True confessions time: After over ten years of searching in England for a Meeting for Worship that gathers fully, where we can hear the buzzing sound of the Spirit, and see the Light flowing from person to person around the circle, I realize that I resent the “non-theists” in the circle, who, I perceive, prevent the Meeting from gathering. In absolute truth, I wish they would take themselves off to the atheist church in London.
When I first entered that Quaker silent meeting in Berkeley, I felt surrounded and cushioned by the silence. I immediately felt a sense of arms encompassing my whole body. The meeting had started, so I sat in the nearest empty chair. The silence was profound, one might even say deafening. I sank into it, felt enveloped and humbled; then elated and energized by an audible buzz that seemed to be moving from person to person around the circle. No one spoke, so the silence was deep and full; but late in the meeting, a heartily suckling baby broke the silence, though not the connection around the circle.
The next week, the experience was completely different. There was a restlessness in the room– much squeaking of chairs , many heavy sighs, many shuffling feet. Half a dozen people stood up to speak, one very profoundly about the war that had just started in Iraq (1990). But there were long periods of silence, with a sense of connection similar to what I’d felt in the first meeting.
In the ladies’ room after my second meeting, a voice from the next stall said, “You got any paper in that stall?”
I said yes, and handed a wad of toilet tissue under the bottom edge of the stall.
As we washed our hands, she said, “You’re new here. Where do you come from?”
“I’m an ex-Catholic.”
“Ah,” she said, “You’d be surprised how many of us there are here.”
When I read the three-panel brochure about Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting, I noted that the description of the meeting was “Christ-centered,” not Christian. I gathered that Worship and Ministry committee, who produced the brochure, thought that “Christian” had been hijacked by fundamentalists; and they didn’t want to discourage any newcomers.
Getting to know people in the meeting, I was fascinated but not surprised that about a third of the members were refugees from the Catholic Church. Say what you want about the dogma, misogyny, paedophilia and other disgusting elements of Catholicism, when the Catholics get you as a child (and they did, then, demanding that even children in mixed marriages be reared Catholic), they give you a thirst for the mystical, the inexpressible. As Howard Brinton points out in 300 Years of Friends, Quakers and Catholics are the only mainstream religions that hold to the actual experience of the presence of Christ during worship. But I’m getting off the track here.
What I’m getting to is that each Meeting for Worship is a unifying experience, connecting those present in a manner that is unique and inexpressibly profound. It is not merely sitting quietly, cogitating or musing, without focus or intention. It is a communal act, a communal calling on the Holy Spirit(or Christ or God) to be present among us, to make that presence known in a way that we humans can recognize.
Silent worship requires devotion, an old-fashioned word, but the truest to my meaning that I can find. It requires us to be devoted to the community through and in Divine Energy or Presence. It requires at minimum the desire to experience God’s presence.
An atheist does not have this desire. An atheist does not focus on the experience of The Devine. An atheist does not wish to connect through the Holy Spirit or any other Divine Entity– because an atheist does not accept the existence of the Divine, does not seek to know God or to participate in a spiritual community. Atheists are simply Not Interested in spiritual connection.
So, yes, I resent their presence in meeting for worship. And my observation, after so many years seeking the kind intense spiritual connection I knew in my first meeting, is that when atheists are present, it is almost impossible for a meeting to gather. Each individual Friend may feel the movement of the Spirit, but it is not possible to gather completely and wholly as a spiritual community because some people in the room do no participate worshipfully. It doesn’t happen because the people sitting in the room are not all focussed on the calling of the Spirit.