Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Conversation About Silence

On Saturday, Peter and I went to our friends Kevin and Beth's house for a potluck and schmooze. While there, we finally got to meet R. and C., two new neighbors of theirs they'd been telling us about for weeks--Quakers from the midwest who had recently moved to the valley. It was really terrific getting a chance to get to know them. It turns out that they have been having difficulty settling in to either of the two local meetings, perhaps because they so loved the meeting they used to attend which apparently had a really great kids' program. Now, I think of the first day school at Mt. Toby as one of it's strengths, but then, I'm comparing it against Pagan groups I've known, who are lucky to acheive a critical mass of kids at any gathering, or to have any meaningful programming at all. (I'm not putting down the Pagan world, here, just noting that, as a relatively new religious movement, it's something we're still struggling with.)

In any case, the sense of how hard it can be to become comfortably settled into one spiritual home when you have experienced a really deep set of connections in another was something I could relate to very strongly. It's certainly one of the more difficult aspects of my life these last few years--not so much because, as a member of Mt. Toby, I don't have meaningful connections with the Pagan world any more as because, since becoming a teacher, I'm so short on time that I don't keep up the ties I have as well as I'd like. However, it is easy to look at differences in my two homes and see deficiencies, either in them or in me. And I'm not as rooted at Mt. Toby as I feel I should be.

Which is part of the spiritual food I got from the conversation with R. and C. Partly, of course, it was just a terrific subject to explore with other people who were experiencing familiar things. But also, at one point in the conversation, C. was talking about how it is unclear to her that people at our meeting connect much to one another outside the meeting for worship itself. As we were discussing some of the ways members do keep in touch with one another, C. asked which Sunday of the month was it we had the potluck lunch--? Third, I answered. But then I had to admit that I hardly ever attend it. At the end of meeting for worship, I sit under a tree if I can take the time... and go off with Peter for lunch alone together and then to grade more papers for Monday if I can't take it. Well... time and grading are part of the reason I leave rather than potluck it. But another reason is the deep shyness I feel around members of my meeting. That's in part because, at times, I've been someplace very deep and quiet in worship, and it's hard to come up to the surface for conversation and coffee. But it's also because I'm just flat-out a shy person... at Mt. Toby. People who know me from other parts of my life would have real trouble believing this--I'm not (lately) a shy person. But once a week, I'm once again the shy girl I was in elementary school.

C. and R. spoke of how hard it was to leave their meeting, and how one important part of what led to deep worship experiences for them was feeling the accumulated years of connection between the members. And I totally get that--one of the many points of congruence for Pagans and Quakers is the importance of honoring the divine within each person, and of connecting to the sacred at least in part through relationships with one another. Right. Totally agree. And yet, week after week, MFW ends and I'm out the door before my tea even has a chance to get cold.

I felt challenged by this. In fact, it's more an underscoring of a challenge I've been feeling since being contacted about serving on Ministry and Worship this year. (Wish me luck! No more excuses--I've got to make it to MFW _every_ week, and Meeting for Business, too. Gods willing, I'll get the papers graded for class _somehow_.)

So, that was Saturday. Today was Sunday, and after meeting for worship, Ministry and Worship had arranged the first in a series of post-meeting discussion/worship sharing sessions on spiritual disciplines for Quakers. This week was on preparation for meeting, and both Peter and I had been looking forward to it. I had not, however, expected it to be as rich as it was. Not sure how many of us there were who stayed--something between 12 and 20, at a guess--but most of those who stayed had something to say that affected me a lot. It was run as a kind of structured worship sharing... and it was absolutely wonderful.

I'm often amazed at how powerfully a community can be united through silence. But I'm a little mistrustful of it, too. Because Quakers are not the word-boxes Pagans typically are when it comes to their actual spiritual experiences, there's not the sense of instant validation you'd get at a Pagan ritual that went really right. ("Man! Did you _feel_ the intensity of that invocation?" "No kidding! I had goosebumps all up and down my spine during the Charge of the Goddess. And did you have the same feeling I did, when--" etc.)

The good side of this is that Quakerese tends to be full of pithy phrases that are so exactly apropos that they sum up whole volumes of experience. I can run across one of these phrases--staying low to the truth was one I heard recently--and feel a connection with the experience that's as strong and real as an electric shock. We don't water down our experiences with excess words, so the words we do eventually share are often extraordinary ones.

The down side is that it can be lonely and uncertain. Maybe it is not that way for birthright Quakers, or even for convinced Christian Quakers. Perhaps they are less likely to wonder if they are _really_ getting what they feel that they are getting. Perhaps it's easier to trust that you are part of a group, and that the silence really is holding as much tenderness as it often feels, if you're with them for a certain amount of time, or if you're less used to the words, words, words of a Pagan community. I don't know.

What I know for sure is how important it was to me to hear people putting into words the intimate and personal things that, somehow, aren't as easily discussed over tea and cookies in a fellowship hall as over a cup of mead around a bonfire. The connections _are_ there. I was grateful to have that reinforced with discussion of other people's practices. Silence _is_ a good venue for creating a deep, connected community. But words to validate it come in handy.

And, yes, I plan to attend more potlucks, too.

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