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Midweek Meeting for Worship

Posted on Friday, October 27, 2006 at 05:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments2 Comments

When the grey wet evening skies and the half-bare trees of autumn come together, my mind returns to my early twenties, when this was what I saw each fall as I walked to midweek meeting for worship.

I was living then in an ashram, under monastic rules, under the guidance of a teacher from India. I will kindly omit his name here, as I don’t believe he’d want it used in this connection. I had been attracted to him a few years earlier; I’d seen him shine with a visible and palpable light that filled an empty place in my heart.

But some years had passed, and I no longer saw that light shining out of him. He was not much involved in his community, either; and all around me I saw the majority of his followers, bereft of his influence, forgetting their aim — spending more and more time in busywork and idle talk, and less and less in laboring toward any real goal. My experience as a participant in the community’s group meditations, which had been very rich at the beginning, grew thinner and thinner as the group’s focus dissipated — more and more indistinguishable from my meditations alone.

There was still a minority in the community filled with purpose, alive with insights they were discovering, and happy in their daily love-relationships with God. But without the teacher’s active involvement, it was becoming clearer and clearer that they were growing in their practice only insofar as they could have done so anyway, anywhere they happened to be.

Such a situation can provoke a monk to have second thoughts about the living arrangement he is in. And I was having second thoughts.

The local Friends community was actually no better. It was a liberal, unprogrammed meeting, huge and with plenty of room for anonymous participation. Most of its members were teachers, students, researchers, or otherwise academically inclined. A majority attended either simply to have an hour of quiet worship together each Sunday, or because they identified with the typical Quaker “causes” of peace and justice. Their own practice of service to others was a minor part of their consciousness, and their imitation of Christ close to nonexistent. Most of the “vocal ministry” shared in meeting for worship was hardly deserving of the name.

Much as with the Indian teacher’s community, though, there was a minority in the meeting that talked the talk and walked the walk and inspired me by their examples. And when a few of this minority decided to revive the community’s long-moribund midweek meetings for worship, I happily joined in.

It was four and a quarter miles from my monastic housing to the Friends meetinghouse, and as I living in monastic poverty, I had no money for bus fare. Nor did any other participant in the midweek meeting live anywhere near me. So around 5:30 each Wednesday evening, I would leave my residence and start walking southward.

Dusk would fall, and the tattered clouds would scud and tumble over the emptying branches of the trees. Crows would call to one another. Leaves would tumble past my feet. As the autumn wore on, the puddles would be freezing over in the suddent cold of twilight, and the ice on their surface would crackle as I stepped on it. Eventually there would be snow on the ground, and drifts to wade through gingerly.

I’d walk past houses where parents were calling their children in, or feeding them in kitchens I’d glimpse through lighted windows — and other houses lit mainly by the flickering blue-grey strobe of TV screens, sad places of personal isolation. I’d find myself reflecting on the life choices the people in those houses were making.

Most of the walk, though, I’d just be walking; my mind and heart would gradually drain dry of the concerns of the day. I’d arrive at the meetinghouse quite literally “with heart and mind prepared”.

Then as the meetinghouse heaved into sight, it would be time to unlock the door and enter, turn on the lights, turn up the thermostat, rearrange the benches in a half-circle around the fireplace, lay the logs and light the fire. Occasionally I’d be the first to arrive, and would start these chores alone. Most times, though, an older Friend — a very seasoned, solid, quiet blue-collar guy — would arrive a little before me, and I’d hasten to help him with whatever remained to be done.

A few others would arrive, sometimes bringing nibbles for the kitchen. (There was one fall and winter when the midweek event was officially “soup and social concerns”. The soups were very good.) There were seldom more than a half-dozen of us on any given Wednesday evening.

When all was in readiness, we’d douse the lights and settle around the fire. And the silence would deepen.

Quaker worship is a very different thing from the Hindu meditation I was practicing in my ashram. In our Hindu practice, we were focused on the Presence at the root of our bodies’ life-energy, the naked gift of life and behind it the hand of the Giver; our teacher had shown us various techniques for arriving at this experience. In Quaker practice, we focus rather on something in the place of heart and conscience: the inward Guide that shows us good from bad and right from wrong.

The Friends in the meeting I attended in those days could not articulate this difference, and I was having to work it out on my own. One or two Friends would say from time to time that Quaker worship is about Christ; but that was not much of a clarification for me, as the Giver of life is Christ, too. Three or four Friends would say that the light that Quakers attend to is a light of understanding, but that only confused me.

But in those midweek meetings I was being affected by exposure to those who worshiped with me: some of them seasoned Friends who practiced Quaker worship in the most traditional way. And there was something very subtle that emanated from them — something much more subtle than what emanated from my Indian teacher.

I tried to describe what they emanated to my non-Quaker friends. I had a terrible time finding words. “They are civilized people,” I said lamely. “It’s refreshing.”

But while I didn’t understand what it was that I was encountering, I was still drawn back to it week after week. For I hungered in my heart for human goodness.

Sometimes, at our tiny meetings, there was spoken ministry. It didn’t happen terribly often. At the close of meeting we might talk for a while about events in our life. But mostly we were just settled and at ease in one another’s presence.

Soon enough, it would be time to set the benches back in place, clean the dishes in the kitchen, turn down the thermostat, bundle ourselves up, gather up our belongings, and walk back out into the cold, locking the door behind us.

I’d walk my four and a quarter miles back north, passing through the darkness from one street light to the next, with the thinning street traffic whining past. Resting in the place where my Hindu-taught experience of the life bubbling up in me, met and married my Quaker experience of the Teacher who gives us His goodness and draws us to righteousness, I would walk for an hour and a quarter through a world of people whose lives had virtually no point of contact with mine. I felt like a visitor from another planet.

Sometimes the cold would soak through my gloves until I had to jam my fingers in my armpits. My toes would numb.

I’d get home around ten, and use my key to let myself into the darkened, silent house.


And it will be said in that day:
“Behold, this is our God;
We have waited for Him, and He will save us.
This is YHWH;
We have waited for Him;
We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”

   — Isaiah 25:9 (“First Isaiah”), ca. 742 - 680 B.C.

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Reader Comments (2)

Thank you for this post. It inspired me to write a story about my own past in my blog.

Feb 13, 2007 at 03:45PM | Unregistered CommenterTania Harrison

Tania, I'm glad it meant something to you. I wasn't sure it would mean anything to anybody.

I shared your story about your own past with my wife. She said she, too, wrote a letter to God once, when she was a little girl!

Feb 19, 2007 at 08:17PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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