The Qualities of Silence

Recently, at Woodbrooke, I had a startling revelation. Quaker silent worship is anything but silent.

I don’t mean only the shuffling feet, rustling papers, coughs and sneezes, or the occasional snoring. I mean that the room is not deeply peaceful or intensely quiet. Rather the space is filled with emotions: uncertainty, expectation, impatience, fatigue, distraction. The concept of waiting or expectancy means that at no time in Meeting for Worship is everyone completely silent within.

This realization struck me during the Woodbrooke course, “Quakers and Modern Spirituality.” During the course, we had periods of Quaker worship and of meditation. It was during a very deep group meditation that I suddenly recognized how full, enclosing and uplifting that silence of meditation is when compared to that of Quaker worship. Meditation is at the same time both the essence of self-awareness and the practice of connecting Self with the Divine Energy.

Quaker worship is assertive, grasping, reaching out. Meditative silence is accepting, open, inviting in.

India: Pictures from Shiva Country

Parmarth Niketan, the ashram where we stayed in March, is in northwest India, where Shiva is the revered local divinity. As Krishna is in Vrindivan, so Shiva is through this region. Here are some pictures of shrines to and images of Shiva.

This is the beautiful face of the Shiva statue that sits on the platform over the Ganges.  It is on this platform that major worship  and celebration events are held.

This is the beautiful face of the Shiva statue that sits on the platform over the Ganges. It is on this platform that major worship and celebration events are held.

Longer view of Shiva on a sunny morning. Sorry for the power lines; I took it from the window in our room.

Longer view of Shiva on a sunny morning. Sorry for the power lines; I took it from the window in our room.

Taken on an overcast afternoon, but it shows the lion and other symbols that usually accompany Shiva.

Taken on an overcast afternoon, but it shows the lion and other symbols that usually accompany Shiva.

Exterior of a small village shirne to Shiva and Shakti.

Exterior of a small village shirne to Shiva and Shakti.

Shiva (left) and, smaller, Shakti inside the shrine. Notice that Shiva is decked in flowers, and Shakti is dressed in silks. She reminded me of the Infant of Prague, who is often  dressed by devoted women in Italian Catholic churches.

Shiva (left) and, smaller, Shakti inside the shrine. Notice that Shiva is decked in flowers, and Shakti is dressed in silks. She reminded me of the Infant of Prague, who is often dressed by devoted women in Italian Catholic churches.

Incredibly, intricated carved Shiva shrine. Very Detailed, very colourful!

Incredibly, intricated carved Shiva shrine. Very Detailed, very colourful!

Close-up of one of the friezes on the shrine. There are hundreds.

Close-up of one of the friezes on the shrine. There are hundreds.

Dancing Shiva, in the garden of Parmarth Niketan

Dancing Shiva, in the garden of Parmarth Niketan

Quaker Concepts: Unity

Unity, in Quaker terms, is a staggering concept. It is reached not through voting or debating, but through silent discernment during a Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of Doing Business– short form “Meeting for Business.” During the business meeting an action is proposed, or a draft minute is presented. There is some discussion. If the item is of major importance, it is set aside to “season” for a time; that is, the decision will be made after a month or two (or ten), after everyone has had a chance to think about it and to practice discernment on his/her own. If it is a simple, practical matter, the decision might be made at the same meeting during which it is presented.

Unity  is reached by the movement of the Spirit among the gathered Friends. Sometimes this movement is palpable; other times it is not. This is difficult to describe or explain to anyone who has not experienced it, but is instantly recognizable once it is experienced.

William Penn, the English nobleman who left his title and his family to found the city of Philadelphia (city of Brotherly Love) and the state of Pennsylvania, wrote of Unity:

The objective of the Quaker method is to discover Truth which will satisfy everyone more fully than did any position previously held. Each and all can then say, ‘That is what I really wanted, but I did not realise it.’

The attainment of unity within the meeting is not the same as the attainment of uniformity. Unity is spiritual, uniformity is mechanical.

For a more thorough discussion of Quaker Unity, read Beyond Majority Rule, by Micheal J. Sheeran.

Quaker Stories: Two Writers of Good Books with Quaker Themes

ANN TURNBULL

No Same, No Fear

Forged in the Fire

Seeking Eden

quakerbook2   Ann Turnbull’s trilogy, featuring Susanna and William, begins in Shropshire, England in 1662;  takes us through the plague and the Great Fire of London in the second book;  and ends with  Friends beginning new lives Pennsylvania, in 1684. These stories trace the lives of two Quakers, teenagers at the beginning of the first book, No Shame, No Fear.  William is not a Friend in the beginning; but becomes convinced early on. It is his attraction to Susanna that spurs his interest. He begins to attend Meeting for Worship and to learn Friends’ way of living and gradually comes to the decision to commit himself to a Quaker life. The first book is the story of his convincement, so strong that he defies his father, thus losing a considerable inheritance;  and of  the growing love between him and Susanna.

In the second book, Forged in the Fire, William has gone to London to work and save money so that he can marry Susanna. The life of Friends in London is richly detailed, including  imprisonment under stark, gruelling conditions. Much of the story is told in their letters to each other. But eventually Susanna cannot stand being away from William, and she sets off on her own  to find him– an extraordinary act for a young woman in 1664. She arrives in London shortly before the fire, and the account of their escape from the fire forms a fascinating and frightening section of the narrative.

Seeking Eden,  Susanna and William leave England with their family, their son, Josiah,  now an adult and ready to begin life in business and their daughter not much younger. Pennsylvania, founded by Friend William Penn, holds delicious promise of a life led by Friends’ principles, with opportunity for work and comfortable life, surrounded by and living with a community of Quakers. And the promise seems to be delivered from the moment of their ship’s arrival. But a serpent is waiting, and Josiah is shaken to the very foundation of his beliefs when he realizes that Quakers participate in the slave trade.-

Turnbull does not prettify the lives of Friends in the 17th century. She paints a vivid picture of the persecution, incarceration, beatings, unrestrained public bullying and intensity of the drive to destroy the Religious Society of Friends. The detail about early Friends’ convictions, customs and perseverance is humbling; their suffering is heart-rending, and their courage in the face of, literally, the entire force of the monarchy is inspiring. The books are marketed as “young adult” reading; but they are beautifully written and carefully plotted. I enjoyed them immensely. These books are an enjoyable way to learn a little bit about the early history of the Religious Society of Friends.

IRENE ALLEN

Quaker Silence

Quaker witness

Quaker Testimony

Quaker Indictment

quakerbook1   Irene Allen writes detective novels in the great tradition of Miss Marple, Miss Silver, Kate Fansler and other great amateur “lady detectives.” The twist is that Ms. Allen’s detective, Elizabeth Elliot, is also the Clerk of a Friends Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusettes.  Intricately and beautifully plotted, with enough red herrings to satisfy even the most experienced mystery reader, these novels are a good read for the detecting alone.

But the twist adds a wry and honest peek into the workings of a Quaker meeting; not shying away from the personality conflicts, vast differences of belief and principles within a meeting; and the Clerk’s delicate work in the subtle process that  leads to a Sense of the Meeting. All of this is woven into the plot seamlessly, with obvious first-hand knowledge of how meetings work and a good sense of humour about Quaker quirks. These books are fun to read if you’re already a Quaker: I found myself nodding and even laughing as our “types” showed up at Meeting for Business. And if you’re not already a Quaker, these books are a delightful way to get some insight into meeting processes.

My favourite quote from Elizabeth Elliot, clerk of the meeting: Orderly discussion of a problem is positively un-Quakerly.

What Technology Can Be Used To Create Spiritual Experience?

This questions was asked on a discussion forum. The following was my answer:

No technology is needed. Nor are drugs, medical equipment or any other means outside your own mind and body, heart and soul. The possibility of spiritual experiences is often overlooked because we are not paying attention. And spiritual moments, in my experience, are more often small and meaningful than big and eventful. For me, spiritual experiences come every day. Meditation leads to spiritual experience; I meditate twice a day. Some people find prayer spiritually uplifting. The object is to connect with the Source (God, Goddess, Nature, the Absolute, the Spirit–whatever your terminology is), to feel the connection and carry that feeling into whatever you do in daily life. Connection is between you and the Source. Nothing else is needed to connect, just your desire and consciousness. When you experience the connection– a sense of joy, of elation, of contentment or comfort–you can carry that with you as you deal with people, work, situations, etc. all the time. You can have a “spiritual experience” all the time.

Gratitude: The Grace of Lifelong Friendship

 teacher whom I respect and admire posts daily on Facebook a list of “Appreciations”  — a spiritual practice of public gratitude for the graces and joys in her life. As she intended, many of her friends and students are now doing the same.

My practice is more private: Every morning I go over the day before, thinking of both gifts and challenges of the day just past. I often have those thoughts of what I could/should have said; or what I could/should have done. But the past is the past, and the best any of us can do about our mistakes is to learn from them and not repeat them. Usually, however, the gifts and graces far outweigh the problems and “off” days of my life.

I have been extraordinarily blessed all my life.

My parents were extraordinarily loving, fair and strong, in spite of the “scandal” of divorce that still shocked people in 1957.  They were completely devoted to their children, and never once spoke ill of each other nor made my brother or me feel we had to chose between  them.

I was fortunate in the education I received, in California public schools which at that time (pre-Proposition 13) were the best schools in the country, including the University of California Berkeley, consistently rated one of the top five universities in the world.

I was less fortunate in being brought up in a misogynistic, guilt- and fear-driven Catholic Church; but I realized that the core of that form, the Presence of Christ during the mass, is the only thing that really matters, and the rest is useless to spiritual life.

Both of my marriages, the first in my late twenties, with a man I’d met at Cal; the second in my fifties with a man I had described perfectly thirty years earlier and sought for all those years; have been full of love, grace, laughing and crying together. And they are cordial friends, the men of my past, present and future.

But the most amazing blessing, the most enduring relationship and deepest, soul-connected companionship has been with my best friend, Jo. She laughs, and my heart sings. She weeps, and my heart aches.  

We have known each other, been friends through thick and thin, through highs and lows, through indescribable pain and through unbridled happiness. We have grown from spiritually restless, desperately seeking teenage girls in a small-town high school  to women of both material-world abilities and successes, and spiritual awareness and depth of understanding. I cannot imagine my life without her.

Jo

Jo

We both turn sixty-five this year; she is four days older than me. We discovered, years after we met, that we were also born in hospsitals just a few miles apart. A star danced . . .  Since then she has given me more than I can even articulate. From our meeting, we shared the depths of our political and social awareness together, just us, among age-peers who were completely oblivious to the outside world. She introduced me  to Quaker philosophy and practice, which form the core of my path to spiritual discovery and every growing awareness. I supported her at her wedding; she supported me at mine (both of them). Yes, she laughs, and my heart sings. She weeps, and my heart aches.

So I think of her every day when I do my self-reflection. I think of my other friends, too; they are all very, very dear to me.  But Jo has been there longer than anyone else; we know each other at a level so deep we can’t articulate it in words. Our connection is JUST THERE, always.

Jo and me at my wedding to Ian

Jo and me at my wedding to Ian