The noisy silence
Thank you, Ben Handy, for pointing out “The Importance of Noise During Silent Worship” (FJ Feb.). While silently pondering and remembering sitting in 20-plus meetinghouses, two extremes came to mind: Gunpowder Meeting in Sparks, Md., while lawn care (sheep grazing) proceeded in the adjacent graveyard and Ramallah Meeting in Palestine while army jeeps rattled and flash bombs exploded in the adjacent main street.
Lovely, honest, and amusing article. It’s a different atmosphere from my eighteenth-century meetinghouse in an English market town. Nearly everyone has to come by car from out of town as there is no other transport on Sundays. If our weather conditions were as treacherous as those described by Handy, it would just be too dangerous. It is encouraging to be let into someone else’s thoughts in the silence.
Bury St Edmunds, UK
I have tinnitus—two different tones, one in each ear. I’ve found that I don’t really hear it because I pay no attention to it, but in meeting for worship you can’t get away from it. Then I found that at the center of the noise, there is the stillness I seek. The Quaker quote that I find most inspiring in my life is an anonymous ministry that was given in a seventeenth-century meeting in Scotland: “In stillness there is fullness; in fullness there is nothingness; in nothingness all things.” This for me is the process I follow in meeting. It is not always given to me, but when it is I feel a deep calm.
The minimalist composer John Cage produced a three-movement composition 4′33″ in which the performer(s) were instructed not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the piece. Cage discussed this as one of the one-minute stories in his 1959 work Indeterminacy, a performance of which is available from Smithsonian Folkways.
I was fortunate to have known Cage slightly when I was an undergraduate student in astronomy at Wesleyan University, and unwittingly played a small role in enabling Cage to write another piece, Atlas Eclipticalis. He had come to the observatory looking for a star chart. I happened to be there and showed him a beautiful one that we had just received; he used it as the basis of his composition. I attended the U.S. premier of this at Connecticut College with one of my professors, who was also a Friend.
What a delightful article! The comments on your own idiosyncrasies are so funny, like showing the bench what kind of mettle you have! So apt! And such a familiar experience of finding deep worship more easily amid noise. One of the most fruitful worship times I had was when I lived in Manhattan, N.Y., with all kinds of noises below.
Here in Exeter, England, we have lately conducted meetings for worship outdoors in the city center. We have a circle of chairs, a half a dozen worshipers, and Friends on the periphery ready to answer questions and invite people to sit down with us. Few did, yet it was a form of witness and there was a distinct sense of being a stone in the stream of humanity’s business. The external hubbub intensified the internal silence. Silence needs the noise of context: noise needs the context of silence. Both are meaningless without the other.
This reader is glad that Ben Handy heeded the nudges (godly and wifely) to go to meeting that day or we’d not have this sweet and funny article to enjoy.
This is such a lovely essay. I loved the humorous spirit of it. I live near Philadelphia, Pa., and can appreciate the description of city sounds. Is there any chance your wife would share her recipe for brussels sprout noodle bean casserole?
Gender and aging
My appreciation to Elizabeth Boardman for her thought-provoking “Male, Female, or Whole?” in the January Friends Journal. While I welcome the recognition that moving beyond the limitations of gender stereotypes is a move toward wholeness, I do not share the sense, implied by her title, that moving toward wholeness in this way is a move away from one’s natural gender identity. And I am not convinced that, as Boardman writes, “most of us were raised to think that our sexual identity, perhaps even our sexual performance, was the most important thing about us.” “Male” was just another physical characteristic, like brown hair (now graying), brown eyes (still), and height (shrinking slightly?).
For Boardman, this move toward wholeness was apparently prompted by the biological changes that come (primarily) with age, which reduce the gender-specific functioning of one’s body. She identifies this as a move toward androgyny. But, for some of us males, “what are thought of as feminine traits” have always seemed natural to us; for some women, I assume, “the capacities and sensibilities usually associated with men” have always been equally associated with women.
I am now close to 70, but I was much closer to 7 when I first showed interest in sewing (I have been a prolific knitter during several intervals of my life, including my teenage years), cooking, and (somewhat later) living “alone in a vibrant way.” Although my gender-specific functioning and inclinations have begun to wane, I have no sense of moving away from my maleness, which has always been unrelated to the gender-irrelevant characteristics labeled as “masculine.” For me, there has been no move toward androgyny, nor is such a move a goal I have for myself.
John van der Meer
I first encountered this concept a few months ago, while watching an interview with actress Glenda Jackson regarding her recent portrayal of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Jackson expressed the sense that as she has aged, her concept of “self” has become increasingly androgynous, and that she therefore found nothing contradictory in taking on this “male” role. Hearing her words was quite an aha! moment for me; I could immediately relate.
Our society tends to sexualize everything in very unhealthy ways. The idea of androgynous wholeness is a much-needed concept in our perceptions of aging. After hearing Jackson’s interview, I was hungry for more. I am grateful for Boardman’s broader explication of this stage of life and mode of being and the emphasis on wholeness. It was profoundly liberating.
Fort Bragg, Calif.
Being a transgender woman, and having struggled with gender all my life, telling me, just as I come to terms with gender on the cusp of old age, that in some sense gender doesn’t matter any more or is in some way not important, seems like an invalidation of my entire life. It makes for very bitter thoughts on how I have lived, as self-directed rage.
I would like to share with Elizabeth, with some joy, that many young and creeping-into-our-40s queers consider our community acronym to be LGBTQIA2 as a way of encompassing many facets of our community, including sexuality, gender, romantic orientation, and decolonized identity (LGBTQIA2 = lesbian; gay; bisexual; trans; queer and questioning; intersex; asexual and aromantic; and 2-spirit).
Some people see fit to complain about adding letters, but it feels like an opening: a warm embrace to name my siblings and peg my identity into community with theirs. Together, we are more whole.
Suzanne W. Cole Sullivan
The November 2019 issue on gambling is the first issue of Friends Journal I’ve ever picked up. Pamela Haines’s “To Gamble, for Better or for Worse” resonated with me because she peels back the layers around an activity that seems distinct and she interrogates the deeper issues at stake. Our world is full of uncertainty, chance, and risk, so we can’t avoid gambling in a certain sense; in fact, Haines argues that our faith and other commitments are admirable gambles to make. She also draws a useful line in finance between frivolous speculation and investment that honors the integrity of workers in communities.
“The Liturgy of Me” by r. scot miller (FJ Jan.) speaks my mind. As a recovering addict and alcoholic who wandered into worship some 35 years ago, only a few years into recovery, I sought a neutral spiritual community to raise my family. We were recovering from addiction, codependence, trauma, Catholicism, evangelism, and who knows what else. The silence was a welcome balm for my fear, and the quiet nonviolent activism a salve for the violence of my own prehistory. I felt instantly at home and content to learn the ways of early Friends.
Yet as the years have gone on, I have come to wonder about the fiery spirit of early Friends contrasted against the relative docility of our modern brothers and sisters. I’m discouraged by the amount of talk versus action (even my own). As wars and murders and shootings have come and gone, I have puzzled why the strength of our message—that there is a different way—hasn’t been able to reach out and touch those who are truly seeking.
Falling Waters, W.V.
Thank you for this powerful challenge to our complacency. Silence and holding people in the Light are not enough; we need to examine our own reluctance and speak up to make changes in this broken world of ours.
Fort Collins, Colo.
Uneven support of addictions
Regarding Johanna Jackson’s “Supporting Recovery Among Friends” (FJ Jan.): having been in a denomination with pastors for over 50 years before becoming an unprogrammed Quaker, I conclude that pastors are often a liability and not an asset in healing.
It is important to note that family members of the addict or alcoholic also need support as they recover from the repercussions of living with an addicted person.
The author replies: Carol makes a really good point. We need to support the folks who are watching the people they love suffer. Do you have insight on how to do this? What kinds of support are needed, or helpful?
Your comment reminds me that there are some missing voices in this article. Recently, I heard from a Friend of color, who wrote from inside prison. Addiction has shaped his life, and he wanted to share more about that. Like I said earlier, the article is lacking input from people of color. His letter reminded me of the many folks who need support, who may be hard to reach, whose stories need to be known.
State College, Pa.
Folks interested in this model of membership (“New York Yearly Meeting adopts yearly meeting membership,” FJ Jan. News) may also want to know that individual membership is also an option with Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, in the Pacific West. You can find out about them at scymfriends.org.
Will yearly meetings also hold meetings for worship for marriage and burial and memorial meetings for members who hold membership at the yearly meeting level and not in a monthly meeting?
Making connections in Africa
Thank you for sharing Kumah Drah’s “Silent Journeys of Quakers from Hill House” (FJ Oct. 2019). My father taught at the University of the Gold Coast, and my mother worked as a nurse at Achimota. When I grew up I went to Achimota School. I lost touch with the community there when we left in 1961. I am delighted to see that Friends are still active there.
How wonderful to hear of life at the Quaker community at Hill House. We the Quakers in Nigeria tried unsuccessfully in the late ’80s and late ’90s to connect up with Hill House. We sent the Nigerian Friends newsletter, which then had four editions a year, not one reply from Ghana. We finally gave up. We shall make fresh attempts.
Shima K. Gyoh
Vancouver Island Meeting in British Columbia is contributing to the well-being of a Quaker meeting in Burundi. We started with money to improve their medical work treating AIDS patients. This money came from a Quaker bequest for that purpose; the bequest has been fully used and has made a difference in their ability to treat their patients. We continue to raise money through small events. They are now building a maternity clinic. Victoria Friends have enjoyed several visits from one of their pastors. The association has been rich and rewarding. The Friends church is quite different from our unprogrammed meeting, but we come together in worship and action through the universal medium of love.