The Experience of Friends Meeting

Responses from Members and Attenders

Starting in May 2005, I sent out a questionnaire to members and attenders of Friends meetings in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, and New York—communities where I have lived or visited and attended meeting for worship. I wrote:

Perhaps like me, you have wondered how others in meeting experience and "use" the hour. When I look around during meeting, I notice that some have their eyes closed, some are reading, some are looking out the window, and some seem to take notice of everyone who enters. Clearly, the time is spent in different ways during any one meeting.

I asked for their assistance in documenting their experiences. I asked each to respond to the following questions:

  1. Do you have a general routine of what you go through as you settle into meeting?
  2. How do you generally use/experience the hour of silence?
  3. Do you tend to leave the hour "open" or do you come with a plan in mind (e.g., something to read, something in particular to think about/come to a resolution about)?
  4. What difference does the hour of meeting make in your week/your life?

Clearly the expectations, experience, and use of Friends meeting for worship are different for each of us, but have some similarities. I hope the responses that follow will elucidate some of the mystery that many of us may have been keeping to ourselves. I thank the respondents, and those who allowed me to include their edited answers.

This is the first time in my lifetime in Quakerism I’ve been asked such questions. My experience of hundreds of meetings for worship has been strictly personal and private. Over time, my focus in meeting has usually found me seriously reflecting upon my varying personal circumstances and life burdens —progressing from early childhood to family, career, and now retirement.

For me, "going to meeting" has generally meant more than engaging in purely intellectual and psychological exercises (worthy as those are). I’ve continually needed the precious hours of meeting to lift my spirits and provide what I yearn for: divine guidance that is enhanced by regular sharing with other kind and kindred souls. Going to meeting is an essential part of my week, and my wife shares this perspective.
—A lifelong Midwestern Friend

I rarely have the opportunity to experience the hour of silence. Sometimes I manage half an hour or so, but often I get maybe 10-15 minutes in the beginning, with my son wiggling beside me, then leave with him, later returning for a few minutes at the end. I am still looking forward to a time when I can experience the silence on a regular basis!
—An Iowa Friend

I sometimes I have an "agenda" when I enter that space in time, but most often I just try to clear my mind of all of the happenings of the week. If I am having a hard time calming and centering my busy mind, I start by saying a prayer for each of the members in attendance; and that gets me on the right path.
—An Iowa Friend

The routine begins before coming to worship. I’m mindful of what needs to be cleared before arriving: unfinished work at home, the bustle of the day’s plan, unsettled decisions. No coffee, no newspaper, no radio—they engage my intellect too much.

At meeting, I choose seats for various reasons. Sometimes I sit close to people in hopes of feeling their presence. Other times it’s with unworshipful purpose, such as the need to sneak in late or jump out at break. Occasionally I feel drawn to a space, and accepting that tug is an act of trusting Spirit.

I look at each person to glimpse "that of God," reminding myself that each one may provide a gift that day, spoken or not—and I might have something for him or her.

Then I close my eyes, try to sit with steady comfort, and accept the first task, shooing away ideas. Some days it’s easy. Some days it’s impossible.

There’s a set of stages in my centering. They are clues to a shift from thinking to listening, from hearing my own voice to hearing a wordless Presence. It feels like dreaming while awake and alert, or melting into a lake that bathes everyone.

On a few occasions I’ve walked into worship where one can almost touch the gathered energy. It reminds me of science fiction’s "force field," except the field embraces instead of repelling.

One part of the routine is to be honest about whether I’m good worship company. Some days I just buzz too much to commune. Sometimes I’m too sleepy. Sometimes if my negative emotions—like anger, gloom or estrangement—won’t settle, I sit in silence outside.

Reading interferes with my openness. It’s as if I brought a kazoo to the symphony, or blinders to the Grand Canyon. If I need reading to stay focused, I leave the worship room and sit outside.

I use meeting for worship to exercise getting out of my own way and welcoming God, eagerly anticipating change, and accepting "dry" days without discouragement.
—An Iowa Friend

I am one of those folks who look around, making a note of who is and who isn’t present. I think that meeting for worship is a social event, in the sense that we are there for one another; so I like to make eye contact or nod when someone enters. I also like to wink at the kids or wave clandestinely, welcoming their presence. I like to try to note when folks aren’t there so that I can follow up on that later. Are they sick? unhappy? on vacation? We are, after all, ministers to one another. After this ritual of presence, I usually focus on the trees outside.

I try to come to meeting "open." I like to see if I am led by the collective spirit or by a message given by another Friend. However, I do notice that often I enter meeting with a tone or mood set from my experience of the events of the week—sometimes heavy as with my father’s illness and recent death; or introspective, as with my last child’s graduation. Sometimes this mood is palpable in the meeting as a whole; I think of the weeks leading to the invasion of Iraq and the pall in
the meeting.

I don’t feel I’ve started my week off right unless I’ve been at meeting. Years earlier I noticed while looking out the large east front windows of our meetinghouse that when I closed my eyes I had a remaining visual imprint of the members sitting quietly. This is actually a visual image that I have been able to recall through the week, and it quiets my mind and gives me a calm that meeting imparts.
—An Iowa Friend

I always sit facing the window, because it’s where I can best hear people if they speak. As soon as possible, I try to shut out the mental clutter and listen for whatever (other than distractions) may come from any source—be it somebody speaking, or some still small voice. I don’t ever go to meeting predetermined either to speak or not to speak.
—An Iowa Friend

Having practiced meditation for many years, I generally meditate during meeting by simply focusing and refocusing on my breath—letting go of the sounds; other body sensations; and thoughts, feelings, and images to which the attention naturally and repeatedly wanders. When someone speaks, I try to listen mindfully, with minimal judgment and reactivity, returning my attention to the breath when the person finishes talking. Or I may meditate by just mindfully observing and letting go of the spontaneous flow and passing "show" of the contents of consciousness. The experience is variously relaxing, informing,
and inspiring.
—An Iowa Friend

For the first ten minutes or so I quietly look around and experience my surroundings, especially the other people who are arriving. I find this very helpful for my later worship, and it keeps me from getting annoyed at late-comers. Then I close my eyes and do a centering exercise and/or centering prayer, which sometimes leads me to deep, expectant waiting—and sometimes not. If I can’t center, I just let my mind wander. Often messages help to center me, even if I don’t consciously "like" the message. On rare occasions, I am led to give a message.

Like therapy, no one hour (except once in a very long while) makes a big difference; but over time, that hour is transformative and extremely important in my life, so I try to be regular in my attendance.
—A New York Friend

I usually sit in the first row. I generally close my eyes for the first 10 to 20 minutes, letting my thoughts wander. Sometimes I open my eyes briefly as others enter, though I don’t take much conscious notice.

Meeting for worship often feels like an hour’s oasis in a world that is filled with too much violence, incivility, hurriedness, and information overload. Being amongst others who are choosing to remove themselves— even for just an hour—from all of that helps me to recharge and to be able to face it all again for another week.
—An Iowa Friend

The difference that meeting for worship makes happens over a long period of time. I know, having been a Quaker for 35 years, that I am more centered, less judgmental, less prideful, and less anxious than I had been. Quakerism has taught me a process by which I can discern and make decisions.
—A Colorado Friend

I have come to associate the meeting room with a sense of connectedness and calm. I have experienced this sense of coming back to center on entering the room for other purposes—for example, setting up for a committee meeting or a social gathering; or when I have come to the meetinghouse alone when deeply troubled to find that sense of balance (leaving my office on 9/11, for example).

Usually I experience a sense of being present to the moment and connected to something outside myself, to other Friends, or something more cosmic. Sometimes thoughts or concerns surface and I am able to let them pass through and dissipate. When a persistent thought or concern demands attention, I try to "turn it over" to the Divine by visualizing the person or activity and holding it in the Light without words. There are times when the meeting feels truly gathered to me, when I sense a strong connection to other worshipers and the cosmic "something else."

I respond to messages from others as I do to my own thoughts. Most just pass through and dissipate. At other times I feel an inner response, a sense that the message is meant for me.

I notice the importance of meeting for worship most during those times when I have skipped it; I have a sense of withdrawal, that something is missing.
—An Iowa Friend

I start my settling in before I get to meeting. As I make breakfast and drink my coffee, I think about trying to simplify the morning as best as I can.

In meeting, I am so happy to be sitting in silence, I wiggle a little at first.

Then I tend to close my eyes and focus on the center, and I seem to whisk right into a warm, light place. My back straightens up, my arms tingle a little, and my kids tell me I get a silly grin on my face. I then I wait for what comes—images, ideas.

For me, meeting for worship is visceral; I feel Light in my body. Ideas come to mind while I sit and I follow them. And often when I "come back," I feel like I’ve had a little disembodied trip. I sometimes check on my children to see how they are doing. But most of the time I am sitting fairly alert, waiting to see what comes. If nothing new comes, then I tend to pray for guidance about a situation or conflict from the previous week to see if I come to any new understandings. I am in deep gratitude most of the time just to have the quiet time.

The joy in an hour of meeting helps me keep God in focus every day. When I am experiencing a difficult time, spiritually or otherwise, the loving support of the meeting buoys me, and the experience of waiting in silence together is healing. I am always glad I made it.
—A Colorado Friend

I like to look around the room and simply appreciate everyone’s face. I feel like I’m sweeping the room with my outer eye in an honoring way and accepting everyone and everything as a unity before I close my eyes.

I become keenly aware of sounds and my own thoughts. I try to just let my thoughts settle on their own. I may pray The Lord’s Prayer or become aware of a thought or prayer or concern that keeps arising.

I try to listen without judgment when messages are given, but sometimes find long ones distracting. I wish Friends could give brief messages.

I sometimes ask, "Lord, please gather us onto your lap"; and usually a more united feeling follows.
—A New York Friend

I generally sit either in the first or second row so that I am not distracted by people in front of me.

My usual experience of the hour of silence is mixed. There are times when I feel somewhat restless and want others to speak so that I can focus upon their words and thoughts. There are other times when I appreciate the silence and the group therein, and find I can access my own inner self in a way that I can’t or won’t when left to my own silence without the group.

When I think of the meeting, I picture a room of people sitting quietly and seeming to be in a state of meditation, with the sun beaming in and an austere center marked by a plant on a stand for all to see. I feel its peace and its tendency to want the best for the world and the people in it and trying very hard to find alternatives to violence, aggression, and threats via peaceful methods.
—A Maryland Friend

Clearly, the power of silence in a community setting is what bring members and attenders together each Sunday around meeting for worship. This hour of "waiting on the Lord" appears to enhance the week that follows for many of us who have found a home with Friends.

David E. Drake

David E. Drake, clerk of Des Moines Valley (Iowa) Meeting, is active with the Iowa Program Committee of AFSC, and maintains a family psychiatry practice in Des Moines.