It has seemed to me, that sometimes when I write I am doing so with my mind attentive on God, wanting to know if what I write is an acceptable pointer towards truth.
Now I have also believed, having read enough history, that the best way to the truth of religion is through silence; I would once have said the only way. Wherever human beings have arrived at verbal statements aboute the Context in which we live, there’s been ample room for what George Fox called “notions,” and “jangling;” and lucky if people didn’t use such statements as excuses to fight and persecute each other. Because there are people so besotted with words that they mistake statements about the eternal for the eternal itself, and utterly fail to see the reality that inspired the statements.
But I am a writer. The flow of chatter in my mind is constant. Even when I meditate, and much of the time in Quaker meeting, I’m usually thinking away full speed despite myself. And they aren’t bad thoughts, even if they don’t quite justify breaking the silence. I find them much more interesting than the majority of messages that people rise to speak in meeting. If most of the people in meeting would find it inappropriate for me to harangue them with such thoughts, still I hope there are others who would find them of interest.
There is one thing I have said in meeting, that it should not be called “meeting for worship,” but “meeting for listening,” or perhaps “meeting for attention.” To “worship” God means to respect him, and this would not be something we do once a week in meeting, but something we do throughout our lives, if we do it in fact at all. It is not some “spiritual practice;” it’s the attitude that inclines us to be attentive to God in whatever way he may choose to influence us. “Meeting for worship” is a spiritual practice which has led to good insights and more godly lives for many of us. Called “waiting on the Lord,” it was introduced (or perhaps reintroduced) towards the end of the Catholic/Protestant civil wars in England, by people who’d given up on finding truth in the doctrinal disputes of the combatants. George Fox transformed their concept of this practice, from “waiting” to “experiencing.”
What he said more precisely, was that “Christ [or “God”] is come to teach his people himself.” Because often God will answer our questions, if we are seriously concerned about them. And if the answer sometimes takes longer, it is because the answer to some questions is a change in the person who asks.
That concept might have precluded the delivery of long messages at meeting, but it didn’t. Some people had more to say, or said it better, while others were inclined to listen. But there is still the idea that God can and will influence people who want that enough to leave themselves open to it. And if God is our teacher, who of us can hope to teach as well?
But the concept of teaching has changed since George Fox’s day. The proper role of a student might have once been limited to attentive listening, but there is also questioning and practice. Quakers often use the word “practice” in the sense of “what we do” rather than “training exercises,” but I’m referring to forms of teaching appropriate to such subjects as art, music or mathematics. Fox would have considered these subjects, except for the practical uses of math, as distracting amusements.
Science was hardly a part of the curriculum in those days, and of course is not an effective tool for exploring the nature of God, or of any being with a mind of its own. The closest Fox came to science was his insistence that religion had to be based on experience rather than on verbal derivation from principles. Philosophy and theology were “jangling,” likely to lead nowhere unless aided by God through meditation and prayer.
So the original form of the Quaker meeting was like a lecture class, in which individual members would be moved to address the group, lending their voices to deliver God’s lecture. Or in other cases, God would be personally teaching individuals in the group.
But the form of the instruction was conceived as God speaking to passive listeners. What other conceptions might be worthwhile?
The healing ceremony I joined at a recent retreat might be called a sort of lab class, at least in the sense of trying something rather than simply hearing about it. I felt something that might be the beginning of the healing of a long-term condition, and was moved to try at least on one who’d put forth considerable energy on my behalf. No one in the group, so far as I know, was actually diseased, but many were suffering something they were willing to ask healing for, and all seemed to find the experience positive.
The opposite of “waiting in silence” might be “making a joyful noise.” Done in the right place at the right time, there’d be no harm in it, and likely some good effects on people. Many people suffer from a loss of hope, which can be helped by experiencing beauty, enthusiasm, and a reminder of God’s good will. The difficulty which steered Quakers away from such ceremonies (what most churchgoers do in their various ways) is that they can distract us with outward beauty from the voice speaking in our hearts. The inevitable result is the profusion of dubious, fervently held doctrines churchgoers are prone to mistake for religion. Because most participants are too busy attending to outward voices, too busy telling God what’s what to listen to him.
Meanwhile I wonder about our own silent meetings. I feel I’ve gained great good from them, but I see many good-hearted people who are learning very slowly if at all. I don’t believe they’ve been reading the textbooks. They seem caught in their own thoughts, which are distracted by the noise of the world. I don’t know how they can have sat in meeting for so many years with so little apparent result.
If they’d been bad people when they started, then the results would be miraculous. But they seem to have been much the same all along; they started coming to meeting because something about it seemed right to them; they have probably become a little quieter and less inclined to wrath, but their own apparent belief is that some special readiness in them made them able to benefit from meeting, and that the general public are not suitable candidates.
It is true, that normal people and children are not easily persuaded to sit still for more than a few minutes, but the people at my meeting make the effort with children who are too young to understand the purpose of silent listening, at least not without a better explanation than they’ve been given, and the obvious results (with such children) are uncomfortable children and a fidgety period in meeting. (Other children seem very much in the spirit of the thing.) While anyone who comes to meeting is welcomed sincerely, there is deep disbelief that members of the lower classes should be encouraged to join our practice.
The silent form of meeting seems to be beneficial for anyone willing to give it a fair chance; it can accommodate people with a broad range of opinions; but it doesn’t make profound changes in anyone who doesn’t see the need.
It is right that we should welcome people without excluding anyone for failing to believe some verbal formulation about the Reality of life. But a disturbing consequence is that much of the tone of meeting is set by people who approve Quaker positions on various issues, but seem unacquainted with that Reality, the basis of those positions they wish to support. In the latest Friends Journal I see an article in which the author asks: “Do we find anything in our silent meetings?” as if she didn’t, and didn’t think anyone else did either.
Is this worse than the pseudoChristian believer who fervently embraces all the doctrinal baggage of a church while missing the spirit of love and truth that underlie the true Christian ethic? At least we love and want that spirit. We love the ethic, but how will we find the courage it requires unless we understand and realize who it is that runs this Universe, at bottom?
I had a talk with my wife last night. (A form of worship I endorse without reservation, except that other people will have to settle for someone other than Anne.) I told her about my belief that God intends to wake the world some day, and she wondered what we would do after that. What would we gossip about; what would we argue; what material would we have for our stories?
Perhaps we will devote ourselves to inventing new forms of worship. Art, poetry, music, songs, zazen, yoga, science, mathematics, football, things we have not yet imagined ourselves imagining because we are so busy with our fears. Maybe we’ll put on plays. Maybe plays like this one we mistake for life? But should we be so identified with our parts as we are now? Isn’t the purpose of worship to let go of all that? And isn’t this whole play directed to end in waking us all? How can we best join that effort?