I’m a seeker. Even as a small child, I felt a longing in my soul for a connection to something deeper than what I saw in my day-to-day life. I had a fantastic childhood, and I have an amazing family, so it’s not that I was lacking in emotional fulfillment (or in physical comforts) – it’s just that I intrinsically felt like a part of my being was not-quite-complete; that I needed spiritual fulfillment in a way I hadn’t yet experienced.
My mom took my sister and I to church every Sunday, but I didn’t find what I needed there. (And believe me, I tried my hardest to ‘make’ church be the answer.) I visited the churches of my friends (Mormon, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist) and found them fascinating, but not fulfilling. In college I met people of even more different belief systems (Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan) and had in-depth conversations about what spirituality meant to them in their religious structure – but still didn’t feel a ‘click’ in my heart.
From middle school until the present I also engaged in my own explorations relating to the needs of my spirit, including reading a variety of texts and sampling any service or process that seemed like it might yield some value (excluding cults and other clearly harmful groups/organizations/structures); and with each experience, I learned more and more about what does (and doesn’t) resonate with my heart, life, spirit.
While I feel like I am drawing closer to a path that resonates with that deep, wordless place inside of me, I am still very open to experiencing opportunities that various organizations may offer.
Many years ago I heard of Quakers; and growing up in northern Indiana where a large Amish population lived nearby, I thought Quakers were a sub-set of Amish people who were allowed to use electricity and the phone. (Please bear in mind that I was 10 years old at the time; of course my ‘understanding’ of various religious views was overly-simplistic and very incomplete.) Later in my life I gained a bit more information about Quakers; specifically, that there were more ‘conservative’ and more ‘modern’ sects (as is the case with so many religious groups), that the more modern groups call themselves ‘Friends’ instead of (or in addition to) ‘Quakers’, and that a Quaker/Friends service includes a lot of silent meditation and reflection.
That last piece of information intrigued me, and ultimately is what compelled me to add #72 to my 101 list. I have never been to a Christian church service that entertained more than a few seconds of reflective silence; I was curious how the Friends would manage a quiet/contemplative gathering.
I looked online to see if any Friends groups met in our area, and found a gathering not too far from our home. So this morning I hopped in the car and drove 20 minutes to experience my first Friends meeting.
I found a place to park, and walked to the entrance of the building – where I saw a big banner that made me feel very hopeful about what I might experience today:
I smiled. As I continued walking to the entry way, I saw another scene that infused me with positive energy:
Opening the main door, I stepped two feet inside the building – where I was greeted by a somewhat lengthy message:
Continuing ten steps into the building, I found the main sanctuary/gathering place: A simple room filled with three rows of chairs, all arranged in a semi-circle:
I had arrived ten minutes before the service/meeting/gathering was scheduled to begin, and found myself alone in the room for a bit of time. I took a seat, and waited. A few minutes before the hour, more people began to arrive – and they each silently took a seat in the room. No one really looked at me or addressed me; each attendee simply sat, silently. A few people closed their eyes, while others maintained a soft unfocused gaze at a spot on the floor. I wondered what was going on…. Clearly some folks were engaging in meditation, but were they just getting centered before the meeting officially began? I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I looked around the room, trying to locate cues and clues. I saw several people reading a long sheet of paper before settling in, so I quietly went to the table just outside of the room – and saw three different reading materials available. I took one of each, then returned to my seat.
A long sheet of paper summarized various ‘business’ items for the meeting: Scripture Passage for the day, Announcements, Upcoming Community Events, Office Hours, etc. A second sheet of paper announced upcoming topics for the month ahead. The third item was a laminated card that explained the meeting process. Ah ha! Here’s info I can use right now! I read the detailed notes…
… and learned that because I was the first person in the room today, apparently I was the one who started this meeting. Oh. Okay…
Since the meeting was now clearly underway, I sat in my chair and began my own personal meditation. But I kept one ear open, waiting for a member to share a ‘vocal ministry’.
I waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Forty-five minutes later, the room was still silent. Thank goodness I have an established personal meditation practice; otherwise, I think this experience would have been torture.
So I spent the bulk of this meeting sitting in a chair, half-meditating and half-waiting. Then out of no where, one man stood up very suddenly, turned around, and shook the hand of a man sitting behind him. With that, everyone else popped to their feet, and started shaking hands and greeting people around them. The room went from complete stillness and silence to noise and activity within one second – literally. The shift was jarring to me. Rubbing my eyes, I jumped to my feet, spun around, and grabbed at the first hand that came my way. I slapped my best smile on my face, and tried my hardest to be engaging and personable (and hide my confusion).
After a minute or two of greeting time, the man who started all this action turned on a microphone, and stated that now was the time in the meeting when returning members, visitors, or newcomers could self-identify if they chose. I waved “hello” to the group – and was surprised when the man with the microphone walked up to me, handed me the device, and invited me to share my name and a little bit about myself. Oh, okay…. I stood up, and took the microphone in my hands a bit hesitantly. I then inhaled a steadying breath, summoned my corporate-trainer persona, and began: “Hi everyone, my name is Stef, and I’m a newcomer. This is the first time I have ever attended a Friends meeting, and I’m happy to be here. Thank you for welcoming me.” I then handed the mic back to the man who seemed to be leading the session, and sat back down.
After two other people introduced themselves (one out-of-state visitor, one returning member), the leader then passed the microphone around the room so everyone could share their name. People were also invited to share anything they wanted – “anything that wasn’t strong enough to be shared in vocal ministry, but that you would now like to give voice to.” Once all of the introductions and sharing ended, the leader called for any “joys or concerns” – and a few people offered the names of people who were struggling with illness, families who had recently experienced a death, children who were heading off to college, and individuals who were about to embark on a new trip or begin a new job.
Once all of the personal sharing elements ended, the leader made a final call for brief announcements – and during this time, some of the more ‘business’ aspects of the group were offered: remember to bring a dish to share for next week’s potluck; sign up in the hall if you want to attend a mid-week presentation by a visiting speaker; Sunday school begins in two weeks; etc.
After the announcements ended, the meeting facilitator declared the meeting finished – and everyone simply picked up their purses, bags, and/or water bottles, and left.
As I made my way to the door, I was approached by a few different people, and greeted very warmly. I was also told multiple times that it is very rare for a meeting to be completely silent; usually at least a few people speak during the meditation time. One man from another state shared a bit of his experience transitioning into this group (“Every meeting has a different ‘style’ of doing things – just like every other type of church, I suppose…”), and an older couple offered to answer any questions I might have. Another fellow walked me to a table and bulletin board area outside of the main meeting room where various pieces of literature were stacked or pinned. He spoke with me about different issues that were a focus of the congregation – and I learned that this group (and indeed Quakers in general) place a significant focus on social justice, and on political decisions that relate to the welfare of all citizens. I am not a political person; in fact, I feel quite aversive to the entire political domain. So while the energy of the meeting room felt really good, and while the people I met during and afterwards seemed to be very open-hearted, this political element of the group caused an immediate (nearly reflexive) “uh oh!” response in me. The contrast felt very sharp, and rather confusing; so I spent some time reflecting on this. I guess you could say that I had a solo ‘meeting’ after the group meeting, where I sat quietly, and pondered what I had experienced.
Through the course of my contemplation, I realized that past political decisions and actions were necessary to structure our current society in some of the ways that I deeply value. At one time environmental protections seemed unnecessary, outlandish, and even backwards – and it’s only because of the actions of courageous women and men that I currently enjoy food, water, and air that are (mostly) safe and free from major contaminants. In the not-so-distant past women were considered incredibly inferior – I only recently learned of how significantly limited a woman’s existence was just a few decades ago. It’s only through the bravery of concerned citizens that I am able to work freely and make decisions independent of my husband or father. Equalities regarding race, power over my own physical body, the right to believe and say (for the most part) whatever I want – all of these things that I assume to be “truths” are indeed creations of political decisions. When I really pause and think about it, I am far from apolitical – I just prefer to stay out of the fray, and instead enjoy the benefits other people have created for me (us). So maybe I’m being called to muster my courage and assume more responsibility for the direction our society heads, instead of trusting that other people will fight the good fight and keep extremists in check… Hmm. Definitely something for me to explore further.
Who knew a single spiritual meeting would stir up all of this?
Okay, to wrap this up (as much as possible, anyway): I found the silent meeting interesting, and I appreciated that people genuinely reached out to me afterwards. The ‘God’-based language that was used did unnerve me quite a bit, but not so much that I would be unwilling to make a return visit. But I’m not planning on attending this group every week, or even on a regular basis. If I were to invest my time on Sunday mornings attending a spiritual service, it would be with a different practice group. However, should I feel called (or led) to become more socially or politically active, this feels like a great group to connect with.
All in all, this was a very informative experience. I left with some personal questions to explore, and I truly value that. (Most church services I have attending in the past don’t invite me to probe and think for myself.) I also learned quite a bit about Quakers: that they are people not all that different from myself, that they value many of the things I hold dear – and that ‘plain’ attire and antiquated modes of living are not requirements to practice this specific faith.