Among Friends: Visiting the Quakers
My knowledge of Quakers has almost entirely been confined to the HBO series Six Feet Under. There, in the fifth season, a Quaker plot-line is introduced. In one episode, funeral director Nate Fisher attends a Quaker gathering with his fiancé. The silence of the meeting place is occasionally punctuated by a brief word or two from someone who, perhaps, feels led to speak. A relieved man tells of his cancer being in remission and shares how blessed he and his wife feel. An elderly woman identifies experiencing increasing dizziness and wonders whether someone might see her safely home. A friend – as Quakers call each other – gently touches her arm in response. Silence follows and Nate stands. Naming the stress associated with his own line of work, Nate expresses gratitude at being welcomed into a “place of peace”.
This tender scene triggered, in me, an interest in the Quakers. I recently found myself in the company of such persons and I wish to share something of that experience.
Quakers of Milwaukee are invited to weekly gather on the Anita and Jacob Koenen land preserve. Upon entering their meeting place, I took my seat some fifteen minutes prior to – what I thought would be – the formal beginning of their worship. As I sat down, a few people were singing a song which, I discovered later, was entitled “The Lone Wild Bird”. Silence followed their singing. Time passed without any discernible demarcation between when I had sat down and when the gathering was to begin. A little over an hour passed with no words exchanged. Someone, then, stood and said: “Friends I have a joy and a concern that I just can’t hold any longer”. This person then shared her joy and concern and sat down.
A voice followed: If someone felt so led, it communicated, he or she might now consider sharing some words. The voice – designated in advance – explained that those gathered would, in turn, celebrate or hold or accompany those with words to share. Six or seven persons, one after the other, stood and briefly shared something of their life. Words spoken tended to surround the recovering or declining health of either the speaker or a loved one. Appeal tended to be that those gathered would “hold” the concerned “in the light”. One person noted a positive development in her life and this elicited the silent waving of numerous hands; an alternative to the noise of clapping, perhaps. Another mentioned a happening which had recently brought her joy. When it seemed as if all voices had been given opportunity to be heard, the previously identified designated voice began to shake hands with those in proximity. All present then did the same. A period of announcements followed. Those present then stood and joined hands in a large circle. Person by person introduced him or herself and so ended that particular gathering.
I found the lyrics to “The Lone Wild Bird” upon returning to my living accommodations. Each of the first two stanzas end with the following words: “I rest in you / Great Spirit, come, rest in me too”. The desire of a person to have God rest in him or her has, historically, captured something of why an hour of silence can pass during Quaker worship. Elijah, at Mount Horeb, encounters God not within the wind, the quaking of the earth, or the fire, but rather within a “still small voice”. Quakers silence themselves, in what can be called expectant waiting, so as to possibly hear this voice.
A corollary can include the unadorned places in which Quakers tend to gather. The meeting place I attended was particularly void of anything which might draw a person from his or her posture of expectant waiting. In Catholic settings, rather differently, the lectern and altar serve as centers of interest insofar as each are contexts from which the presence of Christ is mediated. To Quakers, priority is given to the capacity of persons to experience and mediate the presence of God. Having, as Catholics do, a seat for a presiding minister, is something which also lies beyond Quaker tradition. God may speak through any particular person in attendance and, at the moment he does, the attention of Quakers turn to the one through whom God speaks.
An hour can pass in silence because, Quakers believe, not all words from God are intended to be shared. Some words are entirely for the individual reflection of the person to whom God has spoken. Still other words are not intended to be shared immediately.
Of words which were shared, however, none included reference to “God” or “Jesus Christ”. The phrase “hold in the light” was often repeated and I wondered whether this might be out of sensitivity to those who, perhaps, could not share in the language of holding someone “in prayer”. That Quakers have Christian roots is uncontroversial. What perhaps will surprise some, however, is that in the eighteenth century a Quaker such as John Woolman could write:
There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages has had different names; it is, however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep, and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.
For that reason, upon encountering the Aboriginals of North America, Woolman felt no need to convert them. Woolman represents a universalist shift which Quakers have since appropriated.
One estimate I read identified that, approximately, one-third of Quakers are Christian. There has emerged no incongruity in there being, for example, Quakers who self-identify as Jewish or as Buddhist or as, even, atheist. In The Year of Living Biblically, an author finds his heart opened to others through silent prayer (even though he does not believe in God) and so also, among Quakers, value is found in silence even if what is discovered therein is supposed to not necessarily have the divine as its source.
I had wanted, for some time, to sit among the Quakers. I entered their meeting place excited and had rather high expectations. These expectations were very much met. Some time age, when I had performed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I often experienced difficulty appropriating the posture of expectant waiting into my periods of prayer. Further, during each daily Examen, I would have difficulty associating God with the joys and sorrows that I had experienced in the day which was passing. Among the Quakers, it felt meaningful to know that a place existed where I could both expectantly wait, and review my recent past, but do so in the presence of others. I found touching those moments when others began to share their joys and sorrows and consider myself privileged to have had opportunity to sit among these friends.