the challenge as partial, not total.
  • She was not deterred by a defensive fear of hurting me or dealing with emotions I might have.

It was an amazing, unexpected experience. Beth was my angel for the day. Discernment with my class companions validated the experience.

The essence of eldering as a function, both named and unnamed, has gone through a variety of manifestations from the formative years in Quakerism to the present day. It has been viewed both as a corporate concern and as an individual leading. This function has been carried by seasoned, mature Friends, and spontaneously and creatively carried by Friends of all ages as well. I am coming to see this eldering function as a spiritual practice integral to being a faithful Friend who is well used.

Margery Mears Larrabee

Margery Mears Larrabee is a member of Mt. Holly (N.J.) Meeting. This is an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript, Eldering Is Essential.