On occasion, our meeting discusses the propriety of reading during meeting for worship. Some people do. They read Friends Journal, for example. Or they read the Bible, or 12-Step materials or poetry, or some even read songbooks. Then sometimes these readers minister to us by reading from their reading material. This bothers some people who don’t ever read during worship. The turning of pages or the “bubble of solitude” that a reader creates annoys some Friends. Other Friends do not notice or don’t care. Reading Friends simply appreciate that there are tools that help them center themselves. We discuss this “issue” once every two years or so at a Ministry and Counsel Committee meeting or during our meeting for worship for business. We decide nothing.
Sitting in meeting recently I remembered that as a child I was intrigued by the use of the verb “to read,” meaning something other than decoding text. My grandmother, for example, might say about a perplexing person, “I just can’t read him.” In school, we learned about sailors “reading” the stars for direction or the morning sky for news of danger in winds and storms. This usage derives from an Old English definition of read that meant to advise or interpret from dreams and riddles. We have evolved it to meaning that we understand the significance of something, or even that we misunderstand something as in “read into.”
Mostly it means decoding a text. I also remembered a time in Washington D .C. when I had a challenging conversation with an Iranian taxi driver about religious texts. When I told him I was a Quaker, he asked, “What is the Sacred Text that Quakers read?” I said that many Friends read the Bible and find truth in it. “Do you live by it as I do the Koran?” he replied. Well, not exactly, I thought to myself, and then tried to discuss continuing revelation while reading the Bible. That was confusing to him. We did come to an agreement that the great Sufi artist, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was able to channel Holy Spirit to our hearts with his Sufi music and chants. In a way we could “read” or understand him together although neither of us were Sufis and I could not even understand the Urdu and Persian languages he sang in.
My dad, who never really read any print material except lurid detective stories, used the word read in the context of the rivers he loved to fish on Sundays. He would “read the river” to find out if water had been released from the dam, raising the level to dangerous high water in some areas. He looked at ripples and whirls to discover submerged logs or other obstacles that also might be good fish habitats. Reading the river was part of the challenge and mastery of fishing for him. I t named the infinite and endless changes in the living river. He did not go to church. In my Catholic childhood, I was very worried that he would end up in Hell for this absence from Mass. Later in life I understood that this Sunday peace in nature refreshed his spirit and made it easier to return to his Monday mornings of hard labor.
Looking around at the beloved faces in our meeting, some of them reading, some of them reading sacred texts, I realized that we were all reading in our worship. Those with the tools of texts were finding guidance and inspiration to seek truth in their lives. Friends with their hands held empty and up to receive inspiration were reading their own minds and hearts to interrupt the swirling thoughts and depths of Spirit. In the great Ocean of Light we call The Silence, Friends were reading together for an understanding of the great mystery and Love that God gives us.
Patricia Dewees is a member of Athens (Ohio) Meeting.