November 27, 2005

Spiritual refugees and spiritual safety

I spent some time on First Day reflecting on the concept of being a spiritual refugee. Such a concept was alluded to during Meeting for Worship today, and I realized that in order for one to seek refuge--to be a refugee--one must feel unsafe in existing circumstances and therefore take action to protect oneself, often by fleeing, by heading "anywhere but here."

Those of us who come to Friends are occasionally referred to as spiritual refugees, not religious ones. So what's the difference?

My guess is that there is a difference of degree and of level of systemization. My understanding is that a religious refugee has experienced a great deal of persecution, oppression, and trauma from a religious institution that likely can be identified as intentionally having inflicted harm--physically, emotionally, or psychologically--under the guise of religion.

But what has a spiritual refugee experienced? Perhaps the spiritual refugee has also experienced a degree of suffering or dissatisfaction, but not as severe and not as systemically institutionalized as what is caused by the abuse of religious power in the case of religious persecution.

In my case, the synagogue of my childhood did not intentionally harm me. Nevertheless, as a young adult I was disillusioned by the lack of integrity between prayer and deed, and by the distance between their God Up There and my God Down Here.

The religion and practices of my youth never really spoke to me. My Judaism was hollow; my Quakerism is alive and vibrant. It is not so much that I fled Judaism as much as it was that I sought a different, more integrated experience between the faith and the worshiper.

Another facet of this topic relates to a similar difference between religion and spirituality. Religion is institutionalized, systematized, and impacts a body of worshipers; spirituality is kept more to the individual level and the personal I-Thou relationship. A religious refugee comes out of a systemic experience; a spiritual refugee comes out of a personal one.

Part of what Quakerism offers me, I have found, is a sort of spiritual safety that addresses my personal spiritual concerns. I am talking about something else beyond the initial "I feel as though I am Home" experience. There is something that exists and is experienced after we have come through the doors of our Meetinghouses and have decided to stay awhile.

For me, the open worship of unprogrammed meeting creates a safe space that allows me to connect with the Divine without being told how I might make that inward journey. It is up to me, and at last, I have the space to participate in that journey on my own. It is up to me, and between me and my God, for me to discover what I believe, what I will stand for, and how I will live in integrity.

It is as though the silence commands it.

Having said that, given my experience that the silence is where God lives and can be heard, why wouldn't I want to protect that worshipful space?

Here's another element of how a sense of spiritual safety is created for me during meeting for worship: I find that there is a "leveling" that occurs within the silence of open worship. The silence makes us equal to one another, and equal to God who also sits amongst us.

When I have risen to offer vocal ministry, all I have feared is whether or not I was being faithful to the message I had been given, not how I might be judged or challenged after I sit back down. Somehow the silence embraces me and cradles me, like a loving parent who knows that her or his child has done well, even if nothing comes of it.

Again I ask: Why wouldn't I want to protect that worshipful space, where I feel such unconditional love?

Well, sometimes we are slow to act. We may not know that our spiritual safety has been threatened or encroached upon. I don't think American society understands what spiritual safety is. If that is so, then how can we care for something that we don't have awareness of yet?

On top of that, take that lack of corporate clarity about what creates and maintains a sense of spiritual safety and add to it a practice of "love one another first, confront one another later," and our meetings become ripe for intentional or unintentional spiritual disruption.

A few years ago, when a visitor stood in the middle of one Meeting for Worship and began to pass out flyers about an activity he was wanting us to know about, I expected the spiritual safety of the worship to be protected. It took a while--a few Friends stumbled with how to address this man's insistence on sharing the papers he had brought--but in the end, I felt the meeting responded well.

The spiritual safety of our meetings is precious, and I worry that we spend too little time affirming it and being intentional in how to safeguard it.

To be clear, I personally don't want our meetings to become nothing more than sanctuaries for spiritual refugees. I want the walls of our spiritual river banks to be free of holes and outlets so that we can sink into deep waters... and trust that we are still spiritually safe with one another.


P.S. For more specific examples of real-life creative, spontaneous solutions to spiritual disruptions in Quaker meetings, there is this pamphlet that focuses on just that: example, solutions, and healing.


Tony B said...


Your post speaks my mind. When you said "For me, the open worship of unprogrammed meeting creates a safe space that allows me to connect with the Divine without being told how I might make that inward journey. It is up to me, and at last, I have the space to participate in that journey on my own. It is up to me, and between me and my God, for me to discover what I believe, what I will stand for, and how I will live in integrity.", that really hit home.

In a way, it's always been up to me. and between me and God. At the same time, at least on a basic level, we are being told how to connect with the Divine. Quaker silent worship stemmed from the instruction in psalms of "Be still and know that I am God". There may be a number of other biblical instructions, however, that doesn't diminish the basic tenents of your statement.

I most ways that matter, how we worship is left to us. That's what attracted me here too. I do like reading what you write and am glad you have apparently choosen to keep on writing after a previous blog where you questioned that path. You writing is a gift, I thank you for it.

Started a blob myself at I hope you will have an opportunity to check it out.



Liz Opp said...

Tony, thanks for your comment and your support. I'm humbled by the number of readers I have heard from who write to tell me that The Good Raised Up has helped them, touched them, given them food for thought.

I would say that the way for me is still not clear, but instead of facing a blinking red light in the intersection-- that "crossroads" I mentioned in the previous post--I now see a blinking yellow light. I need to go slowly and test out a possible avenue for maintaining this blog while also putting time and energy into the new writing I wish to pursue.

Thanks, too, for the referral to your own blog. I'll take a look!


Nancy A said...


Richard gave me this link to an article written by a Jewish scholar talking about the difference between Christian and Jewish attitudes toward evil. It was very interesting and helpful for understanding why the Israelis behave the way they do. It is also an interesting article because up until the last three paragraphs, it seems to be "siding" with the Christian way.

You might find it interesting:

James Riemermann said...

Nancy, I'm sorry to be so abrupt, but are you entirely serious with this comparison? The faith that engineered the Crusades and the Inquisition is going to boast about its tradition of forgiveness and wag a finger at the faith that suffered centuries of slaughter and pogroms, crowned by the Holocaust, while living in Christendom?

The Israeli government has made many heartless and egregious errors with the Palestinian people, but they don't hold a candle to the historical brutalities of Christianity.

I don't mean to denigrate forgiveness--I mostly disagree with Soloveichik, as would huge numbers of peace-loving Jews. But the problem Wiesenthal poses in connection with the Holocaust he lived through is much more difficult and compelling than either Soloveichik's or your interpretation allows.

Liz Opp said...

Nancy, I have sat with your comment for some days now, and I have looked at the link a couple of different times. I do not see the connection between what I have expressed here and the hatred and mercylessness I read in the article you mention--with the exception of my reference to religious persecution and the more blatant examples of it in the article you mention. Perhaps you can share something of your own direct experience to help me understand your point...?

James, thanks for responding... Without your comment, I perhaps would not have thought to have responded at all.

To me, safeguarding spiritual safety among our Quaker meetings is a VERY different story from the deadly horrors of the Holocaust, the bitterness that remains among orthodox Jews, and the life-and-death tension among Israelis and Palestinians today.


Anonymous said...

Hello, Liz. Paul Kelly here. It has been a long time, both since Haverford and since a brief meeting at a Q event in Milwaukee (Peter Blood and Annie Patterson concert?). Late night meandering about the web has brought me here.

Just wanted to say it is lovely to see you in the thoughts and conversation here.

Denny and I moved with our girls from Chicago to Beverly, MA, six plus years ago. We've been worshipping at an Episcopal Church where it has been possible both to learn from another Christian tradition and to be part of a community that identifies its aim to support Christian discipleship. This second part was very important to Denny. It has always been more conservative and evangelical than either of us, but also thoughtful (in its way), joyful--and I love singing in the choir. The rector is a pacifist.

I was only just beginning to approximate truly being myself there, when the ECUSA General Assembly approved the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of NH, and the call for division arose in many corners of the Anglican communion, including our Christ Church. At a special parish forum afterward, the leaders of the vestry assured us all they were standing with orthodoxy. Well, things didn't feel so safe for this son of a lesbian at that point. But I gave my testimony.

It has been two years and a bit since then. We've come close to leaving, but have not. I've participated in discussions on homosexuality and the direction of the church sometimes, and sometimes stayed away. A number of like-minded members of the parish have left. At a party following the Easter vigil last spring, I overheard someone I know ( a very enthusiastic Christian) saying that, when he heard about the decision of General Convention, he knew it "had nothing to do with Christianity." Such in-group conversation happens (and I can recollect many similar in-group conversations among Qs, though taking other positions). But we have stayed and we've been invited to be part of forums, conversations and discernments. The rector, long a minority within the MA diocese, says he values the minority voice and believes God brings it forward for a reason. And many people have gone out of the way to say how glad they are we are still there, whether because they agree with us, love us, or dislike the pending trauma of division.

Beneath the issue of homosexuality, and very much in the forefront of talk about separation, is the question of biblical authority. Despite my fascination and love for scripture, I prefer to see its job as the same Fox claimed for himself, to bring people to their true teacher and leave them there. I am not pursuaded the various writers always got God's will just right--as in the commands to slay all living beings in various cities during the conquest of the Promised Land. I'll be working with the rector to fashion a study series on these bible/authority questions.

This journey has not been safe. Sometimes it has been enormously confusing. It certainly poses interesting and important questions about community self-definition and the boundaries of fellowship, as well as about sexuality and authority/orthodoxy. As I speak, or write for the newsletter, I always have an eye on how far I can go, what language I can use, without losing my audience. It also poses a challenge: if we do walk away, the debate swings only further toward us vs them rather than us talking to us. And Christ is not absent from Christ Church--if not always fully incarnated either!

Again, it is simply good to "see" you again.

Blessings indeed,
Paul K

Liz Opp said...

Well, hello there, Paul. It's worth remarking on how surprise visits to The Good Raised Up and greetings such as yours serve as a reminder that I never know how a nudge to write something might impact someone else. So my task is simply to remain faithful and trust that God will take care of the rest.

I'm grateful for the experience you lift up here. Wrestling within our spiritual homes and with our spiritual leaders, clergy, and peers hones us if nothing else, like a whet stone hones the edge of a blade.

Of course, to wrestle well and to be wrestled with well, we must lose track of who is the whetstone and who is the knife. So much the better...

In my own experience among Friends, some of the concerns you raise are concerns that are being threshed meeting by meeting and in some cases, Friend by Friend:

Scriptural authority
Listening for the Truth to be found in the minority voice
Boundary-setting around practice, belief, etc.

I also appreciate very much the distinction you make, that we must continue to shift away from the paradigm of us versus them and into that of us talking to us.

Thank you for being the ally you are. It sounds as if you and your family are being faithful to how you are called, especially within your faith community.

Thanks again for stopping by and for taking the time to leave such a wonderful comment. Nice to hear from you.