Skip to main content

You Who Are My Bible

I have a vivid memory, from a Quaker retreat I attended not so long ago. I remember coming across a friend, sitting quietly in a patch of sunlight, paging through his Bible.

The sense of depth and worship that surrounded him was as rich as the silence in a forest, and I envied him his ability to sink so deeply into communion with his God, and to stay there so comfortably and restfully. (I often find that, after any extended period of worship, I need an even more extended period of silliness and ordinariness. I love the depths, but often find myself unable to bear them for long.)

Today was one of those days in meeting for worship that the sense of living silence rolled out to meet me as I passed through the door. That feeling--the patient, watchful stillness--is sometimes as palpable as a fur cloak laid over my shoulders, and at times, I find myself savoring it a moment or two before I go to my seat. I love to stand and feel the warm light of morning on my face, and the even warmer quiet of worship washing around my whole body. I love the sense of a communal indrawn breath that I can sometimes feel, once I am a few feet into the room.

When I did take my seat, I found myself making eye contact with others who were already there, smiling at one friend and another. That's not unusual--though I know it is somewhat at odds with the unwritten Quaker rules, that would have us worship with closed eyes to avoid intruding on one another's spiritual space. Perhaps this is really an expectation of Quakers over time: no smiling! No looking into one another's eyes! And I do try to gaze gently, aware that even a glance can be distracting, at certain moments. But I also feel that, if not in worship, then when can we look one another in the eye, in the light-hearted, simple fellowship of simply being together, caught up so intimately in this Spirit? So it's a rule I often break, or at least bend, as I settle into worship.

This week, though, I seemed not to settle into worship, but to break open into it, without centering myself down into my own separate self and thoughts at all beforehand. My attention remained quite firmly in the room, my heart jumping up like a puppy when guests arrive for a party as one friend and then another came into the meeting. And at the same time, I felt very full with that sense of present Spirit that comes in worship.

In some ways, it was not a settled worship for anyone at the meeting. There were lots of comings and goings, maybe because it is fall, and the families are still establishing their routines and habits around arriving and getting the kids into their First Day classes. Doors opened and closed in the parking lot. Children's voices called out--and so did adults'--and the stream of latecomers, shifting positions and bundles, coughs and movement all seemed to continue longer than usual.

It was not a problem for me at all. As I heard each voice, saw each face or movement, part of me reached out and held the person close. And as I saw each newcomer enter the room, I felt the knowledge of their stories rising within me.

And I thought of my friend whose peace lay in paging through his Bible; who found an open door to his God there. And I realized, looking across the meeting room floor at his face, You are my Bible.

Every person there, filled with story. Every person there, whether I could find it or sense it or not, holding within him or within her a great Story: the story of the Holy Spirit moving within his life, or hers.

Sometimes, I'm privileged to sense that Story, just looking into another person's eyes. Sometimes, I've been lucky enough to get some of the keys to understand at least a fragment of their tale.

This is one great reward of having attended the same meeting for so long. I begin to know stories: I know this couple's courtship story from decades gone by; I fill with joy to know it, again, as I see them take hands beside each other on their usual bench. I know the stories of how this member, and that one, and this member in front of me, were each widowed, in such different ways and at such different times in their lives. I grieve with them again, and rejoice to see their courage and strength as they sit quietly upright now beside us.

I know that this member is in constant pain from her arthritis; I know that those members struggle with loss of hearing. That one has shared the story of a terrible childhood with me; this one of lost years as a teen. I know who mourns for brothers, mothers, friends... children.

Somehow, I have become woven into the stories of my meeting.

I want more of them. I want all of them. I want--and I can never have--to take each member of my meeting by the hand, meet their eyes, and hear them tell me who they are, down to the last syllable of the story of their True Names.

Don't get me wrong. I've been at my meeting long enough to know one or two whose stories are personally challenging to me. Not everyone in my meeting is easy for me to love or care about. Some members annoy me; more make me quietly unhappy by their lack of concern or charity or empathy for one another.

I do love the members of my meeting... but some remind me painfully of things about myself I'd rather deny or forget, and others...

Quakers, like anyone, can be irascible, judgemental, self-righteous. Some are models of compassion in meeting, but go home and kick the dog. Some seem to go out of their way to find places where they will, themselves, be kicked like dogs. Some are beacons of love and forgiveness. But some, at least from my very limited perspective on a bench at the back of the room, are not.

So these stories I find myself longing to know--and, truly, I am longing to know them--have among them stories I will have a hard time sitting with. Some of the Friends in my meeting are hard for me to like. Some of them, I have reason to know, do not much like me.

We wrestle with the holy scripture written on one another's hearts. Just as in the Bible itself, there are stories in which I cannot feel the movement of a loving Spirit in the world; so too there are lives of tragedy or of what looks (from the outside) like meanness or hypocrisy, in which I cannot sense the movement of that Spirit, either.

I often fail to understand. Sometimes, I don't even remember to try. And I fall into parochialism and disdain far too often for my own good.

But it came to me, in meeting today, that whether I can see it or not, the Holy Spirit is constantly, constantly at work in the hearts and the lives of the people all around me. Like the wind that stirred the branches of the trees outside the meetinghouse windows, Spirit is working in all of our hearts all of the time.

Read with an open heart, read with patience and love, the people I share my life with--most definitely including those who challenge me--may be the best of all possible gospels to me.


Anonymous said…
Thanks Cat for your post.

You describe a lot of what goes on each week.
I've been attending meeting for many years and sure that I,ve broken just about every Quaker rule worth talking about (Bad Quaker in good standing).

This morning I walked into meeting late (durring the time that the children leave for first day school)and as I walked in I made eye contact with several Friends. They would smile and/or nod their head in recognition as I walked by.
(is that two broken rules, eye contact and entering late?)

I sat down and settled in reflected on my entrance and what I was feeling. I was almost overwhelmed by the love and the depth I felt I had entered into the souls of the Friends I had exchanged glances with.

Again words are failing me.

Thanks Cat for the oppertunity to try.
Scylla said…
Oh, wow... you took the unformed words right out of my head, and gave them form!

In my life I come across people who have -something- about them that pulls me to them. I want to hear all their stories, explore what they love and touch that spark of something I see in them. And your phrasing puts that thought into clear focus: Spirit. It's that movement of -rightness- in a cord through their life. Surrounded by whatever... that movement is palpable, and sings out.

Unfortunately it is hard to get most people to understand that resonance, and appreciate where it's coming from. Most people just think you wanna do the do with them, or are creepy. Hah!
Michael said…
"We wrestle with the holy scripture written on one another's hearts. "

Thank you.

Blessed Be,
Morgan said…
Hmmmmm. Yes. (Breathes deeply.) Thank you.

There's a common Quaker custom - which Bill Taber even encourages in Four Doors to Meeting for Worship ;-) - of looking around the Meetingroom as one settles in and holding those people in the Light, of glancing at people who come in after one does and holding those people, and the Meeting as a whole, in the Light, as part of centering.

I don't think eye contact and smiles detract from that. :)

When I led an Adult Religious Education presentation at my Meeting in July, I opened by walking Friends through a Tree of Life grounding and centering, then through a meditation on each of Air, Fire, Water, Earth, and Spirit. And then I asked them to open their eyes and look into the eyes of another person, and recognize and honor that of God, the Goddess-within, the Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit in that person.

It was very quiet, and there were such smiles. It was joy-filled.

Also, what you were saying about stories: that is part of how we come to feel known by each other. Being known is sacred. Coming to know each other is sacred.

You talked about your Friend's easy, quiet communion through his Bible. And you are right: we are each other's Bible. We are the embodiment of the Divine, part of it, anyway. We are each one of each other's avenues to spiritual communion.

Not that I'm saying this well. But that's okay, because you did in writing this blog entry. :)

Blessed be.
Hystery said…
How lucky you are to have that communion. I long for that kind of interaction but have never experienced it among Friends.
Morgan said…
Hystery, that makes me sad. I hope you find somewhere among Friends that is home. As you've likely heard, I've had experiences with Meetings that have been just awful, experiences with Meetings which have been wonderful, and experiences with other Quaker groups/organizations which have been wonderful. Quakers are people just like everywhere else... the whole range. *hugs* and blessings to you.
Yewtree said…
Thank you very much for this piece - it speaks to my condition (sorry for appropriating Friends-speak but it was exactly the right phrase).
Mary Ellen said…
Cat, I'll hold this metaphor for a long time, as it really speaks to me and my experience in worship - when I'm not too inwardly distracted, which happens rather too often. May you continue to find openings from the passages and parables of your beloved community.
Anonymous said…
Yes, thank you for this beautiful posting - the spirit in everyone, and loving each other despite or perhaps because, of our human imperfections.
anj said…
I'm having a hard time connecting in meeting lately. A wise Friend asked me anticipatory grief- I have been holding that and today, when I read your post, my tears let me know I am already grieving leaving me meeting. Next summer, our move to Philly will be complete. And the love and yes, the Word written on my heart of each one's stories, the time living in that will draw to an end. It's a long good-bye, thank you for these last few posts that show me the courage to live in it well.

Popular posts from this blog

Peter Meets a Liberal Christian with Balls

Metaphorically, at least.

Yesterday, Cat and I drove to Boston to hear the annual Weed Memorial Lecture at Beacon Hill Friends Meeting. The speaker was Peggy Senger Parsons, the pastor of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon, and for the second time this spring I've met someone and think, If I'd known someone like that when I was 22, It's possible I'd still be Christian.

I picked up a copy of FFC's Faith and Practice while I was there. (For the non-Quakers in the audience, F&P is sort of equivalent to a catechism or a Book of Common Prayer.) There's a passage that she read aloud in response to a question from someone in the audience. I'm just going to quote it here for now. I'll get much more in depth about what it means to me over the course of the summer as I write my spiritual journey.
We renounce the intolerance of religious fundamentalism in all its forms. Free Christians need only to live according to Gospel Order and hold up Chr…

What Happens in a Quaker Meeting? Part 1: Worship

Continued in Part 2: Ministry

"What happens in a Quaker meeting?"
I was at a party a few weeks back, with most of my closest friends in the world. In the middle of the laughter and bad puns and off-key theme songs from 70's TV shows, Jonathan asked me that question.
"Nothing!" broke in my friend Laura, grinning at us across the room. And there was a wave of friendly laughter.

"Not nothing!" I countered. "Definitely not nothing." And I paused to collect myself, and then launched myself into an answer that was more serious than the setting really allowed, but less thorough than the question really demands.

So, for Jonathan and for the world, here's my real answer. This is not what I said amid the popcorn and the porter; it is what I would have said if we had all the time in the world, to anyone who really, really, wanted to know.

When I arrive at the meeting house, I stamp the snow off my feet, hang up my coat, and fetch my name tag from the r…

What Do You Mean, Quaker Pagan?

"What do you mean, Quaker Pagan? You can't possibly be both!"

Every now and then, we do get a comment on the blog that, if politely worded, does drive at basically that point. Usually the critic is a Quaker and a Christian, though I have certainly heard similar points raised by Pagans.

Let me state a few things up front. Peter and I both do consider ourselves Pagan. Neither of us considers ourselves to be Christian--I never was one, and Peter hasn't been for decades. And we do consider ourselves to be Quakers... as does our monthly meeting, which extended us membership after the normal clearness process.

We consider ourselves Quaker Pagans. (Why not Pagan Quakers? Pure aesthetics; we think the word order sounds better with Q before P.)

Here's the argument for why Peter and I can't possibly be both:
1. Paganism is a non-Christian religion.
2. Quakers are a Christian denomination.
3. ERGO...

Yes. We've considered that argument, oddly enough. It (an…