Those of us who’ve been blessed yet deeply disappointed in the Quaker endeavor often wish it were more widespread. Still, we realize that whatever we’re doing, the present form we’ve created isn’t very contagious.
What is it that we do? In most of the United States, Friends sit together an hour each Sunday, without talking among ourselves—speaking if and only if God has given us a message for the group. (We understand and say this in different ways, but find rough agreement on how it applies.)
We try to avoid having too many messages in a meeting; why is that? Shouldn’t we want messages from God? Well, yes, but we also get messages from other people. How clear can anyone be as to which is which? Can we be certain a message wasn’t from God?
In the winter of 1651, George Fox himself took off his shoes and walked through the cold streets crying with a loud voice, “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!” and never had a satisfactory reason why the Lord would move him to do so. If we heard such a message today, many Friends would wonder about it, yet Fox was certain of its origin.
Friends in worship aren’t supposed to be just thinking (although we can be); we aren’t supposed to be meditating (although we can be); and we aren’t sure whether what we do should be called praying.
There’s an old Quaker saying: “Maybe it wasn’t addressed to you.” When something we hear doesn’t apply, we needn’t dwell on it. Another person, however, may find it clearly intended for them. A whole class may all need to learn certain things, but where God is the teacher, each student can start with whatever he knows, and still have an appropriate lesson.
Sometimes a meeting just sits there … all hour. There are people who strongly prefer such meetings. If we can’t say what happened, maybe we were really deep. “Heavy, man!” as we used to put it in my day.
Friends in worship aren’t supposed to be just thinking (although we can be); we aren’t supposed to be meditating (although we can be); and we aren’t sure whether what we do should be called praying. Very seldom have I heard anyone in our meetings explicitly pray aloud.
We aren’t supposed to sleep, though (like meditators) we may nod out, then jerk abruptly upright, knowing we’ve been mentally away constructing something painstakingly senseless. Sometimes we’ll find ourselves intensely awake, yet empty of thought. And sometimes we approach the kind of dream in which messages came to Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, the Magi, and many others.
Whatever it is we do, couldn’t we do it alone? Certainly, but Quakers tend to agree there’s more happening in worship than people sitting alone in the same place. Sometimes we feel it, sometimes not, but when we do it’s quite palpable.
Isn’t that merely subjective? My wife, Anne, and I were sitting in meeting once while a young autistic woman, the daughter of a recently deceased Friend, rode her bicycle around in the parking lot outside. She’d often done the same when her father was alive, but this week she was to leave and go live with relatives elsewhere. Anne and I had both been wishing (I asked Anne about it later), that this one time she’d sit with the group. That was when she came in and sat down beside us. Is that proof of anything? No, but Spirit connects, and when you’ve seen it happen often enough, there’s little point trying to prove or disprove why or how.
There’s also little point trying to make it happen. As Jesus is quoted as saying: “I, of my own self, can do nothing.” That sums up the drawbacks of trying to make Spirit fulfill even your best personal hopes. This isn’t science, and it isn’t magic either. So far as we’re meeting for worship, we can’t force Spirit’s participation. I’ve been struck by that condition every time I’ve started a worship group, every time I’ve invited a friend to meeting.
Black, white, poor, or prosperous, people may love the idea of Quaker worship, but for one reason or another, the actuality may not move them at first. In 1961, when my best friend invited me, I found it a valuable practice, but being an atheist at the time, I didn’t feel I could honestly continue in it. I fairly soon encountered God through the hippie awakening of the time, but returned to Friends seldom, only briefly over the next several decades.
If we’re going to see a more widespread use of Quakerish modes of worship, more of the people we bring or find among us would need to find a reason to stay. Working against that, Friends have a confused sense of who we are, what we’re called to do, and what we’re intended to be.
I visited another meeting in the ’70s, saw their bulletin boards, and heard their announcements: it was all about good works members were doing and worthy causes in need of donations.
Fox was clear on where he thought we fit in. The church Jesus founded, as depicted in several books of the Christian New Testament, had sometime later been corrupted into a spiritual tyranny centered in Rome. Fox, like many among his Puritan contemporaries, had searched the New Testament for clues toward reviving the original form of Christianity, as he thought it had been “before the apostasy.” Friends meetings and the various Protestant churches embody different answers to that challenge.
Early Friends shared a dominant paradigm of Fox’s time: that people are born sinners, misguided and prone to evil ways except for Christ’s intervention within us. Almost everyone agreed that Christ could save us from condemnation and punishment for sin, but to insist, in Fox’s day, that Christ could stop us from sinning at all was risky. Opponents would ask Quaker preachers, “Do you think you are free of sin?” and blasphemy charges would soon follow. But Friends did insist that lives without sin were possible and hoped their own lives would serve as evidence.
Lapses by Friends could be repented and forgiven, but perfection was the expectation. Hence there is a sense, persisting to this day, that Friends belong to something like a spiritual élite. Other churches can invite sinners to join and be saved, but Friends meetings only want new members who’ll fit in and be a credit to us.
I visited another meeting in the ’70s, saw their bulletin boards, and heard their announcements: it was all about good works members were doing and worthy causes in need of donations. From these, for whatever reason, I concluded: “These people can’t bring me any closer to God. I’m no good with people; I’m not a workaholic; and I don’t have money to give them. I’m no use to them either.” So I left. Was that how the group felt about potential new members? Almost certainly not!
What these things do show is our idea of what it means to be a good Quaker. We’re supposed to be educated; professionally employed; and either generous donors or, at least, vicarious activists. That’s our collective self-image, but what do members most typically want? Aren’t Friends in this lonesome secular age looking to meet good people, who are respectably liberal, with the right political belief system and loyalties? Isn’t that what makes the word “community” so popular?
Affiliation is a historical function of churches, synagogues, and religious organizations. If we happen to be mystics or zealots concerned with the practices and beliefs associated with the Quaker movement, then it’s all too natural to miss the importance of that purely social function. A mystic’s specific lonesomeness is the need to find others touched by spiritual grace, but that isn’t the main motive bringing new people to Quaker meetings.
A quest for agreeable company won’t drive Friends to seek strange new members among African Americans, immigrants, or people struggling with poverty. Christianity and Quaker values should move us to help anyone suffering injustice and oppression, but a testimony of equality and a doctrine of “that of God in everyone” might not even help us like each other much. When poor people actually come to our meetings, Friends make a sincere effort to welcome them, but somehow there are usually barriers.
The fact is that Quakers overwhelmingly come from a class insulated from the viewpoints, experiences, and sufferings that most human beings live with. George Fox knew his gospel was intended for everyone, while Friends today, if we’re pressed to think about seeking new members, propose posting notices at the nearest college.
Why do I think we’ve been doing it wrong? Because my own concept has been faulty: it’s been like yoga without a teacher.
That’s not like the way Jesus chose his disciples; neither does it sound like an orientation likely to go viral. Individually, all of the Friends I’ve known have been warm-hearted and conscientious, often amazingly so, but as a group, we disappoint anyone who’d hoped to see a movement of heroes and miracle workers.
We and our critics share mistaken ideas of perfection as if human beings had been created to follow Advices and Queries, rather than the other way around. That’s an obstacle between us and God, an obstacle between us and other people. It makes people strive to achieve results that aren’t in our power, and fail to achieve things we otherwise could.
Do Friends have a way to see through illusions and learn what God truly wants? Of course. The technical term for this practice is “prayer,” and we’re already doing it. It’s what’s supposed to happen in meeting for worship, and it doesn’t require any formal education. It’s a practice that really could go viral, and make all the difference in the world!
Why do I think we’ve been doing it wrong? Because my own concept has been faulty: it’s been like yoga without a teacher. Trying to force myself into better posture somehow locked me more firmly into the same lifelong bookworm curl I’d started with, but the teacher in a free class could immediately see my mistake and suggest a better approach.
That is not the way to pray, merely a way. But it gives me permission to just think with God.
God is our teacher, everybody’s teacher, though people don’t always recognize where those lessons keep coming from. The most recent attitude adjustment for me was a quote from Roberta C. Bondi: “God is besotted with us.”
That was a hint I had to follow up! Bondi has written extensively on prayer, as a scholar of early Christian monastic writings and as a suffering human being who’s found the monastics’ insights profoundly liberating in her own life. Her writing can be too much in a preacherly style for my taste, but each book of hers I’ve found to help me re-examine what I’m doing when I sit with God.
Nobody wants to be around someone whom you relate to only in terms of duty. I’m willing to relate to people that way some of the time, but don’t expect me to want to do it … for the monastic teachers of the early church, with whom I’ve spent a lot of time, a relationship with God is one of desire and delight. This is really a different basis for prayer. religion-online.org/article/learning-to-pray-an-interview-with-roberta-c-bondi/
There must have been a million preachers by now, encouraging people to converse with God. It doesn’t feel natural; there’s that power imbalance, and besides, God finishes my sentences. But Bondi says:
[In] the ancient monastic materials I work on, prayer is really an entire relationship, and the verbal part is only one element. A lot of what we learn when we pray is to be quiet. We need to stop thinking that a relationship is constituted only by language. The closer we get to other people, and the better our friendships are, the more silence these relationships contain. The people we talk to all the time are probably the people we don’t know terribly well and whom we don’t trust. The issue is not so much “Does God talk back and if so how?” but whether we can learn just to be in God’s presence.
Bondi talks about “kitchen table prayer,” like sitting around a table with people we just like being with. She doesn’t make silence a duty, an ideal, or an ordeal.
For students who are afraid of God, who have emphasized God’s righteousness and their sinfulness, God’s bigness and their wormlikeness, I suggest that they find something that doesn’t occupy their minds but is pleasant to do, like handiwork, or doing a crossword puzzle, or even reading a detective novel, and to just sit in God’s presence. That is a way to begin to learn that God is trustworthy and that God isn’t that person they’re afraid of, but somebody else.
That is not the way to pray, merely a way. But it gives me permission to just think with God when I want to think about some trivial thing and let go of trivial things when I don’t.
It’s about deepening a friendship, that big scary friendship that is our life, and there’s no method to friendship, except for doing things we know will bring us closer, and not letting fear get in the way. For the sake of friendship, God needs us to say what we want. Whether we get it or not is a different matter. You don’t always get what you ask for from your friend—maybe most of the time you don’t get it—but you need to say what it is you need and want.
Sometimes (as I’ve also found) Bondi has had to confront her worst fears about God, and ask “Is this really true?”
A society of Friends ought to be a natural for friendship with God, but it takes something other than what we’ve been doing. For the Desert Fathers, perfectionism was not a virtue but a sin. We should think about that, and pray about it. Above all, we need Bondi’s reminder that God doesn’t see us the same way we see ourselves but “through much gentler eyes.”