I well remember the first time I attended Quaker meeting for worship. “So these are the Quakers,” I thought as I looked around the assembled company. Having seen High Noon and assorted other Westerns in which Quakers had walk-on roles as paragons, I naturally assumed that the folks warming these benches were “Really Good People.”
Fortunately, I soon discovered that while they were, indeed, really good people, they were good in a lower case sort of a way; good in a way that made goodness attainable. They were cheerfully and unapologetically all too humans, but with a deep belief in the innate Godness of humanity, despite all evidence to the contrary.
These Friends, strangers on that brisk October day nearly 18 years ago, are now my beloved spiritual community, fellow travelers who are sharing my journey as I share theirs. They bear with me, help me up when I stumble, gently reel me in when necessary and love me nevertheless. And I love them nevertheless. This is what it means to be the body of Christ, with its bunions and heartburn and occasional flights of ecstasy.
It took me a while to realize this. Like many spiritual seekers, I came to Quakerism looking for “the perfect place.” Early on I made the mistake of reading A Small-Town Boy, Rufus Jones’ memoir of his youth. In it Jones beautifully describes growing up in a staunchly Quaker household in a staunchly Quaker community daily “sprinkled with the dew of religion,” lovingly tended by his Aunt Peace (how perfect is that?), and with weighty Friends making portentous statements about his future, all of which came to fruition.
While I heartily recommend this book, I caution against using it as a model of what to expect in Quakerism of the 21st century. The reality is more complicated and more interesting. It speaks to our mutual and deep desire not only to become better people, living Godly lives, but to do no less than create the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. I have yet to encounter the Friend who considers this in the slightest bit preposterous. But to do it, we have to start with who we are and where we are, with the people we are with, in the time that we all share. It is a blessed and impossible task, and one to which I have joyfully devoted my life.
But how do we, flawed as we are, living in a time and a place that surely conspires against wholeness and holiness, go about creating a spiritual community where it is safe to stumble forward in obedience to the Voice that rises up from our souls’ depths? Where, in a culture that glorifies strength and individualism, can we completely disarm ourselves so that we can achieve the humility and radical openness that are necessary to entering into God’s presence?
To create this safe place, where the human heart can be opened, we need to nurture what Quaker writer Parker Palmer described as “a circle of trust”. In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, he wrote: “The relationships in such a group are not pushy but patient; they are not confrontational but compassionate;they are filled not with expectations and demands but with an abiding faith in the reality of the inner teacher and in each person’s capacity to learn from it . . . They combine unconditional love, or regard, with hopeful expectancy, creating a space that both safeguards and encourages the inner journey. In such a space, we are freed to hear our own truth, touch what brings us joy, become self-critical about our faults, and take risky steps toward change . . .”
This beautifully describes what my meeting, with guidance of the Holy Spirit, has become. Like most liberal unprogrammed meetings, we comprise a wide variety of spiritual paths, all the way from those who are rooted in the Christian message and the Bible, as I am, to those who are uncomfortable using any prescribed language to describe their encounter with the Divine. Yet, we consider it intrinsic to our belief in Quakerism and Quaker process that we hold a sacred space open for each person’s spiritual journey. We strive, to use another Friend’s expression, to “listen in tongues” to each other, and to humbly accept that, while we are each given a measure of Truth, not one of us has it all.
We are an old meeting, blessed with a good number of deeply-committed Friends, some of whom carry within them generations of Quaker DNA. But more than that, our circle of trust is the fruit of faithful listening and faithful living. We are far from perfect and people do on occasion get upset and leave the circle, but for those willing to go the distance and accept our common fallibility, it is truly pastures green. In Isaac Penington’s words, “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness, and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another — and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall.”
While there are many ways that my meeting supports my journey to faithfulness, the single most powerful example concerns my call to vocal ministry.
Standing up regularly in an unprogrammed meeting for worship to share what are supposedly God-given words, takes either terrific gall or the belief that one is truly being obedient to the Holy Spirit. For a long time I wasn’t sure which it was, but that didn’t stop me. The compulsion was so strong that, willy nilly, I would rise to my feet to deliver my message. I received quite a bit of positive feedback. At no point, however, did I entertain the idea that perhaps I had a particular call to vocal ministry, or that my ability to stand on my own hind legs and deliver a mostly coherent message might actually be a sacred gift entrusted to me for the spiritual sustenance of my meeting.
This all changed one day when a Friend suggested that I be named a recorded minister, a practice that has all but disappeared from liberal Quakerism. I was both appalled and flattered and promptly rejected the idea. We were right to do so — we no longer have the structures and procedures in place to support such a naming — but the gesture of this dear Friend brought home to me that perhaps God had indeed laid a spiritual gift upon me and I had better take it seriously.
More scarily, I also understood that I could hold nothing back, that a whole new level of openness, spiritual transparency and commitment was required if I were to be faithful; that I had to embrace my own foolishness if I was to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit. Through all of this, my meeting has gently supported me, tenderly reminded me when I have outrun my Guide and held a safe space open for me to make mistakes as I learn to be faithful to my calling.
I fervently believe that each of us is an expression of God’s love for the world and that we come into this time and place bearing a sacred gift to share with our fellow humans. Our spiritual community should be the sanctuary and testing ground where we are free to seek out that gift both in ourselves and in others. It is where we can lay down the burden of our ego-driven selves and become exposed to the refining fire of God’s love.
“And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, everyone learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning and loving one another in several places . . . For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him.” (Isaac Penington 1660)
Patricia Barber is a member of Goose Creek Meeting in Lincoln, Virginia. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, she is a freelance writer who now lives with her family in Keedysville, Maryland. She blogs at headuponastone.blogspot.com.