Life Saving Quaker Practice

Peaceful spot along a riverbank.
Mississippi River near Fridley, Minn. (c) Gabriel Vanslette/Wikimedia

Although I’ve participated in Quaker worship for 25 years, it took a diagnosis of brain cancer for me to take on a wholehearted commitment to daily waiting worship.

I was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive kind of brain cancer, in 2015. After a year of surgeries, chemo, radiation, and experimental treatments, I completed all of the available medical treatment in 2016. My prognosis was still not good. Average survival after this diagnosis is a year and a half. I knew that I wanted to continue some kind of treatment.

I live close to the Mississippi River, and before that time, I had occasionally gone to the river to pray. When my medical treatment ended, I decided to make daily Quaker worship next to the river my ongoing treatment. For the past year, I’ve been sitting silently next to the river every day, with the intention of listening for and following the Spirit’s movements. I see the trees, birds, and river next to me as fellow worshippers in community with me. I take this treatment as seriously as I took chemo and  radiation.

Like in meeting for worship, most thoughts that arise during my treatment are from a shallow place in my busy mind and not something with spiritual power. The river keeps inviting me to place those in the river and let them pass.

When messages with spiritual power do arise, I jot them down and ask if the message is just for me, for another particular person, or for a group. Occasionally, the messages turn into an article, like this. Mostly, though, I sit and watch the river go past.

Many messages have become letters of gratitude or reconciliation to people in my life—such as acknowledging what I learned of God’s love from my pre-school teacher, or apologizing for my misuse of power in a past job. Some messages lead to conversations. Many days, like in meeting, there aren’t any messages, just sitting in waiting worship. Other days, a great blue heron will have a message delivered through a graceful flight above the water in front of me. Sometimes a turtle walks slowly across my path, eldering me in the ways of patience and persistence. The 100-year-old cottonwood trees around me season what I think is ministry, helping me test if it is a message with weight, or one to return to the river.

Research is increasingly showing the health benefits of being in beautiful natural places, especially in contemplative ways. Even more than the health benefits, my commitment to the river continues to grow because of how I experience it opening me more fully to the sacred river that is the foundation of our worship.  

I’m now six months past the average survival for my diagnosis, and one year into my daily worship at the river.  I don’t assume my worship at the river will cure me, but I continue to trust that this treatment is an essential part of my healing.  When I now sit in worship with other humans, I feel my friends at the river holding us in the sunlight, grounding us in generative soil, and cleansing us in the watershed.

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