Recently, I sat through a lively discussion at Maury River Meeting outside of Lexington, Va. The second hour presentation was about whether or not to remove the remnants of what was once an altar from the historic building now owned by the meeting. Friends shared a number of concerns about their feelings regarding the former altar and how it might be hidden, removed, or made less obvious. Friends have a long association of questioning ritual, priestly authority, and ornate church altars.
But I’m the only person attending Maury River Meeting for the last five years who has sat through more hours of traditional Hindu rituals than hours of silent worship. I was one of the founders of a children’s camp in the Pocono Mountains on the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This unique camp was for the children of Indian Hindu parents who were part of a large migration that made its way to this country in the ’60s and ’70s. Hindu Heritage Summer Camp became well known among the scattered Indian communities in New Jersey as a place first-generation Hindu-American children could have the experience of camp along with the teaching of their traditional culture.
Although many of us have now had some experience of popular hatha yoga exercises, meditation, and some exposure to the esoteric teachings of India, I think it is fair to say the majority of the Hindu community in this country practices what is called, in yoga tradition, bhakti yoga. This, in simple terms, is the yoga of devotion. Devotional yoga includes chanting, prayer, music, dance, and a complex system of colorful rituals kept alive for thousands of years by the priestly Brahman caste. Like Quakers, who found a need to break free of the dogma of powerful priests and excessive ritual, Hindus have at times rebelled against the Brahman caste and excessive ritual used to control people, and to avoid the social and political roots of suffering. Mystics, such as Shankara in the Indian tradition, were especially critical and saw the need to break free of ritual to get to the source of God or Brahman. But surprisingly ritual in the Hindu tradition has survived and continues to be part of the practice of bhakti yoga among Hindu-Americans.
I think devotion and ritual are also a major form of spiritual practice for many Christians. When we have read enough books, tried to live a good life, done service work, and still feel an inner need, we often turn to prayer, music, and ritual as means of spiritual relief, inner connection, and community. The sameness of ritual, prayer, chant, and song seems to pacify the mind and remind us that spirit travels through time, giving some connection to the timeless even as everything around us changes so quickly. I think it is fair to say that many of us who experience Quaker tradition miss something of this devotional relationship. Among liberal Quakers, I imagine, it is not unusual to seek this connection in other ways while still feeling a connection to the meeting. I’ve visited a number of yoga ashrams, churches, and Buddhist centers over the years and am not offended by the pictures, statues, music, and rituals presented. I’ve sat quietly through Buddhist prayer and ritual, sometimes participating, sometimes silent in meditation. I’ve also attended many Dances of Universal Peace events where the main practice is song and dance. To a person with some knowledge of a tradition, the pictures, statues, sounds, smells, and rituals can offer a familiar link to spirit, just as a Quaker feels a connection entering a meetinghouse and experiencing silence.
A less discussed aspect of ritual is the social bonding and community building that can occur when people come together to share activities not based in work or consumption. A Friend recently shared her idea of how Quakers seek community by spending time together in as many ways as possible. She was referring not just to silent worship but to the many second hour presentations, potluck meals, and committees formed to deal with the work of the meeting. I am not suggesting this is not all valuable and useful and a means to manifest spirit in the world, but I don’t think it is the same as the devotional energy people seek in less intellectual forms. Recently, I sat through a reading and discussion of the sense of the meeting and was impressed by the way Friends listened carefully to the statement, added to it, and made corrections. But as I read over the statement carefully, it sounded like a technical document explaining the details of our practical, logical, and efficient sense of faith. We all value these qualities, and they are not in short supply in our rational, "how to do it," modern world. I think what is often missing is a sense of where we could put our energy to create the world we would like to be part of. This seems more an article of faith with a vision and creativity that goes beyond practical, ordinary daily life.
So I am suggesting that Quakers not disregard ritual and devotional practice so easily. No doubt many people could benefit by going beyond the limitations of creed and ritual as Quakers do. But any practice that helps open the heart, expand consciousness, and give us some sense of shared community can have potential value. I don’t think all of us are meant to read, write books, or found yet another group to deal with local or world problems. Some of us also express our spiritual connection through art, song, music, dance, and even ritual. Liberal Quakers might learn from the experience of other traditions and their attempts to open the mind and heart, and to keep their communities together during times of transition. Maybe we don’t always need to remove or cover up the altar of the tradition we try to replace. Revelation continues, and we build upon what came before us.