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What Happens in a Quaker Meeting? Part 2: Ministry

Continued from Part 1: Worship

As I wait in the Light, sometimes images rise. Perhaps it is because of the years I spent doing Pagan trance journey--or perhaps it is because of some quirk of my mind, or something inherent in Spirit itself, for after all, most spiritual writings are rich with imagery, but when I am deep in worship, pictures form in my inner eye more reliably than words.

Some images repeat themselves. I often find myself filled with the memory of the sea of Light from C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were all silent. They felt almost too well and strong to bear it; and presently they began to notice another result... [T]he light grew no less-if anything, it increased--but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before.
Light and water, of course, both have strong spiritual connotations within Christianity. But they do in Pagan mythologies as well, and at times I find myself contemplating a different source of water; often, I feel as though I am sitting before a fountain (sometimes it is a well) that flows over the root of a great tree, the World Tree, where sometimes I have spoken with a Lady who spins on a great flax wheel.

Sometimes, images of that Tree, of of a forest of trees, or of a hillside covered with woods, fill my mind.

But more often, images of water fill my mind. Sometimes it is the White River, that flowed behind my house in Vermont, roaring under a bridge in flood stage. Sometimes it is a small, silver stream.

Sometimes it is just the overwhelming sense of water, living water, and the wonderment of being able to drink our fill--and the different kind of wonder from realizing that this is always so, and yet we allow ourselves to suffer so much thirst in this life for lack of seeking it, this living water.

So I will be centered in worship, as open to the Light as I can be, and as little technique-ing onto it as I can manage. And then, sometimes, Spirit will pull me in deeper. And sometimes a message will rise. It might be within me; it might be from another member of the meeting.

Sometimes someone in meeting has a message, and they stand up and speak into the silence. And generally, even if the message seems to be more about their own life and their own ideas than not, if they have been centered down into that Light too, then they speak enough truth that their words will pull me deeper. Even the reflected Light is strong.

J--, a member of our meeting, has sometimes said that spoken ministry is, to him, more often a distraction than not. That, normally, it's what is happening in the silence that brings him closer to God. And J--is one of those weighty Friends who you can see almost at a glance are the real deal. When he is in meeting, we are deeper; when he speaks, even if the message is not for me or makes no immediate sense to me, he speaks from such a deep and grounded place that, again, we all, as a meeting, go deeper.

That's what the best messages do, of course.

But sometimes those messages are pretty clearly from the "meeting for good ideas" (as opposed to the meeting for worship) and that can be a little distracting. And there's a kind of balancing act that I do with those messages, where I sort of wobble between trying to hold the message and the speaker gently and tenderly in my heart, and remember how precious this person is to the meeting even if they do sometimes wander into their heads in worship, and I just love them and listen to them. And that's a good thing. But at other times I fall into the trap of sort of trying to technique them into giving "better" ministry, by not so much holding them in the Light as trying to somewhat willfully yank them into it in "prayer." And that's not so good--a waste of time at best, and a form of spiritual self-puffery in general.

But when I manage to stay centered, I can hold a from-the-head message in love inside myself in the same way I can hold the sometimes clamorous noises our kids make outside or a family might make if they arrive late for worship. 'Cause, you know, kids are loud, people do bustle, and it's really all part of the sound of a meeting that's humming along, filled with life. The sounds of the sheep in the pasture outside--Mt. Toby really does have sheep in a pasture just outside--help me to center, and on a good day, so do even the less-spiritually led messages in meeting.

It helps that our meeting is rarely "popcorn"--that is, we almost never have a meeting where it's one message after another, with barely enough time for one speaker to sit before another rises... let alone time for my spirit to center down into the Light between messages. I appreciate the discipline we show as a community, and I'm very grateful that I've been learning how to be a Quaker amid what seems to be a good moment in the cycles of our spiritual life as a meeting.

Sometimes a message rises for the meeting in me. That is scarey and wonderful... The scarey... well, that's mostly because I know myself. As any reader of this blog can attest, my verbal cup runneth over, the the risk of outrunning my Guide or speaking from enthusiasm rather than a true leading is, in me, very, very great. I know myself and my failings well, and this is one of them.

So, when I get an urge to rise and speak, I do try hard to practice discernment with some seriousness. Not only do I work hard to try to discern whether or not what I am sensing is a message (as opposed to one of Cat's Patented Brilliant Ideas (tm)) but also whether I am taking something that is meant for me to ponder in my heart, maybe for a long, quiet, private time, and imagining it is a message for the meeting because I just want it to be.

I do sometimes want to give a message to the meeting for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways that are much more about me and my needs than the Spirit. Sometimes, I find myself wanting to be thought well of. I want to impress, and I'm feeling impressive, and, well, that's not a good reason to rise with a message. So I then go to work to set that aside.

Then there are the times that I am feeling so joyfully caught up in the worship that I just want to jump up, like a puppy onto the legs of the guests, and share my sense of the wonderfulness of it all. That's dandy, but there's some real ego in thinking that I have a special mission to tell other Friends how good the worship is today. I mean, if Spirit wants me to rant and rave to the other bathers about how clear and cool the water is, that's one thing... but to assume that no one can figure that out for myself, or that words (much as I love them) are the best way of responding to those feelings of joy and gratitude in myself... well, that's pretty much crap, and I know it. But the temptation to jump up and gush is sometimes incredibly powerful.

And maybe sometimes that upwelling of enthusiasm is the message. I do have a passion--I so want for every single person who attends meeting for worship to drink deeply from that fountain of drinkable Light. I so want for us never, never to settle for anything less, because the direct encounter with Spirit is so magnificent that to settle for a pale, intellectual shadow of it strikes me as a terrible tragedy.

And it does happen. Sometimes, people get lost, and wind up in a meeting for Thinking Good Thoughts, or for liberal meditation, or...

And sometime that puppy-like joy at being in worship has been shaped into a message. But sometimes, I know that holding the joy in silence is my real ministry to my meeting.

There are a handful of members of my meeting whose silence is a richer ministry than any words.

Sometimes it seems to me that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about vocal ministry, and about what is or is not appropriate vocal ministry. As if ministry were the point, when, really, the point is the worship--the communion with God.

And the faithfulness. But when you've really been there, held close in that Spirit, faithfulness becomes simple: "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

I say this, and yet, I expect I will always struggle against my nature in some ways. I am, by nature, voluble. I am, by nature, impulsive.

All the members of my meeting should be grateful that I blog. An awful lot of what I blessedly do not speak in meeting winds up here.

But what happens when an image takes on words and I begin to feel the need to share it with my meeting?

As I say, I have a hard time, at times, sorting out my joy and a message that is meant to be spoken. So I wrestle with that a good long time, testing first to see if writing it isn't really a better response. Or perhaps I can share this nudging feeling during our after-worship meeting. (That's a great gift to me when I am struggling to know whether or not I am supposed to speak!)

I try not to watch the clock. Often, at this point, it's pretty far along in worship, and I know that the kids will enter soon from First Day School, and I wonder if the message is for them--if it is a message--and I get nervous about not speaking and having the meeting end without having spoken (which feels just terrible when, indeed, it was a message that I was supposed to share).

I try not to rough out the forming message in my head. I do love to string one word after another in a sequence, and I fear that, if I let myself, the sheer momentum of words might propel me to my feet.

I try to set all the wondering aside, and stay in the calm, bright center where the Something that knows can guide me.

Then, sometimes, I feel a restlessness taking hold of me. Sometimes it has felt like a bubble in my chest, expanding and filling me up and making me lighter, and pulling me to my feet.

Other times, it's less clear, that urge to rise. I find myself certain--yes! I need to stand and speak!--and then the sense of certainty fades, and I settle again, only to find the same restlessness building again. Sometimes it takes a few false starts, and then--surprise!--I'm up.

Oh. Well!

When I find myself on my feet, I try to remember the advice I have been given about speaking "without preamble or apology" and also that it is not my job to shape the narrative or craft it any any way. My only job, I remind myself, is to try to stay close to that original root. Oh, yes--and to try to remember to speak loudly and clearly for the benefit of the hard of hearing. Happily, either instinct or Spirit tends to take care of that, as I often find myself with pretty watery knees at that point.

Often I reach out my hand to touch the back of the bench to steady myself a bit. Then, too, it reminds me of an experience of worship I have had at times, of how Spirit flows like a powerful river around us at all times, and all we need to do, if we only knew it, to know that experientially, is to reach out one gentle hand... and touch the railing of the bridge over those waters, on which each present moment rests.

All the universe is quaking, and in worship, I feel it rising up through me from the soles of my feet and the tips of my fingers, touching that wooden bench.

My eyes are closed. I try not to compose my words, but to get out of their way. It's not like drawing down and speaking as a priestess from trance, though--it is me speaking, but I try to speak only what is pressing against me to be said.

If the words stop, I try to sit down right away. I try, too, not to link whatever is flowing with any associated images or thoughts or nifty associations that may have been linked to the message as it formed in me, during reverie (as opposed to worship)
I've failed at this, once or twice. I really don't care for how it feels, to have warped a message, in trying to shape it!

I've also had the experience at least once of delivering all that was given me to say, and sitting down, and having a sudden feeling of tension, almost frustration, rise in me as I realize, Wait! That wasn't all there was! Something got left out! without really knowing what it was that was missing... only to hear, moments later, another member of the meeting rise and speak the part of the message that, somehow, wasn't there in my words, but was meant.

I love giving vocal ministry. I love it for its own sake, and I suspect that love I have for it is something that could throw me badly off balance. I can feel the tug of things like wanting to possess the Spirit I sense in meeting, or to make speaking in meeting be a reflection of my specialness instead of about Spirit. These things tug at me like currents in a river I'm trying to ford.

But there are other worries that tug at me, too--things like the possibility of thinking of vocal ministry as the point of worship, rather than the other way around. And I worry about getting it wrong, blowing the discernment (I'm certainly far from perfect!) and failing to be faithful.

I even have a sense--and this comes from my experience leading Pagan worship--of the price of success: allow Spirit to flow through you freely, and you can become, for a shorter or a longer time, a pretty charismatic and attractive figure. And Pagans, at least, dearly love to shove those who show signs of charisma onto pedestals. Pedestals are not only tippy places to stand, and good targets for the disaffected, they also tend to raise your feet dangerously above the ground that nourishes you.

I've seen Quaker ministry that might just have been powerful enough to light the city of Philadelphia for a year; I don't envy those ministers who delivered it the task of staying faithful to that much Light!

Nonetheless, I love giving vocal ministry.

I love the intimacy of it.

I love the sheer joyful sensuousness of letting the Spirit roll. Virtue, vice, or simple creaturely reality, I love the sense of the direct touch of God that comes in vocal ministry.

(Personally, I'm hoping to get better at finding that touch, and staying centered in it, in the silent ministry, too--that of worship, deeply and fully held. From where I sit, that's where the Big Quaker Boys and Girls go play.)

To be continued.

Photo by Sam Minter.


Daniel Wilcox said…
Hi Cat,

Your spiritual exhuberance for worship comes through; reminds me of very deep times of worship I've been in.

Your cautionary suggestions about how to worship make me think to a wonderful article on Friends worship by Douglas Steere that I re-read ever so often.

My rule-of-thumb is not to share in worship until after I have resisted the impulse to do so for quite a while and until I feel like I will do wrong if I don't speak.
Though one time I waited to share until after meeting and several Friends said they thought I should have spoken it as vocal ministry because it reached them deeply. It was about a message that came to me how God's Spirit can fill the jagged holes of loss suffering in our lives; too often he can't reach us because we are such hardwood.

By the way, since you've read Lewis' Narnia tales,
have you read C.S. Lewis's fascinating mythic novel called
Till We Have Faces? (I used to be read a lot of Lewis.)

Or Out of the Silent Planet?

I'm not much for fantasy, tried to read Tolkien but couldn't get past about page 80 (my son thinks there must be something wrong with me;-),
but Till We Have Faces
grips a person.

Thanks for your insightful blog.

Anonymous said…
Till We Have Faces is one of the most striking books I have ever read. Having read other CS Lewis books, I thought I knew where he was going.

Thank you for these posts. I've just discovered this website - through Hecate's Blog, I think. I'm a semi-Buddhist with a few Quaker friends and have been to meeting. I look forward to reading more.
Hystery said…
Thank you for using that particular C.S. Lewis quote which has always been one of my favorites since I have felt *just that* so many times and bless C.S. Lewis for putting words to that reality. Since I began reading C.S. Lewis as a seven year old, his work has remained among my dearest, dearest favorites of spiritual literature. Since I was a little girl, I have kept a small statue of a male lion around me as a symbol of Aslan/Christ. Perhaps this is evidence that my Paganism, at its core, is not any different than the Christianity (at its core) of my childhood. Lewis wrote that a child who knows Aslan would also know Christ. It was Aslan who warned that we should not "dispute over noises." Perhaps that is true.

And thank you for your description of what happens to you during Meeting. In our Meeting, we so rarely have any messages that I find it a bit shocking when I visit other meetings and hear someone speak. It so startles me that have to work hard to resist the urge to gasp or shout out in fright when it happens. I don't know at all how to judge whether or not someone else's ministry comes from Spirit or from spirit/ego but when I feel called to speak it is when I "come over all funny" and begin to shake and sweat. A message, generally one that I wouldn't normally care about enough to voice in casual conversation, keeps racing round and round my head until I think I might pass out. So I say it out loud. Thank goodness this is a such rare thing!
Anonymous said…
Friend, you speak my mind; and to my condition!
...and for the readers of this blog who are not (yet) Friends: let me say that what our Friend Cat has descibed is true Quaker Truth...
Liz Opp said…
Thanks for sharing this experience so openly, Cat. Look for an email from me about another thought I had...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
Hi, Daniel, I hope you can give me the title of the article by Douglas Steere? I am still a relatively new Quaker, and there is so much I have yet to read! I don't think I've read anything by Steere other than excerpts in one book or another.

You know, you're the second person this week to recommend Till We Have Faces? Clearly I'm going to have to do some serious reading ASAP--I love the Narnia stories, but I have never read the two books you mention.

Michael C., thanks for stopping by. I hope you find something of interest here... if only in the intelligent comments so many people have left.

Hystery, some of what you have written about the feeling of speaking in worship has been important to me in the past. I'm such a New Englander, and I do hate to make a scene. But at times, my legs get wobbly, or I just weep in worship. (OK, middle-aged-lady hormones may play a role in the second, I will admit.) Again, this is something we just don't talk about much in my meeting, and it's good for me to know that I'm not the only one out there who sometimes is powerfully affected physically by worship or by a message. I'm not saying that the physical sensations mean it's more powerful or better--that trap is one I think some Pagans fall into in priestcraft, and I don't want to fall into the same one among Friends--we can't dictate forms to Spirit, I think without distorting what we're there to discover! But still, it happens, and it is the openness of those who have also felt that way that has helped me to become less embarrassed by it, and more matter of fact. I mean, it's not the point, for better or for worse, is it? It's just there--and I like being able to acknowledge that and go on and listen to the Spirit speaking instead of my self-consciousness! You are one who has helped me to do that.

Patrick, thanks--you are very kind.

And Liz, just knowing you're reading this feels great. I'll reply to the email separately, but I just wanted to say thank you here, for being my spiritual elder.

Blessings, all.
Daniel Wilcox said…
Hi Cat,

Steere's article is called "Friends and Worship."
It's at the FGC website:

If you love Narnia, I think you will find Out Of the Silent Planet
fascinating, though since it was written for adults it doesn't have the light charm of Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe. It's more serious but the central fantasical animal character is still with me in my mind all these many years later.

Till We Have Faces is Lewis' mythic retelling of a famous Greek story--takes you the reader into another realm and tumbles your mind. While I am remembering Lewis books, maybe I should mention Surprised by Joy, his autobiography. I love biographies, especially ones by authors where they reflect on their muse and their past.

Happy reading:-)

Anonymous said…
Reading your accounts of worship make me homesick for something I've barely experienced. The Meeting in my city is full of popcorn from the Meeting of Good Ideas, and while I can feel that there's much more going on than just that in the silence, I'm not sure that *anybody* there has the vocabulary to really talk about anything but from-the-head stuff. Or they're not talking about it because they're being so careful not to offend anyone with different beliefs? I wish I knew how to cut through that fog of liberal vagueness. But I'm just an occasional visitor there, and my experience is pretty far from their mainstream on account of my life in the Pagan world, so I haven't managed to open my mouth, or decide whether to take it on as a problem I want to deal with...
but then I read your stuff and I want to go to a meeting like *that*. :-S

Read anything good lately, on how to help liberal Quakers get out of their heads?
Hi, Rebecca,
I like the Taber pamphlet, "Four Doors to Meeting For Worship" (which you can get at the FGC Bookstore, ) and I suspect a small discussion and worship group that worked with that pamphlet might find some sastisfying things happening.

Small worship groups and "Friendly Eights"--small, coven sized groups--sometimes can be a way to get more spiritual nurture happening in a large meeting, especially if it's popcorn-style.

But I thought perhaps other, more experienced Friends than I would have something more insightful to add! So I've created a thread at the forum on the new QuakerQuaker site. My fingers are crossed--I'm hoping there will be some good discussion, though the forum feature is still pretty new, and hasn't yet started to get a lot of action.
There have been some good comments today on the forum thread! Rebecca, if you read this, you might want to stop in and check it out.
Anonymous said…
Cat, thanks so much for your ideas and for taking the time to pass the question on to others. I've got some good reading and thinking to do, now.
Anonymous said…
I teach -Till We Have Faces_ every few years, and I think it's Lewis' finest work. It's all the more poignant because of its associations with his wife, Joy Davidman, who offered chapter-by-chapter criticism/colaboration as Lewis wrote it. I have read it as Christian, Quaker, Pagan, and all-of-the-above, and each facet of my spiritual braid finds something in it to rejoice in.

Bright and dark blessings,

Anonymous said…

Thank you! Your thoughtful and honest sharing of what Quaker worship is, is beautiful and enlightening.

Some aspects of Quakerism sound reminiscent of Buddhist practices...

Anonymous said…
Sorry to come late to this conversation; I'm way behind on my blog reading. This piece was a treasure! Honestly, I really enjoyed it.

I think about vocal ministry a lot, too. I've long thought about writing a blog post about how I often frame my internal spiritual discussion with myself in the form of imagining I'm speaking in a meeting for worship.

I love how self-aware you are, where you come from, your weaknesses and temptations, and the clarity with which you describe the joy, too.

I'm a middle-aged man, and I often tear up or feel emotional in meetings. A Friend at our Quarterly meeting once remarked about how she saw the intensity of my spiritual experience in a business session because of the emotions on my face. I'm risking spiritual puffery to even repeat that, yet it was a nice reminder to me that a healthy spirituality balances mind, body, heart, and spirit.
Thanks for the additional comments! Pax, though I've never gone very far into Buddhist meditation, there are indeed similarities between the two as I've experienced them. There are differences, too, though, so it gets a bit tricky: the whole dimension of "corporate" (in modern language, communal) worship and discernment is not really a part of Buddhist practice, at least as I'm aware of it, and it's essential to Quaker meetings. I'm not sure there is a way to describe what is meant by a "gathered" meeting of Quakers (though you can be sure I will keep trying!) to someone who has not experienced it... but it is something important that is unique to Friends.

It's those almost-but-not-quite comparisons that probably have done the most to make me as introspective as I am about the experience of worship. The ecstatic experience of Pagan worship is, in some ways, quite similar to the waiting worship of Friends, and I do not believe that I would ever have learned to "hear" the silence--to sense the Spirit within a gathered meeting of Quakers--had I not spent so long working at Pagan techniques. At the same time, the occasions when I have tried to apply Pagan techniques to Quaker worship have so often turned out to be mistakes that I've become quite wary in applying them whole-cloth to my Quaker practice. I am always testing the instincts I developed as a Pagan to my worship among Friends, in order to avoid assuming that, because I have this nifty hammer in my hand, everything I meet in worship must be a nail. Sometimes, Pagan instincts have turned out to apply to Quaker situations seamlessly and well--but not always. So I feel like there's an extra layer of discernment that I need to bring to my worship, so as to avoid the risk of jarring the meeting off the rails for myself or anybody else. I'm not talking about theology--more like--the difference between grounding and centering, and centering down; between drawing down and vocal ministry. *sigh*

I don't even have language for some of this stuff! But I do feel the urge to keep trying for it, for whatever reason.

Maybe it's just because the joy and relief at confirmation (in words or otherwise) is so great. Chris, I'm really glad to hear you speak of your own vulnerability and tearing up at meeting! And I'm remembering at least one time when I was working distractingly hard at not tearing up, only to glance up and see that mine was actually the only dry eye in the room. Which did a fair amount to let me let go of some counterproductive self-consciousness!

(I'm also very, very gratified by what you said about what you said about my writing with clarity and self-awareness. But I'm not going to say more about that, because I'm mentally framing that remark and posting it over my desk to look at next time I'm feeling discouraged...)

Again, thanks to everyone who added their comments to this thread. I am grateful for the conversation on a subject I just can't get enough of!
Anonymous said…
This blog was really helpful. It gave me a hunger to know Him more and take much more time to "center down," as Quaker's call it =).

Cat, have you heard of Patricia King, Extreme Prophetic?

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