Quakerism was not my first choice. When I was 17 and decided to visit some churches, I originally thought the Unitarian Universalists were the best match for me. It looked great on paper: liberal politics and no expectation that you even believe in God. I visited the local church and found lots of friendly people. I decided to come back some Sunday, but I wanted to visit a Quaker meeting first.
I never made it back to that UU church. Richmond (Ind.) Friends Meeting, in its unobtrusive white wooden building, felt like home. Sitting for an hour in silence wasn’t the deep experience I had hoped for, but I wanted more of it.
As the years have passed, I have grown more involved in Quaker meetings wherever I have lived, but I’ve remained unsure about what place there is for an agnostic like me in the Religious Society of Friends. How could I join a meeting when I’ve never experienced anything I can call God? How could I be part of a sense of the meeting when the only force I feel at work is that of people and their various opinions, not a divinely-inspired third way? Could I be a hanger-on to a religion just because I loved the community? Was it right to sit daydreaming through an hour of silence because there was a potluck lunch afterwards and a vigil for peace outside the post office next week?
This year I started working at Pendle Hill. I had hoped that the chance to study Quakerism—and just to steep in a Quaker environment—would help me clarify things. But if I was hoping to find some kind of secular, community-centered model of Quakerism that I could be part of, I certainly didn’t find it. Instead I’ve been impressed by how intensely Spirit-centered Quakerism has been and continues to be for some Friends. My concept of meeting for worship has changed, especially: instead of using the time to let my mind wander, I’ve tried to settle into the receptive state that others describe.
I’ve also been thinking differently about individual Quakers. I read John Woolman’s journal, expecting it to be the record of a committed activist whose actions were perhaps informed but not dictated by his faith. Instead I found a man who begged God to let him die rather than continue the work laid out for him. What kept Woolman going was not a belief that his actions were effective—it was faith, his belief that this was what God asked of him. People like Woolman and Mary Fisher don’t seem autonomously compelled; their stories are amazing because of the extent of their submission to what they experience as God’s will.
If I am a Quaker at all, I’m definitely not that kind of Quaker. This fall I’ve been sitting in meeting with a new awareness of what other people may be experiencing in their worship, but although I make an effort to tune in to that frequency, I’m not picking anything up. I haven’t heard any divine calls to activism, so my work will have to be motivated and guided only by my own ideas of what is right.
When I lay it out like that, I wonder if I hadn’t better just go back to the Unitarian Universalists. But although I’ve visited more UU churches over the years, they have always felt aimless and unfocused to me. The class I’ve been taking at Pendle Hill stresses Quakerism’s religious roots, roots that continue to anchor it. I am not grounded in that faith, but I don’t want to leave for something more vague and less rooted. I want to stay with Quakerism in whatever way I can without weakening it for others.
Instead of “faith,” I find myself returning to the word “practice.” It’s got that double meaning: a practice is something you do routinely, but to practice is also to work on something so you’ll get better at it. A few years ago I filled out a form that asked: “What is your religion? How often do you practice your religion?” I’m sure they meant “How often do you go to religious services?” but that seemed a silly way to measure a person’s faith. The only honest answers I could come up with were, “No religion. Always practicing Quakerism.”
I don’t know where I need to go from here. I don’t know if I’ll ever become a member of a meeting, or if I’ll ever feel guidance from a source outside myself. Maybe I’ll continue sitting in quiet rooms with wooden benches for the rest of my life, listening for something I’ll never hear. But I do know that I need to continue practicing.
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