Meetinghouse Chairs

Our meetinghouse is going through a seemingly mundane transformation. An ad hoc committee has introduced new, molded stacking chairs to replace some of the old metal folding ones.

The old ones are ubiquitous. We all know how to transform them from flat, folded objects into chairs. You push down and out on the front edge of the seat and the front legs pop out from the back ones with a thunk. Ours are institutional brown, although I have seen them in puce, black, and other inconspicuous hues.

Sometime in the history of the meeting, a first generation of these chairs—ones with no padding on the seats—must have met with disapproval, for now most of the folders have attached, brown leatherette cushions. Unless there is an unusually large gathering, the old uncushioned chairs stay stacked against the wall.

But even the cushioned chairs cause problems. They make themselves felt across the spine and beneath the thighs. Some Friends bring folding stadium seats, contoured "back-savers," and car pillows to soften the sitting.

It must have been seeing these attempts at comfort that prompted the meeting to experiment with the modern, molded stacking chairs.

Now when we enter the meeting room we are faced with a sea of brown chairs interspersed with the sleek blue newcomers. And we must choose.

The blue ones go fast, a mild incentive for arriving early. Not that one need feel guilty about taking them. The old chairs were tolerated all those years by most of us. And some short worshipers actually prefer them. They find the new chairs too high.

Besides—and this edges up to the larger point—the chairs we sit on are a miniscule part of the worship experience. Or are they?

Not long ago, these comfortable new chairs amid the old, harder ones set my mind off on one of my tangential wanderings in the silence. I asked myself, as I sometimes do when pondering quirky Quaker concerns, what George Fox and early Friends would have thought about our chairs.

Early Friends sat on fixed wooden benches, and many modern Friends still do. I have visited old meetinghouses, and the experience is different. There’s a solidity, a permanence to the benches. You almost feel the presence of long-departed worshipers who sat on these same seats over decades of First Days.

Friends have also met in homes. Early Friends were often forced there by the authorities. In modern times, a silent meeting in a home can mean comfort that would have been unthinkable to our forebears. More than once I have nodded off, cradled in the depths of some overstuffed lounger.

Back in the meetinghouse, seating is sterner stuff, even with the new chairs. But are they stern enough?

The question stems from a division I see within Quakerism. It can be found in most religions. On the one side is the mystical, comfortable, almost (but not quite) transcendental. On the other is the activist, assertive and almost (but not quite) afflicted. I see these traditional strains in our brown and blue chairs. The brown is the "hard" Quakerism that prods one’s conscience to confront a host of social ills. The blue is the "comfortable" Quakerism that elevates the soul, certain of that of God in all.

Each of us finds some resting point between these Quaker poles. We derive strength from both. Indeed each is dependent on the other for its own strength. What would our activism be without our spirituality? What would our spirituality be without our activism?

Sometimes the chairs are alternated in a row—blue, brown, blue, brown. Choose one and you find the other to your right and your left. The "other" is always near, and someone is always seated there.

Someday our meeting may replace the old brown chairs entirely with the new blue ones. I hope not, but if it does, I know that some part of me will be affixed to that hard, brown seat, even as I settle myself into the blue.