Messages from Central Philadelphia Meeting’s Experiment in Sharing about Quaker Worship

Image courtesy of QuakerSpeak

The following messages were written by members of the Worship and Ministry Committee at Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting; they are published here to accompany the article “An Experiment in Sharing about Quaker Worship” by Bruce Birchard (in FJ Sept. 2023). As part of that experiment, on alternate Sundays over a period of 16 weeks, each of the eight members took a turn sharing their reflection just prior to worship. They are presented here in alphabetical order by first name.

Becky Birtha

I love to watch as the meetingroom fills. As the people enter and the community gathers, I am often smiling to myself, extending a silent greeting or welcome to each one. It doesn’t bother me if they enter late.

As the room grows more still, there’s a short, prayer-like statement that I often repeat to myself as I try to center. Basically, the words are, “I open my life to be led by the Spirit.” Spirit is the word that seems to work best for me, when speaking about the Divine. Many people use the name God. I’m more comfortable thinking of the Spirit as Goddess than God. But by and large, a being-like identity doesn’t feel large enough. My belief about and experience of Spirit is more like a presence or a oneness. I think of it as the Source, which we can all tap into, as a music to which we can attune our lives.

In the early part of meeting, many random thoughts pass through my mind. They might be about events from the past week, something I read, people in my life, a project I’m working on, a problem I’m trying to solve, or a long-ago memory. I might follow one of these rivulets for a few minutes, to see if it has more to yield. Or I may let them just flow through.

As the meeting goes on, I try to shift my perspective away from day-to-day thoughts and to focus in a way that could best be described as listening. My prayer for this activity is a short two words: “I’m listening.” I listen deeply to hear if there is a message for me. I listen in the silence and as others are speaking; and if there are several messages, I listen for the subtle connections between what is said, for the direction in which the meeting is being guided.

There are times when meetings may have been largely silent for a few weeks, and I don’t feel as if I have anything to share either. Then I may ask myself, “If I did have a message, what might it be?” The answer can take me by surprise.

When I find myself with a message that might be shared, I always wait a while, as it’s not so unusual to hear another Friend “speak my mind,” allowing me to remain silent. Alternatively, a message given by another Friend may lead me to feel that mine is even more urgent. If I believe I’m meant to speak, I go over the message several times in my mind. Then I pay attention to my body, to see if I can detect a signal that ushers me to stand.

In my early years of attending, I thought of meeting for worship as something I did for myself. In later years, my focus has shifted, and I have much more of a sense of worship as a community endeavor. A Friend asked me recently about the Scottish country dancing that I do, and which I consider part of my spiritual practice. “Is it hard?” he asked. My response was, “It isn’t hard to do it. You can do it the first time you try. But it takes time to become really good at it. And even after years, you can keep getting better.” I think that also describes Quaker worship.

I love this form of worship, which can deepen by the minute, and by the year, and I’m profoundly grateful that my spiritual journey has led me to this place.

Bruce Birchard, Eleventh Month 13, 2022

I have had to work at worship. For years I sat in meetings for worship reflecting on events in my life, appreciating people and things, feeling badly about injustice and suffering in the world, and thinking through problems. But I rarely had an experience of the living Spirit.

Eventually I was helped by reading John Punshon’s Encounter with Silence. He said it takes work and training to experience the Spirit. He said, “It’s like tennis. Get a good coach. Work at it. And know that you’ll fail frequently, and you’ll never be as good as you want to be.”

It was particularly challenging for me because I have never had a “conventional” experience of what many people call “God.” I have never experienced or understood God, or the Spirit, as a supernatural being. That’s one reason Quakers appealed to me: we have so many different names for what many call God: the Inner Light; the Christ Within; the Seed; the Truth; and, of course, Divine Love.

Without that experience of a “supreme being,” three paths to the Spirit have been important to me: 

  1. Beauty, particularly in the natural world and in music
  2. Love, which I experience in several ways through many kinds of relationships
  3. Meditation and worship

I understand that I am always in the Presence, but I need to practice a spiritual discipline to help me be deeply aware of it. I often imagine the Presence as a stream, flowing through and around me. I work to align myself with the current, to go with that flow, to feel it supporting me as I ride the rapids and face the dangers and fears of my life, with the beauties of the world around me, and love filling me.

I also strive to always be aware of the deep injustice and violence in the world. Our awareness of beauty and love should never blind us to the terrible reality of these, and to the terrible suffering of humans and other beings on our earth.

I will admit: I do not always succeed in going deep during our meetings for worship. There are certainly times when I find myself just thinking about recent experiences, considering what I might do in the coming week, and (yes) dozing off. But then there are times when I go to the center and find myself deep in the spiritual stream.

And that brings up the question of when to appropriately offer vocal ministry. When I find myself in a deep and centered place, I may become aware of a message forming in my mind, and I may consider sharing it with others. When I believe I’m in this place, I ask myself a few questions:

  1. Is this message really coming from a spiritual place, or is it an impulse to want to tell others about something that I did, or something that happened to me recently?
  2. If it feels like a spiritually grounded message, is it one that could be helpful or meaningful to others, or is it mostly meaningful to me, but not particularly to others?
  3. Could this be a thought or story that might be more appropriate to share with someone close to me, or do I feel it is meant to be shared widely in meeting for worship?

If my emerging message passes these tests, and if enough time has passed since someone else has shared a message, then I may proceed to share it with the worshiping body.

Whether I share such a message or not, I know that, if enough of us are truly in our “spiritual streams,” we may experience a true drawing together in the Spirit—what Friends often call “a gathered meeting.”

David Nicklin, February 8, 2023

Worship for me is informed by science, which has shown that consciousness rather than matter is the basis of existence and our universe. There is one consciousness: the universe is conscious, and each living thing is a receiver for a part of the consciousness.

Three Nobel Prize-winning physicists have noted this truth. After a lifetime studying matter, Max Planck said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.” Erwin Schrodinger said, “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms, for consciousness is absolutely fundamental. Quantum physics reveals a basic oneness of the universe. Multiplicity is only apparent; in truth, there is only one mind.” And Albert Einstein said, “A human being is a spatially and temporally limited piece of the whole, what we call the ‘Universe.’ He experiences himself and his feelings as separate from the rest, an optical illusion of his consciousness. The quest for liberation from this illusion is the only object of true religion.”

As I center in worship, I focus on this awareness: that I (and all of us) are fundamentally part of the oneness, and that our separateness is an illusion—a compelling illusion, and one our society endorses as real. As I recall the fundamental oneness, I also recall a quote from Erasmus (popularized by Carl Jung): “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” It helps me to remember that I don’t need to make any effort for the Spirit to be present. The Spirit and oneness moves among us and unites us, shining like the sun. Perhaps some days have more sun, and sometimes there are clouds, but the sun is there shining without regard to my trying. So it is with the Spirit. The hour of worship is an opportunity for me to notice and accept it shining, and be warmed.

It may take a while for my mind to quiet down. Sometimes I’ll practice Centering Prayer, with the phrase “I consent to God’s presence and activity in my life.” Thoughts intrude and distract. I note them; let them go; and return to the phrase, and to consenting. I resist the temptation to think about what this might mean, letting those thoughts go as well. When I notice my mind has wandered, I accept that, and return to consenting. Sometimes I repeat the Serenity Prayer, and the phrase “God’s will, not mine, be done.”

When there is vocal ministry, I listen for it to speak to me, and offer me an opportunity. When it does, I am grateful and continue consenting. When it does not, I hold the speaker and Spirit in my heart, and pray that their ministry may speak to others. And then return to consenting.

Some weeks I have more success than others in doing this practice. Regardless, after the hour is up, I feel more centered, connected, and grateful.

Grace Gonglewski

In an ideal world, before I go to worship, I love to get my body moving. I have a standing date with my dearest friend Martha to hike on Sunday mornings. We meet at 7:30 a.m. and hike about five miles up to the Andorra Meadow from the top of Chestnut Hill [in Philadelphia, Pa.]. There we see the changing seasons, the white-tailed deer, the blue martins, sun rising through mist, rainbows. We head up there when it’s blustery cold, in torrential rain, sweltering humidity, and perfect fall days. It is always a centering and invigorating journey. Afterward I shower and do a little yoga. There are eight limbs of yoga—including the poses, or Asanas, and breathing, or Pranayama, the breath control—that all lead to being able to sit for in meditation and achieve a connection to the Divine. I have found that I can best enter into complete stillness and centeredness when I move, stretch, and breath deeply beforehand. (You can learn more about the eight limbs of yoga here.)

When I enter the worship room, I try to use the “fox walk” that Eric taught me from American Indians. They place each foot thoughtfully, slowly, and reverently, walking from heel to toe silently, softly, so as to be undetectable. I appreciate when Quakers enter into the worship room with care, silently, without rustling; it feels respectful of the sacred space and the work of settling in. If folks are noisy though, I just try to let it go.

Once seated I take a few deep breaths and let go of anything that comes into my mind: worries about money, relationships, the news, anything that can lead to me ruminating on that hamster wheel of worry. If something is so unshakable I can’t set it aside, I place it into God’s giant hands in my mind’s eye . . . for the time being. Then I try to settle into rhythmic breathing: deep breath in on ahhhh, deep breath out on hmmmm. Sometimes I chant in my mind the Buddhist chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” sometimes the Eastern Orthodox prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

When my mind wanders back to concrete thoughts, I turn my attention to my breath.

Once I get my breath regulated, I begin to turn my attention to the room, breathing in, for and with Friends. I imagine us all surrounded by light. I wash us with light inside my mind. I imagine a huge wave of light going under us, and then over us. I often feel tingly, peaceful, fulfilled, aglow.

If a message comes to me, I will almost always let it sit for a few meetings before I share it. Sometimes it leaves me. Sometimes it persists. I really try to see if it must be shared, because for me, there are very few messages that surpass the sweet peace of corporate silence.

Jeff Rosenthal, spring 2023

My time in worship begins when I step out my door. It is a half hour walk to meeting; the route takes me past neighbors’ houses, across busy streets, and through a park. I use this time to settle, and often to get out of the way thinking about whatever has been on my mind as of late. It is also a time for me to set the music in my head.

There is always music playing for me. Whether it’s a song that I heard on the radio, one from years ago brought to the surface by something someone said, or something I am currently writing, it sets the mental space that I am in. Meeting for worship is no exception to this. I do not try to quiet my mind anymore; that won’t work. But the right music playing can lead me to a very centered space. Conversely, the wrong music can prevent me from centering at all. There is a lot of trial and error.

On occasion, if I’m lucky, the music can be something akin to John Cage’s 4’33”. Many know this piece as a kind of joke, meant to keep the audience wondering when the music will start (an experience shared by many first time attenders to worship). But I learned that Cage’s original intent for the piece was that the music is all of the sounds in the room. People shifting in their seats, heating systems turning on and off, sounds creeping in from outside, all come together as one big orchestra, performing a piece that will never be heard the same way again. This can be truly beautiful if I listen the right way.

Sometimes in worship, I will hear a song that I have never heard before. These are the ones that I really have to listen for. If I listen well enough, I can hear these messages, and they will fill my spirit with a beautiful piece of music, one that I often long to hear again. If it sticks around long enough, I sometimes get the chance to write down what I heard when I get home, but even if it’s just for a fleeting moment that is enough.

For me, the silence of meeting is never truly silence. It is a chance for me to listen to God’s music.

Nancy van Arkel

I love thinking about worship as listening for the still, small voice of God. Listening in this way is like listening to a small child tell you a meaningful story: it takes your complete attention; it requires slowing down and openness; and it gets easier with time and practice.

At the beginning of worship, my practice is to listen for the sounds that are furthest away (the traffic) and then move closer to the meetinghouse (birdsong, people on the street) and then into the meetingroom (the heating system, the creaking benches, and the shuffling of feet), and finally into my body (my breath or my heartbeat). This practice settles me, draws me inward, focuses my listening away from my chattering brain, away from my surroundings, and opens me to the stillness of the Spirit.

As a child growing up in Norristown [Pa.] Meeting, I was taught not to look to see who is speaking when someone rises in ministry. It is God’s message I was to listen for, and the person speaking is simply the channel. While my language to describe the Divine has changed over the years, listening remains at the heart of my spiritual practice.

When I began coming to Central Philadelphia Meeting in the late ’90s, I found another kind of listening became part of my practice. Worshiping in a large urban meeting was new to me. I loved the community, but I was challenged by the occasional discordant message in worship. Then I began to notice the meeting’s response to those messages. Without fail, instead of reacting to the disruption, the meeting would sink into a deeper, more centered, more Spirit-filled worship.

From experiencing that deeper worship, I learned to listen differently to messages. I now listen with the expectation that there is something for me, something I am supposed to hear, some small pearl in every message. I strive to let go of my myriad judgments: Is this a rightly ordered message? How do I feel about the speaker? Do I agree with what is being said? And instead, I hope to settle into the discomfort, to listen for Spirit, and to open myself to the divine message that is trying to reach me.

When I feel a message coming through me, those same judgments often arise within me. But they help me discern whether I am clear to speak, whether the message is coming from my heart and not my head, whether the message is for me alone or for the meeting as a whole. These questions help to ground me in the Spirit, and allow me to open into being a willing channel for the Divine.

Terry Nance

Sundays prior to meeting for worship, I have no one set practice I follow. Some Sundays, I will read Scripture. I have a Bible loaded with bookmarks noting passages that were significant at various times of my life. Reading through those passages moves me closer to feeling connected to my personal sense of Spirit. I was raised as a Catholic Baptist, which means I used to spend a great deal of time in church. Through those experiences I came to settle on the importance of my personal relationship with God. In short, the Bible passages are more than the words on the page; they are my way of recognizing the significance/importance of Spirit in my life.

Other Sundays, I will consciously walk through the neighborhoods between my home and the meeting, marveling at the wonders of nature, including the incredible variety of people who surround me. In this way, once again I recognize with reverence the presence of God and Spirit in all that surrounds me.

Each of these experiences is personal. Coming into the meetinghouse, however, is a communal experience. It is a recognition that we are together in silence, centered and calling upon the Spirit to join us. Sitting together, waiting expectantly on the Spirit, I think about the importance of listening. As someone trained in dialogue, I know that when I listen intently (sometimes for hours) to others, there are times when my listening goes beyond the words being shared and I am connecting with the inner spirit (perhaps the Light) of the people with whom I am sitting. I understand more than what they are saying but what they mean. In meeting, I listen in the silence to hear not the words that are spoken but the messages from Spirit we are meant to experience.

I am unsure what is the best way to determine when it is right to speak. I try to let go of the immediate responses that jump to my mind—the usual conversation response that we utter without much significance or meaning. There are times, however, when I am nudged from the inside to respond aloud to the unspoken conversation that emerges from the silence—from the connection to Spirit, the Light, and our community.

Tony Junker, April 9, 2023

My family and I discovered this beautiful, historic worship space some 55 years ago, and my wife, Lee, and I have been worshiping here ever since. As an architect, I have special feelings for this room. Each time I enter its tall paneled doors, I can hear the Quaker carpenters shouting to one another, putting their finishing touches on the woodwork back in 1857. And on the first day the building opened, I imagine our forebears filing in wide-eyed, taking in the soaring ceiling, the light flooding in the clear glass panes, the 1,500 bench seats aligned in orderly rows—not to overlook the gracefully curved balustrades and balcony stairways, with their polished wood railings, so unusual in Quaker buildings, bespeaking the builders’ appreciation of beauty and grace, beyond bare, frugal necessity. This remarkable and unique architectural setting—what a privilege it is to worship here! Never should we take it for granted. How clearly the space expresses Friends’ beliefs: simplicity, integrity, community.

Coming to worship on First Day is only one of my spiritual practices. I meditate and pray upon rising each morning, and say a few words of thanks before meals and at bedtime. I find these simple practices fortify one another, and also help prepare me for worship on First Day.

On First-day morning, I leave the house early enough to arrive in the worship room a quarter of an hour early, whenever I can. I join the handful of Friends and attenders already seated, settled in the silence. I feel the soft cushion beneath me, the wooden plank at my back, the foot rail under my feet. How well conceived these benches are, just comfortable enough but not too much, keeping me alert. Eyes closed, I sense the stillness taking shape around me. In that stillness, I can sense our generations of ancestors, filing in one by one, filling the empty-seeming benches.

Once settled, I turn my attention inward.

First, always, I say thank you: for having woken to another day of life, and for being present in this worship room again, among Friends.

After this all-important thanks, I turn my mind to those who are less fortunate than me, particularly those who hunger—for food, clean water, shelter, love, justice. I try to imagine and feel the pain of these known and unknown persons, share in their suffering in some small way, joining in solidarity. This, of course, is never wholly possible.

I then turn my mind toward the Light, to the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation, to our world and all that is in it, the wonders of God’s Universe. And especially, to God’s love, which, despite all the suffering around me, I know I am meant to remember always, never to forget. God’s pure love—the greatest gift of all. Again, I say thank you.

Now, if I am able to reach this point, I am ready to join others in the assembled meeting. I try to empty myself, sinking into my seat, opening myself to the silence and whatever God means to happen next. This is my most perilous time. My mind often wanders off. Again and again, I have to pull it back. Sometimes I find support in repeating my mantrum. If all that I can accomplish in the entire hour is calling myself back again and again, I accept this as okay. I believe the Creator understands.

The spacetime of silence that we evoke in this room and hold about us—after all these years, it is still a miracle. What brings me back week after week? The hope and expectation that, sitting here, waiting, I will connect directly with the God of Creation. That by listening, I will hear within me, or through God’s voice channeled through another, something useful or imperative about how I am meant to live my life. Whether a message comes through me or is spoken by others, I look mostly for “service” in the words—service to others, service to the wider community. If the message helps me to connect with the Creator, my purpose for coming, I am lifted up, supremely grateful! I can only hope that the message opens pathways for others as well.

Meeting for worship does not always unfold like this, but it happens often enough, so that over time, I keep returning First Day after First Day, as regularly as I can, to find help and refreshment in this simple, beautiful, time-blessed room.

Read Bruce Birchard’s accompanying article: “An Experiment in Sharing about Quaker Worship” in the September 2023 issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.