Over on Paul L's Showers of Blessings, there is a conversation about the well-known analogy of the elephant and a group of blind men describing it to one another. Within the comments, Friend Phil raises this beautiful question:
What I really fail to understand is, why can't we all love one another and worship together?Here he and I are, standing side by side, hands on the elephant.
I would say to my neighbor Phil: Quakerism and the search for Truth does allow us to love one another, and we can and do worship together.
AND, I would add, in Quakerism, and in the search for Truth, and in the experience of Truth, and in the hands-on-the-elephant analogy, talking about the elephant is different from getting to know the elephant; and how we each get to know the elephant is different for each of us.
For me, I want to come close to the Living Presence and listen for its loving direction--and that may not be what some Friends are seeking to do, or even are able to do, in Meeting for Worship, because of their religious beliefs.
Leaving or staying from a place of love
I can worship with my neighbor, yes, but I wish to open myself to an experience with a Presence that a different neighbor also shares; to open myself, in fact, to an experience that a good many "neighbors" have shared over the past 350 years.
And when I seek to worship with these other neighbors, with these other Friends, and when such worship brings me a new joy and a new path, I will hope that Friends like Friend Phil might say, "Oh, how wonderful that you have that experience with the elephant! Keep at it! I am so enjoying my own experience as well..."
Why would I not seek to continue to worship amidst a group that, for me, so frequently brings me closer to what I call God or the Holy Spirit? Who would deny me such joy?
And yes, I can still return to worship with Friend Phil. My leave-taking from a particular meeting community does not mean I condemn it or disown it--though I can understand that Friends may perceive that I do.
Just this First Day, yesterday, at the rise of meeting (at the monthly meeting), an older Friend who had noticed my absence over recent weeks approached me and said, "I hope you aren't thinking of leaving the meeting..."
I took a deep breath and replied, "The truth is, I probably will." (It hadn't occurred to me just then to say, "I am being led elsewhere, I believe.")
The Friend kindly added, "But I would like to think that the meeting has a broad enough diversity to embrace you and your beliefs."
Now: I know her intentions are in the right place. The words of this Friend mirrors the question that Friend Phil lifts up:
Why can't we all love one another and worship together?I took another deep breath: "I am the type of Friend who needs a narrower experience of Quakerism for me to grow as a Friend, not a broad diversity of belief. But I understand that this meeting brings you much joy in your experience as a Friend, as does the worship group for me."
I don't know to what extent this Friend understands my experience, yet the question remains for me to hold and discern:
If the Way is shut for me to experience a corporate faith in a particular meeting, how do I leave--or stay--and do so from a place of love?I can love many within meeting, and I can worship with many within meeting, but God calls me, today, to worship regularly in a community where corporately we listen for God.
Sometimes among Friends, we fall unawares into a shared spiritual individualism: We each practice our own spiritual discipline on First Day during worship and appreciate how we can come to meeting and worship together, despite our differences of belief and even practice.
In unprogrammed worship, some of us may engage in meditation that is borrowed from one discipline or another; others simply let the outer world slip away and enjoy the meetingroom's stillness; still others may pursue a form of therapeutic self-talk (this was a former practice of mine, for example).
I have to wonder if we create this shared hour of unprogrammed individual spiritual practice because the first nature of a Quaker community is to be open and welcoming to worshipers of all faiths: "Love is the first motion," to quote John Woolman completely out of context.
Moreover, because we in fact share the experience of unprogrammed worship over the course of weeks and years, many of us believe that unprogrammed worship is enough, that Meeting for Worship with our individual disciplines is the core of Quakerism, and we should love one another and therefore continue to worship together.
I do believe that, yes, for many Friends, this experience is the core of their Quakerism. I also am concerned that it has become taboo for Friends like me, who have another experience of Quakerism and of worship, to call into question where that apparent core of Quakerism comes from:
the corporate experience of listening for and seeking Truth together.But when a boundary is articulated as I have just done, that boundary is often interpreted as passing judgement: right--wrong; good--bad; Quaker--not Quaker.
I'm beginning to wonder if that boundary can be reframed as distinctive between liberal Friend--Conservative Friend. But even this distinction is overly simplistic.
Historical faith, contemporary faith
From my experience, I have come to question if Quakerism as an historical faith is a corporate faith; and Quakerism as a contemporary faith is, among liberal Friends, an individualistic one.
By historical, I do not mean that it is dead and exists only in the past. I mean that it has a rich tradition, cultivated over history, that exists today. Sometimes the historical Quaker faith exists in disconnected pieces today, like the Biblical authority of some evangelical Friends, and the power of continuing revelation of some Conservative and liberal Friends. Sometimes the historical and contemporary elements of Quakerism are integrated into a balanced whole, referencing the Bible while also identifying some new Light that has been revealed to them.
Furthermore, among some Friends, an historical Quakerism is being renewed, and the yearning of a Spirit-led, shared faith experience is reigniting individuals, small communities, and Quaker publishers.
Putting "corporate faith" into words
A corporate faith is hard to put into words, in part because we as Americans are inundated with individualism in our culture. Just look on the streets as you walk, bike, or drive, and see how many cars have a single passenger in them. Or count how many televisions are in the household of our non-Quaker brothers and sisters, or even how many computers there are in our own (one TV--without cable or satellite--but three computers in my own household, for example).
I know we're not in the Me Generation any longer, but we remain in the Me culture.
A corporate faith puts That Which Is Eternal ahead of me, myself, and I. A corporate faith goes beyond a shared weekly hour of unprogrammed worship. In Meeting for Worship for Business, we do not seek to know what each individual desires for an outcome and work towards consensus, but we seek to know how Spirit, the Light, a Higher Love is moving among us, and we work towards understanding the the sense of the meeting.
I am grateful for the Friend who in business session speaks up to remind us that we must practice the discipline of laying aside what it is that we each want for ourselves and listen for what it is that God wants for us corporately, as a body.
The nature of explaining a corporate faith, even to those of us who practice it, is very slippery. I often fall into language that betrays my own personal preference, rather than weigh my preference with God's guidance or test my preference against the practiced discernment of the group.
But I very much lean on the truth of my experience of the quality of worship when I am worshiping with Friends who believe there is a Living Presence among us, and we rest in that Presence and open ourselves to that Presence together, as a body, each First Day.
The damsel in distress
In writing this piece, I have come across this question:
Do we love only the worship experience, or do we also love the faith tradition that gives birth to the worship?The love that we have developed for spiritual individualism, for unprogrammed worship, for the apparent freedom to worship and believe as we wish, becomes the damsel in distress that we mistakenly believe we must protect, even at the expense of losing our kingdom.
Perhaps we don't need to protect the damsel. Perhaps we need to protect the kingdom in which she lives.
ADDITIONAL POSTS from The Good Raised Up that continue exploring the corporate nature of Quakerism include:
The Great Jigsaw Puzzle
Report about Iowa Conservative's 2006 Midyear Meeting
Understanding what God wants
More about individualism and the corporate nature of Quakerism
UPDATE: Seventh Month 2006. ANOTHER POST that speaks to the corporate ethic of Friends is from Marshall's Earthwitness Journal.
The first half of this particular post provides excellent descriptions of the corporate practice and nature of Quakerism. Also worthwhile in this post is an excerpt from Rufus Jones about an incident on the farm where Jones grew up.UPDATE: Fourth Month 2008. This is great: ANOTHER POST that continues the exploration about corporate worship, by Peter at Quaker Pagan Reflections.