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Peter on Silence and Intimacy

This past weekend, Mt. Toby Friends Meeting held a weekend-long retreat. About sixty Friends gathered at Woolman Hill, a Quaker retreat center that’s about half an hour to the north. Many of us stayed there Friday and Saturday nights; others commuted. The Friends attending included slightly more than half the regular attenders at our meeting.

One of the queries that was asked early on in the gathering was, “What do you most long for in your faith family?” Some of us felt more comfortable with the phrase “spiritual community,” but the question was valid for all of us. What I said I most craved—what I have been longing for my whole life, really—are spiritual intimacy and a sense of shared meaningful work.

I have had this at a couple of points in my life. At Oberlin I felt like organic gardening and left-wing Christianity could save the world, and in the Oberlin Farm Co-op I felt like we were beginning to do it. In my 30’s, in the Church of the Sacred Earth, I felt like we were inventing a new religion and finding new ways to connect with the Divine. Cat and I were newly in love, and as a couple we provided a “seed crystal” for a group house, and around that a coven, and around that a whole rich and vibrant Pagan community. It was exhausting and volatile and often painful, but at the same time full of meaning and hope and love.

The loss of Christianity in my 20’s was a wrenching experience that left me feeling shattered. Entering my 40’s as a Pagan, I did not lose my faith so much as I simply came to feel I had followed that path to its end. I had come out on a plateau, and from there I would need to find another path if I wanted to keep growing. Quakerism provided that further path, with new ways to touch and be touched by the Divine, and with people who were wiser than me and had much to teach me. But that heady, almost narcotic sense of community that I’d felt in the Farm Co-op and in Paganism was still lacking. It seemed like it would always be lacking—like seeking that level of community among Quakers was like looking for the sensuality of Bouguereau in the works of Grant Wood.

In another exercise this weekend, someone read a passage from First Corinthians, in which Paul compares the members of a church to the parts of a body.
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
1 Corinthians 12:14-20 NIV
We were then given sticky notes and asked to put our names on a big outline of a body to show which “body part” we felt like we are at Mt. Toby, and also which we wished we were. I surprised myself a little when I went straight for the solar plexus, placing myself at the gravitational center of the meeting. I haven’t always felt like I was that central there. Next, we broke up into groups of six or seven for worship sharing and worshipful discussion. And it was there, in those 45 minutes or so, that I—and I think a critical mass of Mt. Toby Friends—tapped into a level of spiritual intimacy that I hadn’t been sure Quakers were capable of. We talked of our visions for community, and the ways we have searched for community in our lives. We talked of what happens in worship, and how difficult it is to express in words what worshiping in silence means to us. And in so doing, we peeled back layers of ourselves to expose deeper and deeper truths.

Quakers worship in silence. In that silence, we often feel a deep sense of connection and intimacy with one another, but it’s difficult to carry that out into the fellowship room afterwards. One Friend last weekend spoke of how shocking it was, after being part of the meeting for ten years, to realize that no one knew she had been dealing with a serious illness that whole time. “I guess I assumed everyone could read my mind during worship,” she said. The experience of gathered worship is so profound that it’s not such a crazy assumption.

At the end of the weekend, going around in a closing circle for each of us to say what we had gotten out of it, I talked about getting to know and be known by the Friends in meeting, and I called for two things: “Let us never forget how precious this is. And let us never forget that we can do it.”

I think we can do this in the wider Quaker world as well. And I think it is vitally important that we do so.

I see Friends in the more Christ-centered branches of Quakerism using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice. It works for them—works so well, in fact, that if they were asked to give up the particularity of Christian myth, they would feel robbed of their voice, unable to speak about their religious experience at all.

That same Christian language is deeply alienating to many Friends, who often come to Quakerism as refugees from Christian churches of the kind Jesus was talking about when he said,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Matthew 23:13 NIV
Talking to one another across this kind of theological divide is hard. It is hard enough that many liberal Friends shy away from talking at all about what happens in worship, afraid of giving offense or of being offended, afraid of being shut down or told to shut up. We worship together in the deep intimacy of silence, but like the Friend with the serious illness, often we rely on mind-reading when really we need to be talking.

I know, from a lot of interaction with Christ-centered Friends over the ten years that I’ve been Quaker, that we liberal Quakers sometimes look like we have no spiritual center at all. Writers like Pink Dandelion talk about the silence in worship as a defense against admitting how little we have in common any more. Martin Kelly is even more articulate and impassioned:
Every week our Meetings for Worship bring together people of radically different beliefs and non-beliefs. Instead of worship, we have individual meditation in a group setting, where everyone is free to believe what they want to believe. This isn’t Friends’ style and it’s not satisfying to many of us. I know this statement may seem like sacrilege to many Friends who value tolerance above all. But I don’t think I’m the only one who would rather worship God than Silence, who longs for a deeper religious fellowship than that found in most contemporary Meetings.
He’s wrong. At least, if he’s talking about Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting, he’s wrong. But I’ve long since given up debating this issue in on-line forums or in writing, because ultimately all I can say is, Come worship with me. Feel the Spirit gather us and cover us in meeting, you and me both, and then maybe, if we both hold ourselves radically open and listen prayerfully to one another, we can begin to talk about our theological diversity.

At the same time, I’m not sure that he isn’t right about some liberal Friends. The fact that we lack a vocabulary to express what it is we experience when a theologically diverse body is worshiping together in a gathered meeting makes it really hard to know how much we really share of our experiences of worship.

We are blessed, at New England Yearly Meeting, with the opportunity to labor together over this very question. As part of both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, NEYM includes a wide spectrum from the very liberal to the evangelical. In past years, I used to describe us as “teetering on the brink of schism,” but this past year we seemed to push through to a place of greater unity. The phrase that came out of the 2011 Sessions was “listening in tongues,” and it describes the way liberals and evangelicals can try to hear into one another’s language, metaphors, and mythology, getting down to the root experience of worship that we all share.

The best way to help each other hear is to say more. At the Mt. Toby retreat, we explored new ways of sharing, just within our little monthly meeting community, the ways that we experience and conceptualize our worship. We begin with the people we know best, the community we worship with every week. We peel back layers amongst ourselves, finding the words to keep us low to the truth and share what we know experientially of God. And we will hold that truth as we interact with the wider Quaker world.
We are a circle
Within a circle
With no beginning
And never ending.


Anonymous said…
Your writing ability is quite impressive Peter. Even as someone who is not connected to your branch of religion, I was able to understand the entire article without difficulty. To be able to reach an individual who is on "the outside looking in" is not easy when discussing ANY subject matter. Never mind religion. Excellent job. John B.
Alyss said…
What a wonderful and heartfelt post, thank you.

I am also having a very wonderful, mysterious and mind blowing experience of community within my Quaker meeting. My Monthly Meeting is a part of the very evangelical Northwest Yearly Meeting, but we include quite a bit of theological diversity. I personally am not a Christian and am pagan, which I think is a bit extreme for our group, but I'm not so outside the bell curve as to be the leftist or hippiest among us.

The fact that the pastor uses Christian vocabulary, I think, really helps people talk about their experiences with god because it gives us a starting place. Even if being "born anew" or "realizing your spiritual gifts" seems like an odd fit, getting a new chance and seeing what good you are here to do are relatively universal thoughts among seekers.

The open and explicitly caring community that my Quaker meeting enjoys has given me a model for that kind of community in other aspects of my life - a gift I am eternally grateful for. It's hard work, but it's good work. I'm so glad you are feeling your hard work paying off :)
Hystery said…
I found this post very powerful, and I'm thankful to you for writing it. It is a real help to me as I consider how to participate in the process of healing and growth in which my own MfW is currently engaged.
Michael said…

I've been wanting to give you more than a quick response, but that will have to wait for the weekend.

This is excellent and speaks to my condition in my adopted meeting here in Florida... which is still trying to learn what a real Quaker meeting and real Quaker worship and process are about.

Michael said…

This post truly speaks to my condition, in particular that phrase, "listening in tongues."

You identify the foremost dilemma of modern Quakerism with great clarity.,which is, of course, the foremost dilemma of the whole pluralistic modern world.

We all share the same reality, yet each of us uses a distinctive private language--some religious, some non-religious--for describing to ourselves our truest faith and practice.

That is the essence of human consciousness, that the brain can borrow the verbal and mythic languages it learns to describe to itself how it perceives and understands what it experiences.

Yet sharing any of this with someone else, even one other, let alone a worship community or the public....

Perhaps the only ways to approach hearing each other is "listening in tongues."

CLF said…
Hi Peter,

Your post really expresses your heartfelt desire to connect with a spiritual community be it quaker or pagan... I agree that 'back in the good old days' I could find that the pagan spiritual communities I circled with seemed to have that 'mind blowing' experience and deep knowledge of one another that always made you feel like you had come home...

I am sure there are still vital and vibrant pagan communities out there, but my impression is they are far fewer in number than they used to be,orperhaps, they are rarer and more delicate than we thought... did we get older, crankier and more tired of each others crap? or did health status and distance and our seeming inability to really get along in person take that edge out of our gatherings and that intimacy out of our community?

I don't know the answer, and as I have said before, I am not a natural optimist...

But here's my reality for you from a deep pagan community... we have been circling with some folks for many many years... the circle changes, new folks come and old folks go... in contrasting the good old days to the present I realized that even though I had that strong spiritual bond or connection with people within the community and considered them my spiritual home - I find that I knew virtually nothing about their 'real life', including sometimes their mundane name, what they did for a living...nothing beyond the myth I had created in my own mind of who they were while in my spiritual is knowing a person more deeply than their spiritual persona a necessary part of truly being 'home' in an intimate spiritual community... or is KNOWING these things what killed my buzz over my spiritual home? More likely watching how they act when we were not in ritual space, when we were doing the harder work in the care and feeding of the community is what has totally 'harshed my mellow', so to speak...

Can the old dogs of my tattered spiritual community learn some new tricks? Or is the pagan community moving into a new state of being as the generations change over and we go from being those young vibrant kids with new ideas to the cranky old rocking chair contingent shaking their fists and saying 'In my day we didn't (fill in the blank)!

I believe we have stepped into (been shoved headlong into) the role of elders in our community (and I aint even 50 yet) and I despair a bit, certainly rolled up my sleeves and did some very hard work that left me in even more despair... but again, not a natural optimist...

This is leading into a more cynical post than I intended... but I appreciate the conversation on this subject...and your words touched something in me... not the cynical part : )

Love you friend and I hear your words


Oh and by the way your Captcha is really messing with me... 5 times it can't read what I am copying from it... I think I CAN read and type...
CLF said…
HA! my cynical part wants me to comment that maybe Pagans need to learn to exercise their silence a little more... and as I write that, it rings kinda true, and not in a cynical way... that Pagans sometimes (many times) ((MOST times)) can't shut up long enough to listen either to their own inner voice or, gods forbid, someone else's...

And in the words of captcha I leave you with this wisdom: Noversto lishcb
CLF said…
I'm sorry to post again, but this has struck something deeper in me... I stepped away from the computer to do 'other things' but the question came to me - Is the problem with our spiritual community that we expect too much from it? Do we ask too much of it?

In a healthy vital community I would say the answer is no, because what makes it vital and healthy is that all hearts and hands are focused more on the community needs than any individuals personal needs (though personal need is important).

In a sickly community the answer is yes, because you will always be left disappointed if you expect too much from it...

So the question becomes - stay and tend to the sick or move on...
Peter Bishop said…
Wow. For a post that is so solidly Quaker, I seem to have touched a spiritual nerve in a lot of Pagan readers.

Catherine, I agree that there seem to be fewer real Pagan communities out there. I think the internet may be part of that. It used to be that the only way to find one another at all was in person, so bookstores like the Abyss and small groups like New Moon served as community focal points because there simply was nowhere else for us to talk to each other.

Online communities work for some--I know Cat feels very nourished by hers--but I really need the FTF time. And in answer to some of your questions, Catherine, I think the two things community needs are (1) bonds of friendship between individuals and (2) focus on a common purpose or meaning.

Pagan and Quaker communities both struggle with the second of these, Quakers because our theological diversity makes it hard to talk with each other about what we're all doing together, and Pagans because of our emphasis on personal empowerment and our focus on immanent, polytheist deities rather than transcendent (and therefore more unified) Divinity.

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