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To a friend visiting a Friends meeting for the first time

Posted on Wednesday, September 20, 2006 at 09:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in | Comments2 Comments

My old friend,

I hear you’re planning on visiting an unprogrammed Quaker meeting this coming Sunday morning! How wonderful!

It’s been a very long time, but I remember my own first Quaker meeting very clearly. I was twenty, a junior in college. I had no background in Quakerism, or in anything remotely similar. One Saturday night a friend of mine told me he was going to a Quaker meeting the next morning, and I asked, and got, his permission to tag along. He didn’t tell me in advance what it would be like!

So I walked in the door of the Quaker meetinghouse thinking it would be more or less like a Protestant church service: I was expecting hymns, a sermon, and other entertainments that would make the time fly by. I was totally unprepared to sit there for a whole hour in silence, without a clue as to what to do with myself.

Oh, it was a rough hour! My mind ran about like a crazy thing; my body could barely sit still. The minutes dra-agged by. When it ended, I had the sort of “wow, I made it” feeling that I think is more commonly reserved for painful ordeals.

And unfortunately, since then, I’ve noticed that what happened to me, happens to a lot of other first-time visitors, too. They go in unprepared. They don’t know how to handle an hour of silence and stillness. And so they too have a hard time. In fact, sometimes they get up half-way through and leave the building, because the silence and inactivity are more than they can bear.

And yet this kind of bad experience is so unnecessary.

The purpose of a Quaker meeting is — and always has been — to make a specific sort of activity possible: something people can do together in that silence, which is a little like meditation, a little like just enjoying being there with one another, and a whole lot like getting your feet back on solid ground after a rough plane flight — but really, is its own thing, quite unique. The experience is a very positive one, and it fills the hour richly.

If people would just explain how to join in the activity to first-time visitors —

And often they do (though not always skillfully). But sometimes it doesn’t occur to the person who brings a guest in, that a decent explanation before it all starts might help a great deal.

Well, okay. Here comes the explanation (my version of it, anyway), dear friend. And please be patient with me, because it starts with some cosmology, and the cosmology, being unfamiliar, might seem a bit strange to you at first.


A Cosmological Excursus


Actually, Quaker worship does not require the sort of anti-scientific cosmology that so often seems like a prerequisite to fundamentalist Protestant or ultra-traditional Catholic forms of worship. It’s perfectly okay if you feel led to believe the Universe was created in 4004 B.C., or that bread and wine turn into Christ’s body and blood when a priest blesses it — but in a Quaker meeting, it’s not the least bit necessary —

Nonetheless, Quaker worship arose, historically, from a particular set of convictions that go beyond what science can prove, and even beyond what many other Christians believe. And this set of convictions includes:

  1. the belief that there is in fact a God,
  2. the belief that this God (He, She, or It) not only exists, but can and does talk to us,
  3. the belief that His Voice manifests to us humans as our highest and purest intuitions of what is right and what is wrong, what is kind and what is hurtful, in our hearts and consciences, and
  4. the belief that while these highest and purest intuitions can be hard for us to see, while we are caught up in the compromised values of worldly society, they were wonderfully manifested by Christ, who for that reason becomes a primary teacher on this path.

Friends do not limit God to being the Voice in our hearts and consciences. Many of them will cheerfully admit that God can and does manifest in their lives in countless other ways. And conversely, in the more liberal parts of Quakerdom, there are those who accept the centrality of that still, small Voice that speaks in the place of conscience, without caring to use the word “God” to describe it.

But all the same, it is the act of saying, “God is the teacher of love and goodness and righteousness, and the Source from which the highest and purest understanding of those things comes into my heart and conscience,” that most clearly defines the spiritual side of the whole Judæo-Christian tradition:

  • The ancient Hebrews affirmed it in their scriptures (for example, Jeremiah 31:33 and Isaiah 54:13-14a, in conjunction with Proverbs 28:5, Micah 6:8, and similar verses).
  • Christianity took it up where Judaism left off (for example in Romans 2:14-15, John 16:7-15, Hebrews 8:10, and I John 2:20,27).
  • And the Friends took it up where the Bible left off, and made it the center of their religious practice.

There are other ways to get to this understanding of what God is, and why the highest Voice in our hearts and consciences is so important, besides the path of belief in the Bible. I will mention just two of them here:


(1) The Path of Pondering Patterns


The Universe is full of important patterns that make it work, and the reasons for whose existence, Science cannot really explain, although it does its honest best.

For instance, the patterns of solar systems: the laws of celestial mechanics point out that any time you have three celestial bodies — a star and two planets, for example — in a close relationship, as in a solar system, that relationship is going to be unstable; over time, their interaction will tend to throw one of them farther and farther away from the other two until it finally wanders away into space. And yet the Sun and its family of planets have coexisted for well over three and a half billion years, well over three and a half billion orbits of the Earth around the Sun, and after all that time, there are all those planets we see in our night sky, still apparently stable in their orbits. Why?

Again, the evolution of a species requires that many different things about it must evolve simultaneously, in complementary fashion, and at a fairly high speed in generational terms, to account for how things have evolved through time. It is a point of honor among evolutionists to say, all this can be accounted for by the way a single mutation can affect many traits at the same time, and by laws of probability. It still staggers the imagination, though, and there are many of us who find ourselves unable to be convinced by the advocates of random evolution for that reason.

And again, a whole school of scientists and a whole school of philosophers argue that all behavior can be explained as selfishness, and that the challenges of survival and evolution can be fully met and dealt with by pure selfishness. But if that is so, then where do other, non-selfish impulses come from, like the aesthetic impulse and the impulse to pure kindness and the readiness to sacrifice ourselves for others, and why are these things so necessary to the meaning and fulfillment of our hearts?

For thousands of years, many people have found that the simplest and most efficient explanation that they can come up with for such things is that these higher harmonies and attractions, that order the dust of this universe into something fine and lovely and worth living in, exist not because something in the dust makes them necessary, but because a Power higher than the dust intervenes and draws the dust toward orders and harmonies. The ancient Greek philosopher Herakleitos named this ordering Principle and Power the Logos; and the early Christians embraced the term along with the concept, and used it to name Christ and Christ’s teachings. And so it comes down to us. The Logos is that Voice, then, in our hearts and consciences, that draws us toward a higher order and harmony.

I don’t ask you to believe all this, my friend. I simply point to it as a path by which some people come to a belief in Quakerism.


(2) The Path of Pondering Preferences


The amazing thing is that, even among people who don’t embrace the Quaker worldview — even among Hindus, whose God is capable of being, in human terms, totally amoral (viz., Krishna with the milkmaids, or Shiva destroying the world) — and even among atheists, who don’t believe in any God at all — still, that Guide in one’s own heart and conscience, the one who reveals the path of goodness and righteousness, is the Guide that almost everyone seems to prefer. If an atheist is put in a situation where the Guide says one thing, and his government or his boss at work or his brother-in-law says something different, it’s a funny thing: the atheist, too, will prefer to trust the Guide.

Of all leaders, of all principles, of all masters, the Guide is the one that people, almost universally, prefer and are drawn to.

In that context, the Quaker cosmology, by saying, explicitly: this is our Lord and this is what we are called to follow, simply admits openly what we nearly all secretly believe anyway. It is a confession of faith, in the most basic and honest and true sense of that phrase.


So, Quaker Worship


All Quaker worship and all Quaker practice — not only what we do in that silent hour and still, but also what we do in the rush and confusion of everyday life — is built upon, revolves around, and focuses in on that Voice. It is entirely about that Voice.

What we do in our worship is to wait upon that Voice, much as a waiter might wait upon his customers, or a courtier in a palace wait upon her king: we watch attentively for it to give some indication that it approves of such-and-such a thing we might do as good and right, kind and loving, honest or an expression of truth — or that it disapproves of such-and-such a thing we have done in the past as wrong, hurtful, dishonest or untruthful — and then we hasten to do its bidding. (Cf. Psalms 27:14, 123:2)

Our long, silent, still hour of worship on Sunday morning is our chance to wait on it, and bask in its presence like a cat in the sunshine, without distraction, and with the supporting companionship of others who are doing the same thing at the same time.

I could tell you more of what it’s like — but I’ve been giving you my own words about it all through this letter so far, and I’m thinking you might like to hear what some others have had to say.

So here are some descriptions of what it is like, from famous Friends of other times and places. There is a variety about them, and yet I think you will agree that there are also patterns —

This latter meeting [of Friends gathering for worship] was like the clinching of a nail, confirming and fastening in my mind those good principles which had sunk into me at the former. …

The general trouble and confusion of mind which had for some days lain heavy upon me … began now to wear off; and some glimmerings of light began to break forth in me, which let me see my inward state and condition towards God. … And now I saw that, although I had been in a great degree preserved from the common immoralities and gross pollutions of the world, yet the spirit of the world had hitherto ruled in me, and led me into pride, flattery, vanity and superfluity, all which was naught. I found there were many plants growing in me, which were not of the heavenly Father’s planting, and that all these, of whatever sort or kind they were, or how specious soever they might appear, must be plucked up.

Now was all my former life ripped up, and my sins, by degrees, were set in order before me. And though they looked not with so black a hue and so deep a dye, as those of the lewdest sort of people did, yet I found that all sin, even that which had the fairest and finest show … brought guilt, and … condemnation, on the soul that sin. This I felt, and was greatly bowed down….

Now also did I receive a new law, an inward law, superadded to the outward — the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus — which wrought in me against all evil, not only in deed and in word, but even in thought also, so that every thing was brought to judgment and judgment passed upon all. So that I could not any longer go on in my former ways and course of life, for when I did, judgment took hold upon me for it. …

So that here began to be a way cast up before me, for me to walk in — a direct and plain way; so plain, that a way-faring man, how weak and simple soever, though a fool to the wisdom, and in the judgment of the world, could not err, while he continued to walk in it; the error coming by his going out of it. And this way, with respect to me, I saw was that measure of divine light which was manifested in me, by which the evil of my doings, which I was to put away and to cease from, was discovered to me.

— Thomas Ellwood (Milton’s secretary), History of the Life (1714): recounting his convincement as a Friend in 1659

…We were advised to keep a meeting to wait upon the Lord, though there were none to speak words; so we agreed to have a meeting at my house in the year 1672.

Being but a few, we concluded to have it in an upper room…; and when we sat down together, I may say I was hard beset to keep my mind from running hither and thither after the transitory things of this world; and a great warfare I had for the greatest part of the meeting.

Yet near the conclusion, those vain thoughts vanished, and the Lord was pleased to bring to my remembrance, how that men who had great possessions in this world, had their day, and were gone; and I saw clearly, in a little time that my day would soon pass over. I was comforted in my spirit, and my inward man renewed in a sense of the Lord’s nearness; and being thus encouraged, we kept to our silent meetings, and report went abroad that we had settled a [Quaker] meeting….

— Christopher Story (second generation Friend), Life: describing his first experience of meeting with neighbors for worship without senior Friends from elsewhere being present

..Not a few have come to be convinced of the truth after this manner, of which I myself, in part, am a true witness, who not by strength of arguments, or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came to receive and bear witness of the truth, but by being secretly reached by this life [of the Spirit].

For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed.

And indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian, to whom afterwards the knowledge and understanding of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful, as the natural fruit of this good root, and such a knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful.

— Robert Barclay (Quaker theologian), An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Prop. XI §7 (1676-78)

[The testimony of an American Protestant minister concerning his experience of Friends’ meeting for worship in Cambridge, England:]

We had the great privilege of sharing in silent worship there for two years….

There was no question in our minds as we left that house of prayer and meditation each week that something real had happened, that we had found God directly, immediately, experientially, corporately. We could feel the presence of spirit as definitely as we could feel the temperature.

To be sure, it fluctuated. The meetings were not on the same level. There would be “highs” and “lows”.

That variation, however, did not deny — it rather confirmed — our consciousness that here was a reality more than just the sum total of our individual and pooled insights, however limited it might be by those. God was there, where two or three were gathered together.

We anticipated each coming Sunday with the same eagerness, and the same expectation of reality, with which a father in a distant city anticipates his week-end at home with his family.

— Robert H. Beaven, In Him is Life (1946)

How were our hearts melted as wax, and our souls poured out as water before the Lord, and our spirits as oil, frankincense and myrrh, offered up unto the Lord as sweet incense, when not a word outwardly in all our assembly had been uttered!

…We met together and waited together in silence; it may be sometimes not a word in our meetings for months; but everyone that was faithful waited upon the living word in our own hearts….

— John Burnyeat (d. 1690), Journal of the Life and Gospel Labours

God out of his everlasting love did appear unto us, according to the desire of our hearts, who longed after him…. The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature. …

We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement, and great admiration….

— Francis Howgill, “Testimony concerning Edward Burrough” (1672)

Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God.

I John 3:21

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Reader Comments (2)

I was once invited to my first Quaker meeting. I didn't know it was unprogrammed or even what that meant. I carried a Bible in with me, and at one point a man stood up and, without singling me out (though I knew who he meant), he blasted anyone who would think to bring a Bible into a Quaker meeting. That really rattled me, but I stayed for coffee and donuts afterwards. Only one man (a different man) approached to greet me, and he and his wife invited me to his house for a barbecue and said he would call me with more info. He never did. So my one and only experience was very negative, and I haven't gone to one since. Is this typical? Are Bibles not allowed in these meetings? If so, why?

Jul 7, 2015 at 10:20AM | Unregistered CommenterVince C.

I’m very sorry you had that experience, Vince. I didn’t say much about the Bible in this posting, but the fact is that Quakerism is very carefully and exhaustively grounded in Scripture; anyone who looks into the writings of its founders discovers this fairly quickly. For centuries, Friends took care that every family belonging to their local meeting had a Bible and read it together, ideally on a daily basis. What Friends learned from the Bible, and what they discovered listening to the voice of God in their own hearts and consciences, were mutually reinforcing. It was common practice to have Bibles handy in the Quaker meetinghouse, too.

It was only beginning after World War I that many of the more liberal unprogrammed Quaker meetings began losing their way. They got caught up in the same wave of new thought that was spreading through the Church of the Brethren and the mainline Protestants at about that time. Friends began shedding their disdain of the fallen world, opening their minds to new ways of thinking about the Bible and the requirements of Christ, and getting involved with the issues of their day, seeking to make a constructive good-Samaritan-style difference. A new generation of Quaker leaders emerged: people like Bayard Rustin, who taught the methods of nonviolence to Martin Luther King, through which, in time, the Civil Rights Movement won great victories, and Clarence Pickett, who led the American Friends Service Committee through the Great Depression and World War II, providing aid to the starving and to war victims all over the world.

But as the members of many of these liberal meetings became tolerant of new ways of thinking, it led them into admit new members into their ranks who were ever less-and-less grounded in basic Christianity — and these liberal meetings made the fatal mistake of failing to ground their new members in the scriptural underpinnings of their faith. Then, as the older, more knowledgeable Friends in these meetings died off, and only the new members remained, there came a point when there was no one left who really understood the Bible or grasped how Biblical Christianity gave form and logic and forward momentum to Quakerism.

And so we wound up with meetings here and there across the country that were like the one you stumbled into.

It was certainly no fault of yours. I could wish that such de-Christianized meetings would put signs out in front warning unwary visitors; but what’s done is done.

I don’t know where you live, but if you are still curious, you might want to check and see whether there is a Conservative Friends meeting, or a Friends church, in your area. Either of these would provide you with a very different experience!

Jul 9, 2015 at 08:52AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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