By Staśa Morgan-Appel
In the summer of 2000, I was in a car accident with multiple impacts. I walked away from it, but for months afterward, I couldn’t sit still for more than 20 minutes because of the pain. This was a problem in many areas of my life—work, home, volunteering, meeting for worship.
At the time, I was part of a large meeting which met in a large meetinghouse, and I could usually find a seat on the end of a bench, toward the back of the room. I could lie down on the floor when I needed to; I could get up and go into the back entry way, which we rarely used, and pace when I needed to, then come hover in the doorway to listen to any vocal ministry that was offered. The people in my meeting knew about the accident and seemed to understand the reasons for my odd behavior. It didn’t seem to bother anyone, at least. And as I healed, I was able to sit through more and more of worship again, eventually the full hour.
A few years later, I sustained a severe ankle injury. I was in constant pain: I couldn’t sit, stand, lie down, or walk without pain. Again, this affected every area of my life, and again, I found it very hard to settle into meeting for worship. Pacing in the back of the room wasn’t an option this time. For the first six months after the injury, my ankle was usually taped, so I could shift and wiggle easily in my seat when the pain became too great or too distracting. My usual seat-mate, my spouse, was sympathetic, although I’m sure it did not help the quality of her worship any.
But after six months, when the pain continued, my doctor placed my ankle and leg in a series of casts and braces—too big to make wiggling possible without loud thumps against the benches or being quite noticeable visually. The Worship and Ministry committee, on which my wife was serving, had asked its members to sit on the facing benches even when they didn’t have care of meeting. My squirming would now be even more obvious. I tried sitting on the floor in front of the first facing bench, where my wiggling was less noisy, but I felt that it was still very visible and distracting.
Worst of all for me was the loss of worship. I was not able to take part in communal worship because meeting had become an exercise in endurance through pain, not one of worship and not one of community. There are practices that are about reaching spiritual communion through physical discomfort or even pain, and I have experience in some of them. But meeting for worship is not, and should not be, such an experience.
What to do? There were many options. None of them was worship.
That fall, my F/friend Russell died. I have an active crochet ministry, and I had a very clear leading to make a comfort wrap or throw for his devastated husband. I worked on it mostly during meeting for worship with attention to business, announcements at the rise of meeting, committee meetings, and the like.
One day during meeting for worship when I was in a lot of pain and just couldn’t settle, I took my bag, went to the back corner of the room, and, hidden from view, sat on the floor, crocheting his throw while holding him in the Light, in worship.
It worked. I was able to settle into, and remain in, worship with my meeting.
The handwork distracted me from the pain. Unlike reading, it did not require the intellectual portion of my brain, and so I was able to stay in worship as I’m unable to do always when reading. Because it was ministry, the handwork was enhanced by my being in worship and by my being in worship with my spiritual community. Most of all, handwork was a spiritual tool that made meeting for worship accessible to me in spite of my disability. It was an accessibility aid and a spiritual tool.
Years passed and I didn’t think much about it. My spouse and I had both undertaken mid-life career changes, and we moved several times for her to go to graduate school and to work in temporary positions. We were part of several other meetings.
I became a member of a meeting that was open to diverse ways of making worship accessible to those having difficulty with mobility, neuro-atypicality, vision, hearing, and mental illness. In our meeting, we often balance behavior in meeting for worship that helps some people center but distracts others. As we participated in several meetings, I discovered that some of these ways of making worship accessible irritated me hugely…until I knew why they were being done.
This bothers me: Why should my knowing make a difference? Why would I assume that someone is being irritating on purpose, that someone is not participating fully? Why wouldn’t I assume that what they are doing—whatever it is: reading, handwork, writing, quiet play with hand-puppets, Sudoku—allows them to be fully present in meeting for worship? And yet, once I know the story (someone is neuro-atypical; someone is a young person who prefers meeting for worship to First-day school; someone is in chronic pain; someone just had news of a loved one in the ICU), my irritation vanishes. It makes sense and it ceases to be a problem for me. This difference in my own attitudes bothers me.
A few years ago (we had moved again and were sojourning in a different meeting), I started experiencing a very unpleasant flare-up of a chronic neurological condition. One of the treatments made it likely that I would become fairly sleepy, unless I had direct sensory stimulation. To my horror, I found myself regularly falling asleep in meeting for worship.
I’m told occasional napping during meeting can be very worshipful, and I have often joked about hosting “meeting for worship with attention to napping.” But my chemically-and neurologically-induced experience was definitely not worshipful. It was awful.
So I was experiencing the loss of worship itself and of worship in community—yet again, at a time when I very much needed it. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to get up and leave meeting when I started to fall asleep. And I didn’t want to sleep in meeting. I wanted to worship—in community. On top of that, the meetinghouse where we were sojourning was quite small, and anyone doing any of those things, reading, leaving, sleeping, would be very obvious.
Finally, I thought about trying handwork again. People were used to seeing me crochet in meeting for worship with attention to business. We had a ramp for those who used wheelchairs, and we were engaged in discussions about other kinds of accessibility. People might understand. I explained the situation to the Ministry and Counsel committee and received a great deal of support.
Again, handwork helped me stay present in worship in community. It worked as both an accessibility device and a spiritual tool. Without handwork, worship would have been literally inaccessible to me. I would have had to leave the room; I would not have been able to be in meeting for worship.
This may be a novel idea: things we don’t usually consider to be acceptable behavior in meeting for worship can be spiritual tools that are accessibility aids. This idea also gives us the beginnings of some new ways to answer the question: how do we make our meetings more accessible to people with different kinds of disabilities and accessibility needs?
Here are some things I have learned to ask myself (and for others to ask themselves) when another person is doing something that irritates us in meeting for worship:
Could there be a good reason that the person is doing this?
Could that reason have something to do with accessibility and a hidden disability?
Could what he/she is doing actually be a form of ministry?
Staśa Morgan-Appel is a member of University Friends Meeting in Seattle, Wash., attending Central Edinburgh Quaker Meeting in Scotland. She has a letter of introduction and religious service from University Friends Meeting, with a ministry focusing on spiritual nurture with individuals and groups. She is a middling but avid crocheter and blogs at http://aquakerwitch.blogspot.com.