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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 rack where they are kept. Sometimes, Peter gets my name tag for me, at the same time he gets his own.

And all the while, my mood is getting happier, and I am feeling quieter and somehow shyer. At the same time, if I see a Friend I know well, we may hug quietly for a long time. I feel deeply glad to be with them again.

Or maybe there's nobody I'm on a "hugging" friendship with there when I walk in. That's OK, too... either way, there's a big bubble of both quiet and excitement growing in me every minute.

At last, I move toward the meeting room, through the lobby. At our meeting, the greeter is always someone from Care and Counsel. I think that's great, because, after all, these are the people you want the members to feel comfortable turning to with anything painful or difficult they need the help of meeting to deal with. And, once you have taken someone's hand enough times as you enter worship, you can feel a wonderful connection and openness to that person rising up in you at the sight of them standing by the door.

Of course, for a long time, I did not know these Friends by name. But I could always feel the love and tenderness flowing from the palm of their hands into mine when they would shake my hand at the door. Is it because of the years of practicing Witchcraft that I can feel in a way that is clearer than words the heart of a person through the touch of their hands? Or is it more to do with Quaker skinlessness? I don't know.

Sometimes the touch of palm to palm is as powerful a touch as I could bear, and sometimes it bubbles gracefully into more hugging. Either way, I am generally feeling an almost physical sensation of softening in my heart by this time, and the first deep wellings of joy.

As I enter the meeting room, if those who are already there are already centered down in worship, there is a feeling, as palpable as the softness of cotton wool that meets me at the threshold.

I try not to make an outward show of it, but I generally pause, at least for a heartbeat, and try to greet inwardly the Spirit that is there. There's a tangible Something that waits in the gathering meeting room; it's like the feeling of a hand resting on my shoulder or like the feeling at the end of a really good Pagan ritual--the warmth of candlelight and kinship and the nearness of the gods--but it's also different.

I understand that that Spirit is always present. I am not always open to it, but it is always there. Sometimes I wonder at myself, letting myself go so long thirsty when that Water is never gone; mostly I am just grateful that something about a gathered meeting for worship reminds me to rediscover it week after week after week.

Now I cross the meeting to my bench.

If it were up to me, I would sit where the full light of the sun could shine on me. I don't care if sometimes it is uncomfortably hot or that the glare is sometimes blinding--I like the light shining on my face! The Light is not only the sun, of course, and I know, intellectually, that it is as available to me on cloudy days or at midnight as it is on a brilliant winter morning. But I learned long ago, as a Wiccan, that our Younger Minds can be helped a good deal by symbols and associated images and physical experiences. And for me, well, the experience of the Light is in large part about light--brilliant, overwhelming, soul-flooding Light. To bask in the light of the sun is an outward experience that so suggests the inward reality that morning light alone can take me halfway into worship.

But Peter does not tolerate brilliant light very well, so we compromise. Whenever possible, we sit at the very back bench, facing the double doors into meeting.

This is another physical representation of the experience of worship for me. As a Wiccan, my worship took place in a circle, with the members of my coven seated all around me. And at my meeting, the benches are arranged in a big octagon--as close to a circle as a shape made by benches can efficiently create in a four-sided chamber. By sitting in back, I'm not declaring myself to be a "back-bencher" (Quakerese for a do-nothing Friend who contributes as little as possible) but rather, I am positioning myself where I can, in my imagination, stretch my hands wide and embrace the whole meeting within the circle of my arms. (This is particularly helpful when I am holding meeting--the term our meeting uses for the Friend whose turn it is, not just to signal the rise of meeting by shaking hands, but also to monitor and hold in prayer the meeting as a whole.)

Sometimes, as I sit down and begin to center down in worship, I will take Peter's hand.

Of all the many things I am grateful for in this lifetime, Peter's love is the most wonderful. So, when I take up Peter's hand, I am, in a sense, giving a physical thanksgiving for what I am most deeply grateful for in this world.

Gratitude is a very good gateway to worship.

But also, sometimes, I just crave the reassurance that there is someone with me I am close to, not just in a spiritual community way, but in a very everyday, mundane, take-out-the-trash and do-the-dishes kind of a way. Worship is a very intimate and skinless kind of experience for me. I like knowing that Peter, who saves me from crawling spiders in my tent when we go camping, and who brings me hot and sour soup when I am sick, is beside me and will care for me if I need care.

I like knowing, too, amid all this upwelling of intimacy and care, that there is one person who will never feel my taking his hand as an intrusion or a distraction. I will never be an unwelcome demand to this man, and that knowledge helps my armor to drop away just a bit more.

For, though I try to prevent it--with greater success as time passes--the armor of cynicism and feigned indifference and judgmentalism crusts onto me during the week. I need meeting for worship to strip it away--it gets harder and harder for God (or my fellow man) to reach me, if I go too long between meetings.

So. There I am, on the bench. I take a breath, perhaps square myself into a comfortable but centered position on the bench.

And I open.

Sometimes, no effort at all is required; I'm just there--in the Light. And it feels like being a little, little girl, holding up my arms and being swung into the air by my daddy, the tallest, best man in the world.

Sort of. That's not quite it.

Nor is it quite like it was to learn to float--again, with my father, who would hold his arms under me (warm and strong in the cold of the pool) and tell me to lean back... a little more... just lean back... trust... float... and his arms would slide away but I still knew they were right there to catch me if I needed them. And I could float.

But it's sort of like that.

Often there will be waves of that feeling before I start settling back into myself again.

When I do, I try to let my mind float, like a cork, in whatever direction it feels like all that Light is nudging me. Or, if I'm back to feeling the holes in my socks and being distracted by worries about the grading that is waiting for me back at my house after meeting, I just look around.

There are my Friends.

I let my attention be drawn to them, one by one. I am not usually systematic about this. It's a soft focus, attention-wandering sort of thing. But I find myself seeing each Friend in turn--really seeing them, sensing who they are, maybe remembering some story they told that caught my compassion or my attention, or some ministry they gave that moved me once. Sometimes I am just quietly grateful for the Light I can see so clearly shining from the faces of some of our older Friends. Sometimes I notice which benches are empty of their usual members, and my heart reaches out for them, like a hand.

There was an exercise we used to do, in Stepchild Coven and, before that, in COW up in Vermont, to strengthen our group wraith--our spiritual interconnectedness. We would all breathe deeply and rhythmically, and let ourselves deepen into a half-trance. Then we would speak the names of each member of the coven in turn, and as each name was spoken, each of us would try to touch the deep sense of that person within us. We'd try to hold the sense of them in our centers the way you'd hold a flower in your hand. And as each individual in the coven came to have a sense of the person who had been named that was as real as a touch on the arm, they too would speak that person's name. One by one, until all of us held each of us.

Watching members walk into meeting for worship is often like that to me. And when a person I have missed and reached out for walks into meeting, my heart leaps up in me, with such happiness to know that they are there.

There are Friends I don't suppose I have spoken more than a dozen words to over the years that I feel this way about. I am as happy and excited to see them as I was when I was a child and I woke up on Christmas morning to know the presents were downstairs waiting.

At times, tears start in my eyes about then. Again, I try not to have too much of an outward show... Peter scolds me if I forget to bring a handkerchief to meeting. My eyes leak easily. (That's just a side effect of being middle-aged, I think. But the tenderness behind them is real enough. I just wish it didn't drip!)

By the time the room is full, I may be continuing to feel the simple joy of the Light filling me up--in which case, I'm probably leaking into my hanky, and trying not to snuffle--or I'm on my way down again, into a more prosaic, thinking-thoughts kind of a space.

There are a lot of techniques Pagans use to alter consciousness. And I have very little doubt that having worked with those techniques over the course of years is what allowed me, when I became a Quaker, to "hear" the silence and to commune with the Light of Friends. Different techniques I learned and later taught are similar to Quaker waiting worship. But Quaker worship isn't the same (I think) as any Pagan technique--in fact, I try hard not to treat worship as a "technique" at all, though I use plenty of different tricks to get my mind to pause, center, and let go of its willful and hurried pursuit of my own goals and ends for at least a little while.

Scrying is like what I do when I worship, in the long holding of an openness (and sometimes of a specific question) in my mind. It's also similar in that, having learned to experience the divine in imagery as a Pagan, I often receive messages from God in Quaker meeting in the form of imagery--and sometimes physical sensation.

But scrying is a technique, and, after the first few weeks of worship, I began to try quite deliberately not to technique myself into worship. In magick, as a Pagan, I learned to sense the living substance of the Holy that permeates the universe, in the course of reaching out to shape it myself.

As a Quaker, I attempt to sense that substance without imposing my own forms or plans on it, and to wait and see what it holds for me on any given day.

And I wait--on the Light and in the Light. And sometimes images rise, and sometimes memories. And sometimes I am just thinking-thinking-thinking and I have to stop and push that aside and begin again. And again. And again.

And then, sometimes, Spirit will pull me in deeper. And sometimes a message will rise.

To be continued.


Anonymous said…
thank you!!
this is one of the best descriptios of Meeting that I have heard.
Thank you for taking the time to discribe it. I come from a Lutheran background (not peagan) so some of the details would be described differently by me-but they are the same.
Daniel Wilcox said…
Hello Cat,
I so identify with your last three paragraphs. They catch some of the Spirit and my own experience of Friends worship--wherein we are primarily receivers, not doers.

So much of traditional religion seems all about doing and doing.
I can't identify with your pagan experiences, but I do think there is a similarity with much of my past Christian worship in Protestant churches--so much of that worship is more doing, than worship. It's so much about prepared speeches, prepared singing, prepared responsive readings.

Spontaneity seldom, if ever happens. It's was actually even discouraged in one Friends Church
I attended.

The joy of Friends "open worship, expectant silence" is that I never know what may happen next, when God may by his Spirit astound me by another worshiper's vocal ministry...or when once and a while I burst forth (I rarely feel God calling me to speak).

Just reading your last three paragraphs made me wish I were going to worship meeting right now:-)

In the Light,
Daniel Wilcox
Anonymous said…
What a wonderful post, Cat. And I love the Inauguration post, too.

~Flaneuse in DC
Anonymous said…
DH and I are UU's (with Buddhist and Pagan leanings, respectively) but we've always been interested in knowing more about Quakers. Thank you so much for this lovely post.
Anonymous said…
Oh Cat....

You remind me of the year I had with the York Monthly Meeting. How I miss that experience! I have long felt the connections with Quaker and Witchen forms of spiritual practice; I love the way you are able to put it into words.

And how lucky you are to have a partner like Peter!

Bright and dark blessings and love,

Anonymous said…
Ministry, indeed! Your gift of equiping the RSOF never varies in its powerful effect...We all await more of your writing as the Way opens. Give my best to Peter and the Meeting...
Yours in Jesus,
Patrick Stanton
gonevt (at)
Liz Opp said…

I appreciate the care with which you have written this (first) piece. I especially appreciate the distinctions you make between Pagan/Wiccan and Quaker practices, and that you affirm your Quakerism in as much as you affirm your Paganism.

In the past I would have bristled, but it's so clear to me here that you are not intending to blur Quakerism with Pagan practice, or vice versa.

And, like you, I have the experience of feeling oh so full, just by opening myself to the Spirit and the Love that flows through those of us who are gathered--or absent.

Of course, the challenge is to keep ourselves open to God even after we step away from the meetingroom, so that the crustiness of the world doesn't mummify us during the week...

I pray thee and I shall have another opportunity to worship together soon.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
Wow--great comments.

One of the conversations I remember most vividly from the last few years at my meeting is one I heard after an after workshop discussion group we had on what happens for us in meeting for worship; one woman who had been attending meeting for many, many years, spoke of how good it had been for her to hear other people expressing what it is that is happening for them in the silence every week.

"I didn't think we were supposed to do that--to talk about it," she said.

I think there may often be a sense that we're not supposed to talk about something so personal. I'm not sure where the impression comes from--is it that we're afraid to sound like we're boasting if we speak honestly about communion with God? But why else would be attend Quaker meeting?

OK, I know nontheists might choose other vocabulary. And, obviously, my own concept of God might be a little more complex than three short letters can convey. But setting that aside... I do find I have a great hunger for spiritual stories. I share my own partly because I long to hear everyone else's!

Of course, if we put into words what we feel and experience in worship, we do run the risk of normalizing some experiences and not others... or of codifying what happens in worship. So a little bit of care is needed in talking about it. (Probably I should have titled this post "What Happens for me in Quaker Meeting" but the title already seemed awkwardly long.

And I'm being longwinded again. Short and sweet: it's wonderful to know that readers with a variety of backgrounds and theological perspectives can find something in what I have written that speaks to them of their experiences in Quaker worship. I do know that the heart of the experience can never be caught in words... but I still feel compelled to keep trying, for whatever reason.

Maybe it's just in order to anchor myself in that recurring magic, the experience of worship itself.

Liz, it's hard to imagine you "bristling"--it is certainly not something I've ever known you to do in written words, at least. I am not entirely sure what would have raised those hackles in the past--but if it is the need to make distinctions between Pagan and Quaker practices, it's a concern that I certainly share. I do think that there's room under the universalist tent of liberal Friends for Pagan Quakers like me... but I think we need to be particularly careful to discern the places where previous experience may lead us to distort the practices of Friends.

There is probably a corallary about the ways that my Pagan practices, which I take for granted in how I am oriented in my world view in much the same way a Quaker raised Catholic, for instance, is probably often oblivious to the ways that early Catholicism colors a Quaker vision. But this is not always a bad thing. Down the road, perhaps Spirit will lead me to find ways that my Pagan beginnings will nourish my Quaker flowering. What spiritual skills might I be called upon to bring with me into Quaker meeting?

I don't know. I do know that I want to find out through traditional Friends' discernment practices, rather than carrying on as though there were no distinctions to be seen.

Just tryin' to let Spirit lead me--as I think we all are.

Which is why it is so good to hear that there are things in my story that do speak to others... and to hear the stories of others in turn.

Bright blessings, all--thanks for stopping by.
Oh! Patrick--I've passed on your hello to Peter. (And thank you very, very much for the kind words.)
Hystery said…
Cat, I love that you mention a hunger for spiritual stories. I share this hunger. This hunger, in the end, is the thing that most defines me as Pagan. Tell me a thousand stories about what it means to meet the Divine. I can never get enough. With my history students I say that Truth lies behind a vast veil. In the past, some powerful men poked a tiny hole in the veil and said the vision from that one place was Reality. We all had to line up to see through that one little hole. How much nicer now that we are each encouraged, from our own space, to make a little opening to see what lies beyond. As more and more holes are made in the veil, high and low, and all down its length, the Light pours in toward us and we wonder how we could ever have been content with the puny light made by just one little hole.
HardyMum said…
Hi Cat,

I enjoyed reading this and would like to know what happens in a quaker meeting with children. Is there a separate meeting/class/activity for them during worship?

I can't imagine mine sitting quietly for long during a meeting!

Laurie (Jemma &Jing's mom)
Hey, Laurie,
What happens with kids varies from meeting to meeting, especially among Liberal Quakers (like me). I have heard that in some (many?) Conservative Quaker meetings kids simply attend meeting along with the adults. But in most of the meetings I know of, there is some provision for separate programming for kids. This is sometimes a challenge in small meetings especially, because Quakers tend to be a graying population, and there are sometimes not enough kids present for really vital programming! Of course, that can become a circular issue: lack of programming can mean families with young kids don't feel welcome, and so on.

It's a struggle to find a good balance--as it is among Pagans, in my experience.

At Mt. Toby, the typical meeting has kids meeting in First Day School, sometimes working on projects or learning about Quakers, and that kind of thing. There's childcare for the very littlest group. Then, at about 10 minutes before the scheduled rise of meeting, the kids come down to the meeting room and enter. They used to sit in a circle in the middle of the room, but lately they seek out their parents and sit with them.

It's often the case in Quaker meetings that the kids either begin or end the meeting with ten minutes or so in waiting worship with the adults. At Mt. Toby, we've elected to have the kids in at the end because that way, they are able to experience a really centered, hopefully even gathered, period of worship. The quality of the silence is just different after people have been in worship for a while.

We are experimenting with "Blue Moon Sundays"--having the kids in meeting with us on fifth Sundays of any month, for the whole of meeting for worship. On those days, we're trying to have a child or teen assist the adult greeter and the adult who closes meeting and gives the announcements. So far, I think that's gone very well; some of the kids do fidget a bit, and some families stay home for fear of that (as do some adults without kids, perhaps) but since, as they say, Quakerism is "caught not taught" it seems important to me to try.

But the most important answer is that individual Quaker meetings differ widely on this one, and what will work well in one meeting will not in another. So there's lots of adjusting and experimentation, and not all meetings manage youth programs successfully.

Happily, the larger Friends gatherings, like New England Yearly Meeting Sessions and the FGC annual conference (both analogous to a really LARGE Pagan gathering) seem to do a terrific job with youth programs.

It's an area I think we have a lot of room to grow, though--a lot to learn from each other.
Anne said…
Dear Cat, Thank you! I felt a rise in me all day this past Saturday (Oct 9) to prepare a children's gathering for Sunday Oct 10 focused on "Gratitude" but couldn't quite tell why, and couldn't quite find much Q literature on "Gratitude" . . . I read some Children's Spirituality literature I have around my house and found myself called to nurturing children's introspection and it kinda but not exactly resonated with the "gratitude" theme. Anyway, ended up with 1.5 children meeting with me. Learning though that it is the *feeling* of gratitude I was called to nurture, less the "intellectual" listing of what we are grateful for. Now I read what you wrote here, serendipitously coming across this via a random facebook post, and I think I get it. I tried to help the kids access the feeling of gratitude by inviting them to choose a plant, animal or mineral that they would like to be and why. Fell flat with one child who chose half way through to enter the larger meeting with his mother. And I am unclear if it was nurturing and helpful to the other child, who had never been to a Q meeting before.

Anyway, I thank you :) I feel I am getting closer to my leading, but still ever evolving.

Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,
I think it is wild that I had forgotten what we do at Blue Moon Sundays and decided to see maybe there was some discussion of this on the web somewhere - lol, and googled "mt. toby" and "blue moon" and came right back here.
Wow, there is something brewing in this nascent land of the digital collective.
Thank you!

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