This past First Day, the monthly meeting held an adult education session that was based on earlier work undertaken by a committee. It was a time for us to share with one another ways in which we prepare ourselves for worship.
To help frame the session, a Friend read a few queries that had been printed in the meeting's newsletter:
How do I prepare for Meeting for Worship?At some point, the conversation shifted when a relatively new attender said, "I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to be doing during worship. Is there something I'm supposed to be doing in order to help me feel that connection that some of you talk about?"
How can I come to MfW better able to worship?
What is the difference between coming to worship on time and coming prepared?
What makes MfW a shared experience rather than a collection of individual meditations?
How can we shorten the time of “settling in” at the start of a Meeting for Worship?
Have you ever considered coming early to MfW and beginning to worship ten minutes before the official start in order to help anchor the silence?
Soon after that remark, another Friend said, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, "Well, I grew up Quaker, and no one ever told me what to do. Wouldn't it be amazing if worship came with instructions?"
The danger of having technical instructions
I have to say, at that point, my own fear and worry came up: I worry that having "instructions" amounts to a depending on a formula that then can become rote; that the instructions might force the experience to look, feel, and be a certain way.
From there, I worry that those same instructions would ultimately disconnect us from the thing we are wanting to accomplish: a shared experience of being covered by the Living Presence.
For me, the life, depth, and vibrancy of Quaker worship is about the experience of discovering waiting worship for ourselves, the experience of letting the Spirit work in us directly simply by being present to it.
The hope of having spiritual instruction
Still, at the thought of "instructions," my own mind jumped to George Fox's Epistle X, though the counsel there refers more specifically what to do when one finds oneself in "trouble." It doesn't necessarily speak to how to engage in corporate worship.
I was thankful, then, for the Friend who briefly mentioned Bill Taber's Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, a pamphlet I read long ago and sadly had pushed aside to make room for other Quaker books and pamphlets.
It was about time I pull that out again, and I'm glad I did.
For one thing, on pages 14-16, Bill Taber enumerates a handful of specific ways that "some people, many people, other people" engage in traditional Quaker worship.
He doesn't say that this is a perfect recipe for how to do worship. In fact, he cautions against interpreting it as such:
All of these suggestions make it sound as if we are doing something, as if it all depends on us. While a few of these techniques may be helpful to some people, especially in their early years of attending Quaker meetings, most people eventually come to realize that as we learn to relax our anxiety to do the right thing, and as we learn what it feels like just to be present, then technique becomes far less important than our desire to be fully present. For some experienced Friends... they simply sit down, allow body and mind to be both relaxed and alert, close or relax their eyes; and they are soon there because they have been there so many times already, and because their desire to be there again is so great.My revisiting this pamphlet sparks a memory: Is Bill Taber the Friend who spoke and/or wrote about how Quakerism is caught and not taught?
It seems that such a concept comes to bear on the thought of "instruction."
A matter of spiritual translation
Revisiting portions of this pamphlet and working on this post reminded me of a very different conversation I had had with another Friend.
She and I were talking recently about how, when I was studying Spanish--probably in high school--the teacher at some point encouraged the class of advanced Spanish students to stop translating in our heads from Spanish to English (and vice versa). Instead, we were to listen to the Spanish entirely.
Just be with it.
Some part of me knew what the teacher meant by that. I challenged myself to stop pulling apart the Spanish sentences I was hearing, stop thinking word-by-word of what each corresponding word was in English, and stop re-assembling the English word-by-word back into Spanish.
When I was able to let myself accept the Spanish as it came to me, without "figuring it out," I was able to leave behind the anxiety of vocabulary memorization and patterned verb conjugation. I was able to relax into the experience of understanding Spanish in its complete, connected wholeness.
I think it was a similar shift in my participation in worship during my early years among Friends:
At some point, as new Quakers engaging in corporate waiting worship, we come to a point where we stop trying to connect, we stop trying to worship, and we just are.To paraphrase Bill Taber, we can take ourselves "there" because we have been "there" so many times before: "There" with the body in worship. "There" with the Living Presence. "There" in holy communion, with the Spirit, in the Living Stream.
We relax into the experience of worship in its complete, connected wholeness.
We fall into worship, just like that.
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RESOURCES that offer "instructions" on how to "do" Quakerism
Bill Taber's Four Doors to Meeting for Worship
Lloyd Lee Wilson's Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order
Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion
Rex Ambler's A Light to Live By
Michael Birkel's Silence and Witness
Howard Brinton's Guide to Quaker Practice
Tom Gates' Members One of Another
Tom Gates' Opening the Scriptures
Quaker Information Center's resources on worship