February 25, 2009

What if Quaker worship came with instructions?

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?

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?
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?"

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.
--p. 16
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.

Not translate.

Just be with it.

In Spanish.

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.

We relax into the experience of worship in its complete, connected wholeness.

We fall into worship, just like that.
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.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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


Anonymous said...

Hi, Liz!

Actually, Quaker worship has historically come with instructions. The early Quaker leaders were lavish in providing new converts with written instructions on how to do it.

The instructions ranged from procedural advice for the group ("...Be careful in keeping your meetings at the time appointed, every one endeavouring to be the first at the meeting, that none give way to a careless spirit, as some have done...", etc., in a letter written by William Dewsbury in 1668) —

— to abstract discussions of how worship works ("The power of the Lord reacheth to the pure principle of life and light in the heart, in the seasons of his good pleasure. This being reached to and touched by the Lord, answers his touch, his visit, his call; and the mind being turned to it, sensible of it, and willing to let it into its nature and spirit, and to become one with it (suffering with it, and bearing its cross); the seed cometh to grow there, the light which was hid and overwhelmed under the earth (under the earthly wisdom, the earthly will, the earthly knowledge, the earthly desires, the earthly delights, &c.) cometh to be lighted up there..., etc., in an essay written by Isaac Penington in 1672) —

— to instructions on what each individual Friend should do in worship ("Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hush'd and gone; and then content comes. Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c., then ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation", etc., in the letter written by George Fox in 1652 which you linked to) —

— to instructions to the corporate group on how to settle ("...Friends, when you come together to wait upon God, come orderly in the fear of God: the first that enters into the place of your meeting, be not careless, nor wander up and down, either in body or mind, but innocently sit down in some place, and turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord; and here thou art strong...", etc., in a letter by Alexander Parker published in 1660) —

— to advice against particular bad corporate bad habits ("When you come to your meetings ... what do you do? Do you then gather together bodily only, and kindle a fire, compassing yourselves about with the sparks of your own kindling, and so please yourselves, and walk in the "Light of your own fire and the sparks which you have kindled"...? Isa. 1:11: Or rather...", etc., in a letter written by William Penn in 1677) —

— to advice against particular individual bad habits ("He that lets his mind be ungoverned out of meeting, cannot set it so right as it should be, when he comes into one; and such as get not forward in their spiritual journey when in meeting, it's certain they will go backwards, when out of them", in an essay written by John Bellers in 1703).

There were also instructions on ministry and other matters.

Yes, these instructions forced the experience to look, feel, and be a certain way. That was their purpose. They forced people to connect with the Paraklete, the Intimate Counselor that Christ promised his followers, and thereby to be changed by it for the better.

Early Friends were quite clear that Quakerism is taught as well as caught. Anyone who is in doubt about this fact should take note of George Fox's massive body of pastoral letters, in which he taught it.

All the best,

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for these additional quotes and resources, Marshall.

Unfortunately, I suspect that the people who seek "instructions" for engaging in worship are wanting more specifics--Is it okay to have a mantra? Do I have to close my eyes, and if so, how does it help? Is there something special I have to do to feel connected to a Divine Thing?

For those of us who have a holistic experience and corporate understanding of worship, it's a challenge for us to articulate just how we "get there."

For me, as I have written elsewhere, there is the school of instruction and formal (or informal) structured lessons, where one is taught; and there is the school of immersion and informal, regular, natural exposure to what we are to learn, where an innate understanding is caught.

I don't differ with you, that early Friends intended to give "instruction" to and otherwise teach newcomers to the faith just how to go about it.

But in today's consumer-driven, instant-gratification-is-bliss America, I worry that many newcomers to today's Quakerism--not all newcomers, though--want step-by-step answers, not processes that rely on experience and time.

Of course, the more we "answer that of God" in these visitors, the more the Spirit will speak directly to their condition, helping them along in their seeking and finding.


Anonymous said...

My belated thanks for your response, Liz!