Process or Faithfulness

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Have you ever been visited by the Living Presence during meeting for worship? I have. It’s miraculous how it seems to know my condition, to offer guidance, or to just give a glimpse of the world renewed. It usually comes quietly from somewhere down deep. Sometimes it comes through a spoken message delivered faithfully within the gathered body. There’s a wholeness, a healing, and joy in these experiences of what I call God. Sometimes it’s gentle, just enough to get me through the week. Sometimes it’s transformative, even piercing, totally changing my worldview. Being a Quaker to me is seeking to be with God’s Living Reality, which is available all the time. Our practices or processes are meant to help us experience and be led by this greater Truth.

Ideally, we Quakers enter our meetings for worship waiting, trusting, and patient that we might enter into the deep place where such encounters with the Living Presence are felt and known. We minimize outward techniques, seeking instead for emptiness and expectancy. The instructions of our Quaker elders encourage us to avoid engaging with our thoughts, instead allowing them just to float by. We wait. We listen. When we are visited by God’s profound reality, it shifts the level of listening to a whole new plane. In my experience, one can tell the difference between a meeting for worship that is filled with this Living Presence and one that is filled with ourselves.

We are asked to enter our meetings for business and committee meetings with this same posture of faithful listening. We are asked to practice humility, to be patient yet expectant that we might hear the Inward Teacher. We seek to be guided in our actions for the meeting and the world.


When we are visited by God’s profound reality, it shifts the level of listening to a whole new plane. In my experience, one can tell the difference between a meeting for worship that is filled with this Living Presence and one that is filled with ourselves.


When I was in the School of the Spirit’s On Being a Spiritual Nurturer program in the early 1990s, Fran Taber led a session on discernment. I’ll never forget her saying that discernment was 99 percent spirituality and 1 percent process. It was such a contrast to the emphasis that many of us were putting on Quaker process then, including myself. I believed in all the guidelines, almost raved about them, and I sometimes still do. Did we have a clear agenda? Were we certain to allow space for each person to speak? Did we remind each other to listen and not to interrupt or comment argumentatively? Do we wait to be recognized by the clerk? Did we hold our own good thoughts lightly enough that we could truly listen to others and what was emerging deeper among us? Were we respectful and patient, since we might not find unity now, and the sense of the meeting might only result in identifying next steps? Fran’s talk revealed that while all these behaviors are important, they are only the skeleton of what our process or practice is meant to be. Quaker process is simply a set of time-tested conditions that asks us to be faithful. Our core goal is to seek the Inner Voice, to hold our analysis and reasoning in their place, and to trust that the Spirit will lead us and express itself as Truth.

In Michael J. Sheeran’s book about Quaker decision making, Beyond Majority Rule, there is a story that recounts such an experience. This story came from an interview with a former American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) staff member who remembered a board meeting where Spirit transformed good reasoning.

In 1948, there were 750,000 refugees on the Gaza Strip; the new state of Israel had just been established. The UN asked AFSC to take responsibility for feeding, housing, etc. At the meeting of the AFSC Board of Directors, all speakers said the work needed doing, but all agreed it was just too big for the Service Committee. They counseled that we should say no, with regrets. Then the chairman (clerk) called for a period of silence, prayer, meditation. Ten or fifteen minutes went by in which no one spoke. Then the chairman opened the discussion once again. The view around the table was completely changed: “Of course, we have to do it.” There was complete unity.


Barry Morley in his wonderful Pendle Hill pamphlet, Beyond Consensus: Salvaging Sense of the Meeting, sets out to distinguish our Quaker process from the secular practice that risks diminishing the spirituality of why we do things the ways we do. He names “sense of the meeting” as a gift, a spiritual heirloom, “handed down from generation to generation, even as the Jews handed down their covenant with God” to their next generation. He points out: 

consensus is achieved through a process of reasoning in which reasonable people search for a satisfactory decision. But in seeking the sense of the meeting we open ourselves to being guided to perfect resolution in Light, to a place where we sit in unity in the collective inward Presence. 

He states that we know we have found the sense of the meeting when a hush falls over the room. That hush is a recognition that a deeper Truth has revealed itself to us all.

Finding the sense of the meeting sometimes can be quite a struggle. Heated emotions might be expressed. Friends may have difficulty relinquishing their own point of view, in order to find and yield to a deeper Truth. I know. I have sometimes been part of the problem. When worship is requested in the midst of such a struggle, however, it often clears the way and shifts the attention to listening in the deeper place.


As Quakers, we are called to be faithful. It is my prayer that we can keep the relative importance of our process in perspective as we strive to be so.


In my personal worship this morning, I was visited by the Living Presence again. I’ve been struggling with numerous inward challenges caused or exacerbated by the current pandemic and the physical, social, and political realities in our country right now. Inwardly, I cried to God, “Help me. Guide me.” As I calmed down, I posed several questions to this Inward Reality. Who am I? Where am I? How am I to serve? As I dwelled in this deeper place, I felt an amazing love and joy enveloping me. Then, I heard the Inward Voice: “Why do you always want to know what to do? Just be.” For the past few months, I’ve been feeling a call to enter more fully into God’s reality: to dwell there, to remain open, and to listen and accept what I hear. The visitation this morning was a powerful reminder of the call to be faithful.

As Quakers, we are called to be faithful. It is my prayer that we can keep the relative importance of our process in perspective as we strive to be so.

Michael Wajda

Michael Wajda is an active Friend who has traveled widely among Friends, leading retreats, giving talks, and helping to strengthen the spiritual life of Friends meetings. He is a member of Goshen Meeting in West Chester, Pa. He and his wife recently moved to Bennington, Vt., and worship with Friends there.

4 thoughts on “Process or Faithfulness

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful & helpful article! My favorite line was the quote from Fran Taber about discernment (99% spirituality, 1% process). When I talk with other younger Friends about Quaker process, I often hear frustration rise among us. With Millennial Friends, I hear Quaker process becoming a tool that can shut out our voices, which is frustrating. I think it can be confusing for newcomers to navigate how we do things as Quakers. In fact, I have been Quaker for ten years, and am still fuzzy on what Quaker process IS, and is not!

    Thank you for the opportunity to look at Quaker process in a more positive light. I think we have a lot of work to do, when it comes to reclaiming that 99% that makes up discernment, but your article gives me more clarity. Thanks for giving me something new to chew on!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Johanna.

      Indeed, we have a lot of work to do to sink back to the 99% spirituality, not just in our business process, but also in our worship. When I lead workshops on Quaker worship, I often use a drawing of a Quaker meeting house with two entrance doors. The sign over one door says, “Meeting for Worship.” The sign over the door says, “Meeting for Good Ideas.” Then, I ask pointedly, which meeting would you like to attend?

      Spiritual work is long work, lifetime work, really. Luckily, the Living Presence is patient with us. Oh that we could surrender more fully to its Loving, Healing, Guiding, and Transformative Light.

      I wish you well on your journey,

      Michael

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