Friendly Witness: The Spiritual Ground of Quaker Social Action4th mo. 19, 2023 from 1pm to 6pm
Quaker Theological Discussion Group 202312th mo. 1, 2023 at 8am to 12th mo. 2, 2023 at 10am
Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
This is not art, only a story.
I have felt drawn to Quakerism for a long time, which is rather strange as Quakerism is an exotic concept where I live. I don't even know how I realized that Quakers actually exist.
I have attended meditation sessions and I've always loved the peace and calmness that they bring to the room and to the group of meditators. Like the quiet in the eye of a hurricane, like cool rain on dusty earth, like a weight being lifted from the shoulders, like breathing in deeply, like a light growing in your soul.
The two kinds of meditation sessions I went to had a Catholic and a Hindu background - they were wonderful but somehow left me with the feeling that they tried to narrow down God to fit certain theological concepts - I felt this was like cutting up the sky to fit it in your small pocket.
Then I went to Oxford. Quite by chance I happened to walk past the small white house with the small red door of the Oxford Quakers. And, quite by chance, the conference I was to attend and that started on the next day would start late enough to allow me to go to the Quaker meeting first.
You see, where I live, there is a Quaker meeting but I've been hesitating to call them. Yes, slightly cowardly, I know, what's the worst that can happen? But as this is the only meeting within a large area I want to be sort of...prepared before I turn up there.
So, haste with me to the Oxford Quaker meeting at 8 a.m. the next morning.
And there I stood, in front of the small red door of the Oxford Quakers, and stood there and stood there and stood there. Nobody turned up and I felt that my courage was getting used up.
Just when I resolved to leave, a very very old and wizened gentleman turned up, looking like Tolkien might look if he were still alive, and speaking exactly as you'd expect Tolkien to speak. We introduced each other and he told me he'd been going to Quaker meetings for eight years and never ever had been all alone (except for a novice and nervous Austrian). We stood there and wondered for a while, then he rang the door bell, explaining to me that somebody was living on the top floor and maybe could explain where the man who was supposed to have the keys was. He rang the doorbell an rang again and I felt curious and curiouser, when the flopping of slippers could be heard and the turning of a key in the lock and then the door flew open and a giant of a man wearing furry slippers and a bathrobe was standing there.
At 8:15 in the morning.
I felt slightly faint, but Mr. Tolkien didn't. After some deliberation they decided they would call the man who was supposed to come round with the keys after the meeting, but first Mr. Tolkien and I would have the meeting and the giant would go back to bed.
So we did.
The giant thumped up the stairs and I followed Mr. Tolkien into a small, slightly worn living room of a typical semi-detached English house. Instead of the usual furniture, there were chairs put in a circle.
We lit a candle.
And the silence began.
The quiet in the eye of the hurricane, the cool rain on dusty earth, the weight being lifted from the shoulders, the breathing-in deeply, the light, oh, the light.
We sat for a long time and when I opened my eyes and looked out of the window, a saw lush English greenery and, in the foreground, one perfect rose.
For a moment, I felt that this rose and this garden were glowing with the presence of the Light.
And then, another while later, the meeting ended, Mr. Tolkien and I parted ways and I went back to my conference.
And now there is me, with this strange and wonderful and beautiful meeting in my memory, still hesitating to call the local Quakers. Will there be Mr. Tolkien, will there be a stranger in a bathrobe and furry slippers, will there be a rose? Will there be the light?
probably there be light, but no guarantees
Yes. There will be light. And, there will be Light. Go back to meeting and wait for it.
The sequel to my Oxford story...it took me a long, long time to email the local Quakers. I wasn't sure why I was so strangely hesitant about it but at one point I realized that I was scared I would have to change my life.
But still, the feeling that I should contact them remained, and so I did. I'm still waiting for their reply and somehow I feel grateful that I've stepped over this threshold.
The Light and I sort of went on an adventure, too. I was having a. Really. Difficult. Moment. Eternity. With my teenage son in my car. The whole teen tantrum nightmare, drama queen to the nth degree. A nightmare, I repeat myself, but that's what it was. The tantrum was making me really, really angry and I felt myself slowly getting more agitated and out of control.
Then I decided that this just mustn't go on and I sort of focused on the Light, there in the car, while the teenage craziness was raging. And suddenly I felt the There-ness of the Light, a very compassionate and slightly raised-eyebrow-slightly-amused There-ness and the suggestion sort of dropped in my mind what I wanted for myself. And with an incredible intensity of feeling I knew that I wanted to be loved, the way I was, unconditionally. There now, said the Light. Now you know. So I decided to love the teenager and focused on loving him with my whole heart for the next 30 minutes.
A small miracle happened, the teenager stopped raging (probably it's difficult to rage when there is nobody to rage back?) and turned to quiet sullenness.
I wish I could say he stepped out of my car a reformed man teenager, but he didn't and remained in "Let's blame everybody else so I don't have to consider my own actions"-mode.
Still, I kept loving him and I felt so fortified by the Light, as if I didn't do all the loving myself.
Right now, I am completely, utterly exhausted, but I have found a place where I can be quiet in the middle of terrible moments. I hope I can find the way back there.
I'll keep you posted.
Thanks so much for posting this Susann. I love your Oxford story and great to hear of this blessing you experienced. I think that is a mark of a genuine leading -- a sense of being fortified to bear our trials.
Thank you for your kind words, Alice! I felt fortified indeed but am still very, very bad at handling teenage tantrums. I've had lots of practice and still become impatient, or furious, or lose my calm entirely, which is anything but helpful. If one day I should be able to go through this calm and composed, it will be a big step forward.
Apart from this, good news, I got a reply to my email, I'll be able to go to the worship meeting on the third Sunday of May...they are forewarned and I'm really glad I asked if I could come.
Today I told the best of all husbands, who seems to be labouring under the illusion that the Quakers are a Scientology-like cult that will snatch me up and possibly brainwash me into selling them my soul. It's rather sweet he is worried about me - he is a bit of an agnostic and has been hiding his spiritual sensibilities deep down. Let's see how the story continues...
Blessings on you! I had the screaming teenagers, and I did not handle it well, even from inside the Religious Society of Friends. Your story of being fortified is very special, and I'm grateful that you chose to share it with us. I have learned something from you today.
About your husband. It's been 25 years since I came to Friends. My husband continues as an agnostic with very little spiritual sensibilities. It can work.
So you met Tolkien in Oxford and he was a Quaker.
I have been a Tolkien enthusiast all my adult life and you can certainly see a Quaker aspect to all his works, especially in his attitude to war.
I can quite clearly remember where I was when he died and have visited Tolkien's grave just outside Oxford.
Many years ago I met Tolkien's daughter, Priscilla, a wonderful woman who lived in a marvelous house if I remember rightly.
I also had the privilege to talk with Vera Chapman (Belladonna) who set up the Tolkien Society and actually met the great man too.
Tolkien was a good start to my adulthood, it buzzed around the Royal Holloway College where I worked in the early 70's and led to me having a lifetimes interest in reading, eventually attaining my Literature degree a few years back.
Take care and I enjoyed your piece...especially the small red door!
Mick Henry over here in merry old England, working at Sussex University.
Dear Paula, thank you for your encouraging words -
it's always wonderful to realize that screaming teenagedom is just a phase and will be over at some point and I will be able to look back and smile (or at least not cry at the thought of it). :-)
Recently I came across "The Mom Song" on you tube, which I highly recommend and which made me realize that it's not fun being the teenager, either, as there is such a steady stream of good advice, do this-do that-don't do this-sit up straight-stop texting directed at them. It would drive ME mad, so I've tried to be more gentle and less "mom-ish" for the last few days. It seems that, as a result, the teenager has been more friendly and less screaming mad - so I hope I can keep up the "sane and gentle" approach to parenting teens. :-)
As to agnostic husbands with few spiritual sensibilities - I think mine is definitely part of this group. But discussing spiritual sensibilities with him has really been a great chance for us to learn about each other.
I hope you've found having two different kinds of religious/non-religious convictions in a family more refreshing than tiring, too!
Have a wonderful Sunday, wherever you are -
Dear Mick Henry,
thank you so much, I enjoyed reading about your Tolkien angle (or Quaker angle to Tolkien). I sort of hovered up The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as a teenager and so I think what I know about Tolkien stays rather on the surface. Some characters, if I remember correctly, go to war because they see the necessity of fighting evil, and so they take up arms even though they hate war and fighting. Would Quakers do that, I wonder? Or are you thinking more along the lines of those characters to support the heroes in their quest as well as they can without taking up arms themselves?
What seems very "Quaker" to me is taking what you believe to the real world, no matter how unpleasant the consequences. You get the ring, you believe you have a part to play which involves the worst camping conditions ever and a bunch of stark raving monsters from the Dark Side of the Force, and you do your job because it's your job and it has to be done. It's a very pragmatic approach, which I find hugely impressive. (That said, I do hope I will never have to make my way past gigant spiders with dozens of milky eyes. Oh dear. *shudder)
What did Tolkien's daughter Priscilla say, was he a wonderful storyteller to his children? He must have been!
Your comment reminded me a lot of Oxford and the little red door, I wonder if there are invisible runes next to it, and if so, what do they say? I need to go back and check...
Have a wonderful Sunday - cheers,
So, another sequel (triquel? Quadriquel?) to the story.
I finally went to my local meeting for worship.
Some weeks ago I got up all my courage and asked the local Quakers if I could join their meeting for worship. They invited me in and sent a marvellously detailled description where to find them (pass concrete stairs, opposite 1950s buildings and so on.). I had no difficulty finding the building, but then stopped at the wrong floor and stood there waiting until it dawned on me that, with 5 minutes to go until the meeting started, other people should be arriving. Luckily, I could hear doors opening mysteriously and people walking about on the creaking floor above me, so up I went and in I went.
There were five or six people, mostly older than me, and all very welcoming and warm. What impressed me most was a) the feeling that these people knew each other really, really well and b) the consideration and warmth. There was another newbie - in a T-shirt - and one of the women gave her her own jacket, telling her that it was likely to get cold and she should just put on the jacket when she felt cold. This was such a small detail, and still the woman had seen it and had acted to spare the newbie discomfort. Seeing this made it easier for me to relax and close my eyes when the meeting for worship actually started. I had never realized what a show of trust it is to sit for an hour with total strangers and close your eyes. At least it is for me, but I did.
And man, then I had the feeling of sitting right in the middle of a highway! Every quarter of an hour the church bell boomed - and it actually did boom really loudly as we were sitting right below the church tower. At the same time, mass was going on in the church, so I could hear all the people standing up and sitting down and singing, the organ playing and whatnot. And the trees did their best to give an oscar-standard performance of "Leaves Rustling in the Wind", a slightly monotonous and long-winded classic. This made it really hard for me to sink into silence and focus - any minute, an organ would go off, or the leaves would rustle, or another song would start in church. I found it very hard to concentrate - my mind was very fluttery and not very calm, either, and I was tired since I'd stayed up too late. Ideas and thoughts were chasing each other through my poor head. To make it worse, some serious pollen distribution was going on, apparently (THANK YOU, trees!) and I had to try hard not to sneeze - horrible. So if this had been a meditation exam, I'm not sure I would have passed it and I was a little disappointed at myself.
After one hour (4x church bells, 3x organ, 6x songs, 3,450 rustling sounds from the trees), people began to come "back" and I realized that, after all, I needed time to sort my thoughts and feelings. I thought I would have a little time to do this while other people would talk, so I sat there trying to get my mind sorted out, when they asked ME how I was doing. I'm sure I gave the most inane answer ever ("I had to sneeze." Oh, the shame.) instead of saying something pithy and insightful. Oh well.
The pithy and insightful things were in fact said by everybody else and it was truly amazing what they said and how they reacted when something had been said. For one thing, everybody of them said something that echoed something I had thought about or felt in the meeting. (This sounds confusing, I'm afraid.) The most amazing thing is that while I was sitting there and trying not to sneeze, a poem by Rilke ("Death is great") had popped up in my mind. Later, the woman sitting next to me said SHE had thought about a poem by Rilke, and went on to quote it. It was a completely different poem, mind you, but what's the chance of two strangers quoting the same author? And all the ideas that were presented and discussed were somehow relevant to me. Apparently, something I said made sense to one of the others as well, so that made me quite happy.
I liked the spaces they left between words. Somebody would say something and then people would actually stop and think about it and only then add a thought or take up the idea. It was amazing.
The whole thing was overwhelming - so personal, such deep questions. I mean, what I had done is I had sent an email to total strangers saying "Excuse me, could I be quiet with you for an hour and then discuss truly elemental questions of mankind with you?". How weird a request is that? And they said yes and then did exactly that. It was a little like being in a boxing fight (or what I imagine them to be like, anyway), with punches being thrown at me from left and from right, and they all hit me right in the center of my heart, right where it matters: how should we live life? What is important? What is true? (Please forgive me, I don't want to quote them in detail as I don't know if they would like that). It left me reeling a little.
The whole mood in the room was amazingly intense. Some months ago, somebody I love a lot died and I was with her for many hours. Now that I think of it, the mood in that room was very similar - very still and full of energy, as if a lot of work was going on that nobody could SEE. There was something THERE, the essence of people in th room, if that doesn't sound too cheesy.
After a while the meeting broke up and we all went our separate ways. Some asked me if I would be back, some said a couple of words that showed me that they absolutely GOT me, we all looked up in the sky and agreed that it was likely to rain and wished each other a safe journey home.
Then I met the Love of my Life and had pork roast with dumplings, which kicked me into an hour-long coma. Seriously, every two years or so I feel must try pork roast with dumpings, and EVERY TIME I end up lying on the sofa, unable to move, and swearing I will have vegetable soup for the rest of my earthly existence. Anyway, after waking up from my pork-roast-induced coma, I thought back and the whole meeting had been so extraordinary, so out-of-this-world, that it had taken on a dream-like feeling in my mind and I asked myself if it had really happened.
And that was my first meeting of worship with my local chapter. :-)
(This sounds confusing, I'm afraid.)
Not at all.
It sounds like you found a lovely gathering of Friends. How wonderful! Let us know more as you continue your journey, Friend!
Yours in Faith, Paula
at least in the states, many have fought , many resisted, some served as medics, some medical experiments, some fought then became quakers.
second you're experience at meeting, i've experienced. i've resisted the quaking, not answering the call to speak. and had someone else speak almost the same words the spirit was urging on me.
and i hope you found some peace in your own spirit