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.
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