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Spiritual Authority

About a month ago, near the end of meeting for worship, I felt something rising up in me and nudging me for attention.

Sometimes a leading is a deep, powerful, physical thing.  When I was a teen, I used to go out sailing on a sailfish with a single piece of wood, a daggerboard, that was thrust through the heart of the little boat to act as its keel.  In a strong wind, you could hear and feel that keel moaning and keening with the work it had to do, keeping the boat headed where the rudder directed it.

Some leadings are like that--almost unmistakable piercings of the heart that power us forward.

Others are lighter, gentler, and more subtle.  At times I have thought of myself in worship as feeling like a cork, floating lightly and easily, able to respond to the lightest of touches, moving here or there at a mere breath.  At such times, I may feel drawn to talk to this person or that, not even perhaps knowing why, just that it's what's right to do.

Those leadings are delicate nudges, mere taps on the shoulder by Spirit. 

On this particular day, the nudge I was feeling was somewhere between those two extremes; closer to a tap than a piercing, but something that felt valid nonetheless.

One of our members, someone who might describe herself as a non-theist, had spoken that morning, on the sense of loss she feels since letting go of her belief in a personified deity.  Her message resonated in me.  Not only do I experience the power of Spirit in this Friend's vocal ministry on a regular basis, I feel that her concern for not labeling her experiences with words she is less than clear about is one that speaks to my own condition as I struggle to make sense of experiences framed in the language of two theologies.  And I believe her integrity and her radical willingness to allow Spirit to take whatever shape it will (including even the possibility of no shape at all) is not a reflection of confusion among liberal Friends, but of a deep trust in the Light to find us and lead us.

I've long felt troubled (and sometimes annoyed) at the way many Quakers feel that the theological diversity among modern liberal Quakers is not rightly led.  I feel like I have to dispute this because of the depth of worship I find among us, diverse as we may be, at least in the meeting I normally attend.

But I have heard from many sources the critique that modern liberal Quaker diversity is only possible only because of our silence--and that silence has become a form in its own right for us, and one that holds us safely back from hearing and being alienated by the extreme diversity of beliefs among us.  And while I don't think that is true, I do think that it is easy to forget that the silence in waiting worship does not mandate perpetual silence on matters of spirit among us.

I think Quakers need to talk to one another more.  And on that morning, I felt an urgency about having a conversation on that day, in the context of that particular gathering of Friends.

So I stood up when it was time for introductions and announcements and suggested a conversation outside for anyone who wanted to talk about what it was we were sensing together in the silence of our worship.  After rise of meeting, I took a few chairs with me outside in the sun beneath a favorite tree, and little by little, Friends who wanted to join me in the conversation came out.

As things turned out, it was a good conversation, and I was glad I had felt the nudge to suggest it.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment.  In at least one important way, it was a bad day for deep conversation.

Meeting for worship had run long that day--as it sometimes does--and it was the second Sunday of the month: meeting for business was looming fast.

I very much wanted to be in the business meeting, not only because I like following rules and being On Time in and of itself, but because my husband Peter is this year's recording clerk--and another friend is this year's clerk.  And most of all, because meeting for business is often rich and deep. 

So it was a somewhat hurried opportunity for us to connect with one another.  And what's more, none of us happened to have a watch. 

Just about the time I began to worry seriously about time, another friend came out to let us know that it was almost time for the business meeting to start, and to let us know she felt it was important for us to be there.

We wrapped up our conversation and went inside.   And were late.  Which is bad manners, and--much worse--disruptive to those attempting to center down in order to attend to business properly.  This was stressful... but it still did not feel that we had been wrong to spend the time as we had.

It is the custom at Mt. Toby for the clerk to begin our meetings, after a period of silent worship together, with a piece of reflective writing or a set of queries for us to sit with; a period of worship sharing generally follows, before we move into that month's agenda.

As it happened, the excerpt for that month's meeting for business was from Bill Taber's The Mind of Christ: On Meeting for Business, and the query that followed it was, "What do I value in Meeting for Business?  What challenges me?"

As I took my seat, the Friend who had let us know we were going to be late spoke out of the silence.

"The clerks in meeting for business have been given the task of holding the meeting, and it is important for us to be with them in their service.  As people straggle in late, it is sometimes a challenge to see ourselves as a corporately discerning body joined together in worship."

She was talking about me.  Not me alone... but, yeah.  My actions had been a problem for the clerks, and for the meeting as a whole.

In the context, it was difficult not to feel stung, or tumble into feelings of shame.  But I called my heart to heel, and centered down firmly.  What the Friend had said was true, after all.

Was it possible I needed to approach her after meeting to see if she needed to speak to me directly?  To see if I had offended her in a way I needed to make right?

Being stern with my heart, keeping it on a short tether, I decided that I could trust my Friend to let me know that directly; if she was offended with me and needed me to make something right, she would say so.

Did I have anything to say to her?

Yes, I decided.  I did want to thank her for calling us in to meeting for business when she did.  I was glad she'd done that.  I did not feel that our holding the conversation had been wrong... but I was glad someone had kept an eye out for the time and for us, even if the reminder of it was uncomfortable.

I centered down and gave my attention to the meeting for business.

At the end of the meeting, I sought my friend out.  I did thank her, and she spoke of how keenly she'd felt a sense of the clerks struggling with the way our meeting as a whole was straggling in that week.  While she recognized the value in what we were doing, her heart and her empathy were with the clerks, who are both new and both carrying a heavy weight on our behalf.  (She said it much better than that, by the way.)

And she was right.

Another Friend, who had been outside with me, said that she had felt stung by the words spoken in meeting for business--scolded.

And she was truthful.

Finally, I shared that I had been aware of the awkwardness of the timing, but that I'd felt a nudge that I had believed was rooted in Spirit.

I believed, in other words, that I had been faithful.

Each of us had just spoken truthfully and painfully to the others.

And each of us could see and acknowledge that we each had been attempting to live up to the Light we'd been given in our small, individual way. While we felt tender, and could easily have slipped into either self-righteousness, or anger, or shame, none of us did so.

Instead, we'd listened, not just to one another, but for "that of God" within one another.  And we'd heard each other. 

Sometimes a community is like a large and complicated family, and we are called to serve different parts of it in different ways.  And just as in an ordinary family, there are awkward bits.  Sometimes the family car is late getting home to give Meagan a ride to softball because Mom's still at the parent-teacher conference for John; sometimes Dad is late to Terry's concert because he had to bind up William's skinned knee.

Sometimes the awkward bits are avoidable.  Sometimes they aren't.  But what a loving spiritual community, seeking Unity in Spirit, can do for one another is to hold each others' bumps and bruises compassionately and proceed with trust in each other.

Trust and courage have to bridge the rough places.

Trust and courage of a particular kind; as recently as six months ago, I don't think I'd have had what I needed to listen and speak as plainly and non-defensively as I did.

What I needed to know is this: when you are busy doing the work that has been put in your hand by Spirit, you have all the authority you need.  You owe nobody apology, and you do not need to defend yourself or your actions; you can trust the work and the truth of what you are doing to justify themselves to those who care to know about it.

I am beginning to understand that when we do the work of Spirit--not the work we appoint ourselves to in the name of Spirit, but that which we have been asked to take up by the Light itself--we stand in a place of simplicity and strength.  We have all the authority we will ever need.

Which is pretty cool.

Afterward: And Another Thing About Spiritual Authority...


Martin Kelley said…
The long-awaited essay! I need to go off and make a pie, but I'll say I've also found that the most important spiritual conversations are the ones that are unscheduled--and that often happen at the "wrong" time. This is why we talk about being unprogrammed: we acknowledge that God's timing might contradict our careful plans and that we need to be flexible.

I've been a clerk in a Meeting where everyone was chronically late. It was frustrating and affected our spiritual discernment. But it sounds like your experience was very different and that you were responding to a clear prompt.
Anonymous said…
Thanks so much for this post, Cat! Couldn't have come at a better time for me. ;)
Hrafn said…
Thank you very much for this essay. I love in particular your observations on Silence.
Hystery said…
In this way, I know you are ahead of me and helping to show the way. If that had happened to me, not only would I have felt stung, I know that I would have stood up, spoken to my husband and children to follow me, and I would have left the meeting forever. Just. Like. That.

How much I would miss because of my temper and my pride.
paraic said…
The 2nd last paragraph of your post spoke to me with the clarity of a bell. My every hair stood on end and I physically quaked.
@ Martin: thanks for the kind words. It is difficult for me to give myself credit for being appropriately flexible, when I know my actions are causing trouble for anyone! I know that was one thing that made my life difficult (and probably the lives of those who were trying to help me) last year, when I was unable to sit for any length of time. I seem to have a temperament that wants to take charge, plan ahead, and take responsibility for outcomes--to "always do the math" as it were.

It's funny to think of making trouble as a form of spiritual discipline--though I suppose it would have been familiar to a lot of early Friends.

Anyway, I do hope to make up for my fault (to the degree there was a fault and it was mine) by arriving early for Meeting for Business the next few months, and holding the clerks and meeting in prayer. Something I find really rewarding, in any case...

@ Rosemary, and Hrafn: I am very happy to hear this.

@ Hystery: it would not have been very long ago that I might have felt exactly as you describe. It has been a long, gradual learning curve, that's for sure, and I'm glad for every inch I've traveled.

I keep thinking of the woman at our Yearly Meeting sessions who said that we can cause as much harm by taking offense as by giving it. I try to remember this--not that it isn't right to speak up and speak out at times, but I do need to watch my reflexes, you know what I mean?

@ Paraic: How often does anyone get to hear something like this, about a piece of writing or about a piece of vocal ministry, even?

Thank you so much for letting me know that this one really did speak to you. That's the best thing conceivable. *big warm smile*
Liz Opp said…
Sometimes I think that when we experientially understand what is meant by "spiritual authority"--as you describe here--then we gain a bit of spiritual maturity too: we grow, we bend, we forgive.

Other times I think we can only grow as God needs us to when others are faithful to their prompts and our own buttons get pushed: we grow, we bend, we forgive.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
Anonymous said…
Thanks Cat for allowing me (us) see the workings of spirit in/through you. I, in my own way have been in situations simular to what you describe. If I remember my version of Quaker theology "shut up and listen" it's amassing how many times things work out.

Again Thank you for takking the time an effort to write this esay.

Cat, the line in your story that jumped out as oh-so-true was, "Sometimes a community is like a large and complicated family, and we are called to serve different parts of it in different ways."

I often sense my meeting to be a spiritual clan, a family group, a gaggle of brothers, sisters, cousins and shirt-tail relatives, which like any family goes through lumps and bumps. Those things are given if any group of people have a life together. The true sign of our spiritual maturity, then, is how we handle those incidents with grace and humor.

I appreciated how thoughtful and sensitive you were to all the various needs of the individuals in your meeting and to the group as a whole. I learned much from your sharing. Thanks.
Anonymous said…
Hi Cat,

I am a Pagan who is feeling a very strong leading to becoming a Friend. It's not something I expected, but I cannot deny the "push" that I feel. This essay has helped calm some of my worries about being Pagan and a Quaker and how "correct" it is. When it comes down to it, it was my Gods who lead me to learning about Quakers, so how I can deny Them in my beliefs?

This paragraph in particular spoke to me and I think will repeat itself in the back of my mind when I feel overwhelmed by any naysayers:

What I needed to know is this: when you are busy doing the work that has been put in your hand by Spirit, you have all the authority you need. You owe nobody apology, and you do not need to defend yourself or your actions; you can trust the work and the truth of what you are doing to justify themselves to those who care to know about it.

So thanks for it!

Michael said…
Cat, you write:

Each of us had just spoken truthfully and painfully to the others.

And each of us could see and acknowledge that we each had been attempting to live up to the Light we'd been given in our small, individual way. While we felt tender, and could easily have slipped into either self-righteousness, or anger, or shame, none of us did so.

Instead, we'd listened, not just to one another, but for "that of God" within one another. And we'd heard each other.

To me this is the true heart of Quaker faith and practice.

Nothing else we do is more difficult...or more valuable.

Thank you,

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