So, here I am at NEYM, and so far, it has been mind-blowing, wonderful, amazing...
OK. Not universally wonderful. I admit, I'm still early enough on in my love affair with Quakerism that I do idealize things (and people) more than is wise... but there were certainly plenty of reminders of how human (Irritatingly, maddeningly, entertainingly, and endearingly human) we all are here. I'll let one example stand for all: the young adult friend who spent what seemed like half of the unprogrammed meeting for worship clicking and clicking and clicking his pen in restless boredom. CLICKA-CLICKA-CLICKA-CLICKA!
It was excellent discipline--for me. Can I have my worship focus on anything but the struggle not to get shirty over another worshipper's restless tick? Mostly, I was able to stay centered down. Worship this morning was good--as was noticing differences and similarities to what I'm used to, my first experience with programmed MFW (Young Adult Friends were in charge of that portion of the meeting) and a chance to practice finding ways to really center down and find the depths in meeting.
It was also great to have a chance to connect with Mt. Toby members that I don't normally get to spend much time with. Nancy is a friend as well as a Friend, but it really feels like every time I talk with her, she's more so. Margaret and Kathy D were also there at lunch, and it was a novel experience, to talk about my experience of meeting with someone other than Peter. It was terrific to be able to reality check my perceptions with more experienced and seasoned Quakers.
But the big payoff so far has been the business meeting, which really has been a meeting for worship for business. Especially tonight, when the committee that is working to revise Faith and Practice presented. (For the Pagans in the room: Faith and Practice is the book that's roughly--very roughly--equivalent to the Yearly Meeting's Book of Shadows... except that it is less prescriptive and more reflective. If Doreen Valiente had written in Queries instead of poetry, the result might have been something like this.)
The focus tonight was on the section on worship. The advance materials handouts have long sections from the latest draft printed out, and there are some deeply evocative and resonant passages in it. New England Yearly Meeting is extremely diverse, and, as a Q-P, I'm happy to see that recognized. One passage that was pointed out to me, in fact, reads, "The fabric of New England Friends is made up of threads from our history and of a rich variety of contemporary experience... ... Some of our paths follow a universalist orientation and some are Christ-centered, focused either in the person of Jesus, in a universalist Christianity, or in a cosmic Christ-consciousness. Some of us find ourselves blending wisdom from a variety of traditions such as Buddhist, Jewish, and Pagan into our Quaker way. Some of us find our primary grounding in Spirit through the natural world. Others of us find a connection to the sacred is one that floods our consciousness but is unnameable and not in need of naming..."
Now, it's gratifying to be recognized by name (and not just by name, but with a capital letter: "Pagan" vs "pagan" is a fight Pagans have yet to win with most of the country's newspapers) as part of the family. But more powerful still was the phrase about the connection that floods us but is unnameable. Yeah. Just so.
It felt terrific to read those words, among others.
But, when I said that tonight the Faith and Practice Revision Committee "presented," I was not doing the event justice. In reality, what happened was a profound and deep experience of unity. Jan Hoffman, clerk of the committee, addressed us, saying that the committee was not actually presenting a draft for approval tonight. In fact, we would not be reading or commenting on the current set of revisions at all. Instead, Jan spoke to us of the "hard discipline" we are called to by our diversity. All of us, she said, have our favorite ways of experiencing and describing worship... but it is the unity we experience in worship, the whole that is greater than the parts that any of us can bring singly to a discussion, that Faith and Practice ought to reflect. Some people have said that there are words which, if present in the chapter, will make the chapter no longer speak to their experience. Many others have favorite words and phrases. But the job of the committee is not to produce a reflection of all of our individual visions or experiences, but of the shared experience of unity in worship that is wiser than all of us.
She asked us to speak--not waiting for the microphone to reach us, in the fashion we had been following, but as we were moved--but in no more than half a dozen or so words. She asked us to listen deeply, not for our favorite words and phrases to describe our individual experiences of worship, but out of the shared experience, using words "that we can hear together."
There was confusion, at first. Someone asked Jan if she would give an example. Of course she said no. (She couldn't, after all, give an example of what would, in effect, be a message.) Another member asked her to explain more fully. I thought I could see her hesitate, feeling after what to say or do... and then she spoke at some length, going into detail on the ideas I've probably stated badly above. Most of what I've written, in fact, came out of that second explanation--where, at the start, Jan's words had the resonance of a worship sharing, her answer to the request for more was simply and beautifully a message. It flowed and it wove us in with her, and it stayed very, very close to the root, and I was so admiring of her faithfulness.
I think it must be especially hard to stay faithful when everyone can see you doing it, so well. (Mind you, I think Jan knows what she's doing in that regard. She carries with grace a load I would stagger under. _Thank you_, Jan.)
Probably because Jan was so faithful--and because of the discipline and faithfulness of all that had gone before, we very, very quickly settled into a strong and gathered group. One after another, as in a popcorn meeting, person after person stood and named their experience of the divine, of worship. But unlike in a popcorn meeting, each speaker brought the group deeper and into a greater sense of connection.
There were many words and phrases. Some of them were Christ-centered or Quakerisms, and some were new, at least to me.
The words didn't matter. That was the ironic and deep truth that rose, in fact. Having generated words that we'd reached for, out of unity, to express that unity _in ways others could hear_, we created the reality that the Faith and Practice will try merely to reflect. All our words were just reflections--though some of them were beautiful, and resonanted with me. But by reaching first for the thing we are trying to evoke with the words, rather than simply reaching for the language, we moved that much closer to really understanding what it is we need to say.
_We_ need to say. As a people, a community.
It was grand. I can't really explain how powerful it was--not on the verbal level, but on that realer level. I will say, though, that I have never felt more included, more enfolded, by any worship, among any community, ever, than I felt by those fifteen or twenty minutes at the meeting tonight. The struggles of being an insider/outsider (which, perhaps, everyone feels in community) just fell away. Something about listening for the words that would speak to one another, rather than for ourselves as individuals, made it clear how little the things that divide us are.
And I had an insight. One of the gifts Peter and I have had, without even being aware, as Pagans who came to the Quakers from outside Christianity, is that we have _always_ had to listen "where the words come from." When Jill H speaks about being moved by a new understanding of a scriptural passage, though the passage means nothing to me, the joy and depth in Jill's voice nurture me, as a member of her community. So I've always, as a Quaker, known that I can be fed by those whose language and understandings are radically different from my own.
It was only tonight that I consciously realized that, or the obverse: that Christ-centered Quakers _don't_ have that grounding automatically, _don't_ neccessarily know that they will be fed by those they do not understand as well as by those they do. Peter and I are lucky in this way. We got to have this great gift, the instinct to listen underneath, for free, just as the price of admission.
It was a wonderful day.