Quakers did not invent queries. Mothers did. Without queries, motherdom would be hamstrung.
In my memory, many of my mother’s queries are categorized in clusters:“Did you brush your teeth? Did you clean your room? Did you shine your shoes?” A negative response to any of these necessitated corrective measures.
“Ha!” you might argue (if you ‘re in an argumentative mood). “Those aren’t really queries. Those are specific questions asking for specific responses. ”
“You’re right,” I answer. “But so are many of the queries read at many Quaker business meetings”:
Do you participate regularly in meeting for business?
Do you read the Bible?
Do you practice family prayer?
Do you support the public schools?
These queries, like my mother’s, are designed to keep me focused on generally accepted principles. Like my mother ‘s, they also carry the implication of a right or wrong answer and the advisability of altering unsatisfactory behavior.
As with Quaker queries, my mother’s were not limited to ones requiring only a right or wrong answer. A favorite of hers was, “What did you accomplish to day?” I hated that one.It really put the pressure on. Though there were limitless right answers, there was still a wrong answer. I might come home from a wonderful day of looking at clouds, talking to friends, and playing 25 innings of softball with no score being kept. But none of that would suffice. There needed to be an identifiable accomplishment, and I couldn’t even say that we won the game.
A terrible flaw in this query was its encouragement of deception .I began to collect accomplishments in order to whip one out on demand: a minor award, a solo sung in assembly, a perfect spelling paper, a bad poem ac cepted for publication in the school literary magazine. Accomplishments like these could be saved up for days, sometimes weeks. Queries encouraging deception should be avoided even by mothers.
Perhaps the best of my mother’s queries was, “Is that the kind of person you want to be?” Even though she asked it only when “no ” was the ap propriate answer, it is a sound query. An answer is not always immediately obvious. Often some consideration must be given. At one time or another I pon dered explorers, athletes, lovers, states men, entertainers, tycoons, the great teachers, spiritual giants. The quality that sets this query apart is that con sideration is more important than answers.It encourages growth from one vision of life to another. If one never received more than that from queries, they would be worthwhile.
The secret of my mother’s queries was simplicity. They were short, clear, and pointed. In contrast, my Book of Discipline contains one query which asks nine distinct questions. By the time the end is reached, I’ve lost track of the beginning. I never had that trouble with my mother’s queries.
Caring for Others is a beautifully crafted query from my Book of Discipline:
Do you respect that of God in every person regardless of race, religion, sex,or age? Are you open to growth and change in others, and sensitive to their needs and ideas? Do you recognize the joyful place in God’s world for sexuality within mutually caring and responsible relationships? Do you avoid, in dealing with individuals and organizations, using others as instruments to accomplish ends, however worthy?
Applying the simplicity principle to this might yield, “Do you respect that of God in every person?” I would actually prefer this query grounded in another George Fox statement, “Do you walk gently over the earth, answering to that of God in every person?” That’s one I treasure, one I use, one I frequently contemplate. I have made it into a personal query, one that is particularly po tent for me. It centers me, it grows in me. I focus on it often and long.
I want queries that look beyond ex pected behavior. I want queries that go deeper than proper responses to Quaker concerns. I yearn for something that . touches my core, that holds me to my center, that speaks primarily of inward essence. If I am centered in the power of the Spirit that dwells in me, I reason, outward manifestations will take care of themselves. I think of ancient stories about properly tended vines bearing good fruit. Our lives are filled with calls to action, with causes to be won or lost, with cries for attention to this person ‘s need and that person’s plight. My need is not so much to respond to all the clamor, but to function within the Light. For me the powerful queries are ones that cleave me to the Light.
One summer at Catoctin Quaker Camp I received a modest opening. I should close the next staff meeting with a query. I should explain that the query is not to be answered; as with my per sonal query, an answer might be disrup tive of a more important process . The query should simply be looked at through closed eyes. I took a file card and copied down the query as given.
That evening I ended staff meeting by asking permission to read the query. I explained that it should not be answered. “Just hold it about two feet in front of you,” I said, indicating the distance with my hand. “Then look at it through closed eyes.“I read: “Do you recognize that you are the Light of the world and that your role is to touch the world with that Light?”
The staff sat in silence. After a time I adjourned the meeting by saying thank you. Later I was surprised to see the query included verbatim in the minutes posted from that meeting.
Before the next staff meeting another query was given to me.I copied it down and tucked it into a pocket. Being wary of imposing queries on a captive staff, I elected not to read it unless asked. The staff meeting ended, as it always does, when silence finally followed the ques tion, “Is there any more business?” Then someone said, “Do you have another query for us?”
“As a matter of fact I do,” I answered, reaching for the file card. “Remember,” I said, “to hold it in front of you. Don’t answer it. Just look at it.” Then I read: “Are you open to being Way opening for others?”
After that, queries tumbled into existence and onto file cards:
Do you look for the best in people, giving them opportunity to respond accordingly?
Do you recognize the things in your life that center you, and do you turn to them before you need to?
Do you remain alert that young people pat tern their lives after you, seeing in you things they might aspire to?
When you feel yourself in error are you as lovingly patient with yourself as you’d like to be with a child?
And so, over the years, the packet of file cards grows thicker. Old queries get re‐asked even as new ones come into being.
This past summer a counselor said to me, “I still have trouble not answering the query even though I know it works better when I just look at it.”
The counselor is right. A query answered can be laid aside.By looking at a query you absorb it. It becomes part of you, much the way a painting on the wall of your living room becomes part of you, much the way a piece of music heard over and over becomes part of you. (You might ask yourself, “Does this painting/music center me? Does it enrich me?” You’re encouraged to respond to your answers to these questions.)
The most powerful queries are the ones that come through you for you. For years I had a personal query which I looked at often: “Do you live your life in such a way that you draw all things into harmony with God’s universal love?” No purpose would be served by answering that query, nor have I ever at tempted to. But, like the paintings on my walls, it has been looked at and ab sorbed.
One summer Sunday afternoon a woman pedaled her bicycle into camp (no mean feat given our mountainous dirt roads) to find out what kind of people these Quakers are. She probed me with pointed questions phrased in the language of fundamentalist convictions . I answered, as best I could, in terms I hoped she could hear. As she grappled with my responses, her questions became more searching, as if my answers verged on being acceptable. Finally, in what appeared to be an effort to attain closure, she said, “Just tell me this. What is the purpose of your life?”
Without thought or hesitation I replied, “To draw all things into harmony with God’s universal love.”
She pondered a moment. ”That seems good to me,” she said, and pedaled off. But I was amazed. I never expected that I might give that answer to that question. Clearly the query had taken on power.
Lately I find that that query has receded as another, through its own bid ding, comes forward. In its original form it asked, “Do you dwell comfortably in the mystery?” Now it asks me, “Do you dwell joyfully in the mystery?” At this point I’m not even sure what that means. But then, the query implies that I don’t need to understand what it means.
Your own imagination is a treasure trove of personal queries which can comfort, lead, and transform you. Don’t make one up. Rather, take some time to find one. Find as many as you like. Allow them access to you. Fish for them during quiet times when they can pop in to consciousness. A hot bath or shower is a good place to catch one. Hold it about two feet in front of you and look at it through closed eyes. Be careful not to answer it. Just look at it. Look at it frequently . If a time comes for it to go, don’t cling to it like some prized posses sion. Let it slip back where it came from. Then look for another.
In essence your personal query is a form of prayer.While you wait for one you might look through closed eyes at this:
Do you keep yourself open to the promise, power, and possibilities of your own inner life?