I’ve always been fascinated by denominations, because it’s so very human that where two or more people are gathered in a deity’s name there is a difference of opinion on the name, the deity, the form of recognition, and who was supposed to bring the coffee.
Also, in my lifetime, I’ve bounced through quite a few denominations. This past week I was visiting Hopeful and we went to a Sunday meeting of the Society of Friends, more familiarly known as the Quakers. Quakers, originally known as Children of Light when founder George Fox started preaching in the 17th century, are on the fringes of Christianity and are noted for an intense love of equality. They came in a backlash against the Puritan idea that the Bible was the end of the conversation with God, and Fox insisted that God was actually still speaking to people all the time—women included. There have since been some breaks within Quakerism so that there are denominations within denominations—not uncommon in all religions. They have no preacher system, are devoted to pacifism, and have a Christology that makes me a little uncertain whether they’re courting heresy, but hey, on we went.
Hopeful and I arrived a little early to the meeting and chatted with some of the recurring attenders. We were meeting at a community center in the heart of a city. The room was an L-shape, with the shorter side serving as an area of couches and a small library. The main length was taken up by two concentric circles of orange vinyl chairs arranged around a small wooden crate. Hopeful and I took our seats off to one side in the outer ring and watched as someone placed a cloth over the crate—it was cream with blue embroidered vines curling over one corner opposite several Chinese kanji and the date 1967. I remember it vividly because it looked like the sort of thing someone had gotten on a trip to the East and had kept all these years, remembering what was essentially a tea towel as something to cover a plain box at a pinch. A microphone was set on top in the center, completing one of the strangest altars I’ve seen.
Here’s the thing about Quaker meetings, at least as Hopeful explained them to me—since there’s no preacher, there’s no message. There’s no service order, no assigned Scripture; sometimes, apparently, there is a theme read at the beginning, but it’s just a place where people stand up when they feel that the Spirit has something that needs to be said. They say it. They sit down. Repeat as necessary.
So I was trying to roll with it. Usually there’s a clerk of some sort that says the meeting has started, but no one did—at least not vocally. I checked my watch eventually to realize the service must have been underway for some five minutes as people silently filtered in to sit. About fifteen minutes in, by some unseen telepathic signal, the handful of kids who had been quietly clambering over their parents left for other parts of the building, punctuating the rest of the meeting with shrieks muffled by concrete and plaster.
It was an hour, Reader, of total group silence. No one spoke. No one really even looked at each other. I don’t know if the Spirit was on vacation that day or what, but it was one of the weirdest hours because there was this sense of isolation within community and, for my part, sheer uncertainty about what was supposed to happen. I felt like I was in the unscripted version of Waiting for Godot, because there were zero clues about what I was supposed to be doing other than not making noise.
Not a very sacred space, for me. Not that I don’t love silence, but to be silent in a ring of some 25 strangers while the cars of the city rush past outside the windows is a strange experience indeed. About halfway through I realized I was going to have to stop watching the others and start feeling this out for myself, so I obediently closed my eyes and drew in.
It was strange, Reader, how hyper aware you are of others in silence. The woman next to me was obviously struggling with something, weeping silent shrugs two seats over. The growing pastoral part of me longed to ditch the silence and speak with her, ask her what was wrong, seek ways to show her she was not in fact alone with whatever was breaking her so. I felt bound by the silence, constrained by it, tied to the rules I didn’t know that were keeping me from loving my sister who was in so much pain. But I respected that she might not see it that way, so I kept my silence and my distance and decided that if I couldn’t talk to her, I’d talk to God about her.
That was the sacred space. It was like dipping into a current, almost, to begin praying and actually feel the amount of prayer in that room. I got a little flattened by it, like when you’re in the ocean and you find the riptide underneath that pulls at your feet. It was incredibly powerful, and I slid into that unspoken chorus with some ten or fifteen minutes of prayer for this woman whose name I don’t know, whose life I won’t see, whose problems are never going to be clear. It was prayer in the knowledge that Someone does know all of that, and I could but direct His attention.
The last fifteen minutes were torture, as I needed to write, to discuss, to do something with stepping out of this current back into the strangely not-communal community of silent strangers. Eventually someone shook someone else’s hand and the meeting was over as we introduced ourselves, our voices strange in the sudden life of the place as the kids tumbled back in and announcements were read and it felt like the church families I’m used to.
I can’t say that that experience was worship for me, but it was understanding a different piece of the Presence—and of myself within it. So for that, I’m glad we went. Thus was my first experience with Quakers.