The FGC Experience I Did Not Expect to Have

I am on the worship planning committee for the semi-programmed meeting at Minneapolis (Minn.) Meeting. I asked myself to speak on July 15 because I knew I would be back from FGC and assumed my time spent there would yield great fodder for speaking.

My experience did not equal my expectations, nor was it like anything I could have imagined. In fact, if someone had described the journey I ended up taking, I would have said, "Don’t sign me on." I wanted a secular experience and much to my initial disappointment I ended up with a spiritual one. My expectations were that I would meet new people and establish long-lasting friendships, I would go to some academically challenging groups and gain insight, and I would have lots of fun. This did not happen.

Instead without much thought or fanfare, as with most experiences left to the Universe and God, I voluntarily chose vulnerability in a workshop called the Spiritual Practice of Forgiveness. Much to my surprise, I had little resistance and my fear was washed away through the power of a group of people present in the divine love of God. It was quite uncomfortable being that vulnerable. And in hindsight I realize the journey I took traversed a spiritual terrain that I had never traveled before.

This feeling of being with God’s divine love in others opened me to my own humanity and the mysteries of the sacred. Quite honestly this was not a high. I certainly didn’t feel like handing out daisies and singing "Kumbaya"; quite the opposite. I felt reluctant to share this elevated place with others. I felt alone but not lonely. The first three days I walked around in a stupor of sorrow and mystification. But the Spirit was present to limit the extent of that sadness and strengthen my resolve through several little coincidental meetings with exactly the right person.

Often these happenings were with women who were powerful, centered, and wise seniors. Because of these women I saw my life in front of me, not behind me. One important sacred gift I received to lessen my melancholy mood happened in the women’s bathroom (of all places) with an older woman whom I will call "Evelyn."

I had just come from a special interest group on the "Right way: or is the Society of Friends becoming a liberal religion instead of one based in the Spirit?" The group ended early with lots of shouting, and anger spewed on those looking for a conversation. I left angry and hopeless about the state of affairs of diversity among Friends.

I walked back to Crabtree Hall looking like a sourpuss. I pretty much blew off my roommate and then went to the bathroom. I walked in on a petite woman in her late 70s who had just returned from contra dancing. She looked a bit too cheery for my taste, so I kept my face forward in the mirror. Evelyn didn’t care that I was avoiding her and said, "Dear, you look so depressed. What happened?" I snapped back, "I’ve been crying every day in my workshop, and I just came from a shouting match." She replied, "Oh, it can’t be that bad. Look at the insight you are gaining, and all the possibilities for change at FGC." I was thinking, "You have to be kidding." Instead I replied, "Yes, this is a wonderful opportunity, but I think today I had enough of what FGC has to offer." "Oh, don’t say that, dear. You are only in the third day, and there is so much more for you here. Have you tried contra dancing? There is nothing like it to get your body feeling good." Again I felt like I couldn’t just say, "Leave me alone"; after all, she was trying, so I tried one more time to put her off and said, "I just feel like I can’t get out of this funk." Evelyn looked at me very seriously and said, "Oh dear, you are in bad shape." She came in close to me and whispered, "I think I know what you need. Come to my room for some refreshments."

Of course I went, and she proceeded to tell me all about her glorious 79 years as a single woman with no children but great partners and loves, and her years mentoring social workers at her university. I sat there for over an hour (I must say she was a bit frugal with the refreshments), listening to story after story of a fun, fascinating, and splendid life. I can never again feel quite the same about being single and without children. She was right; she knew just what I needed.

Without thinking or attempting to seek comfort, I was pulled to experiences with people like Evelyn that brought both relief and gratitude. Ultimately, I was also able to find comfort and care in my workshop on forgiveness despite my initial discomfort and my vulnerability. The mystical directed my interactions; I felt no need to be the smartest, brightest, or most insightful person in the room—a relief from my normal interactions in the world. Instead, I was transmitted to the present where the act of forgiveness was seen as holy work, and I was as unsophisticated in doing the work as each of the others in the group. No one looked to a spiritual guru in the group, partly because the workshop leader was directing us inward, and we all stumbled along together. Yet each of us possessed a critical piece needed by the group. At crucial moments someone in the group brought insight that was salve for the collective healing needed in the present. I have heard about the spiritual depth of gathered worship and even experienced it before but never has it seemed so alive. I felt nonjudgmental, open, and able to embrace the divine love others saw in me and I saw in them. Each individual’s personal spiritual awakening to the whole seemed significant and added to the gathered hope of mitigating our shared sorrow. All of this was done without words, without analysis, and without criticism of those who have hurt us.

I would like to say I understood the process, but I didn’t, and it took me a week to recover from it. It is risky business to go to a place without distraction and open yourself to the Divine. Throughout the entire conference there was a constant tacit reminder to be with God. In our group where each participant had a deep and evolved relationship with God, the trust was implicit, and we used God’s divine love as the needle for our corporate compass. For the first time, I was acting over a period of continuous time from the inside out. I was laid present to vulnerability in the light of God’s divine love.

Here is a meditation we used to close our worship: Imagine you are sitting in the light of the love of God, and a beam from that stream of light extends itself like an arm toward you and wraps itself around your body. In that moment you ask for three gifts you need; they may be courage, calm, or insight. You sit quietly and hold the gifts you are given in that light. Then imagine there is a second beam of light coming off that stream, and that light wraps itself around the person you want to forgive. Give that person those same gifts and together sit with that light. Feel yourself and the other person who hurt you bathing in those gifts and that love.

Judith M. James

Judith M. James, an attender of Minneapolis (Minn.) Meeting, is an educator who is currently teaching interpersonal and intercultural communication. She takes pleasure in hosting international students.