A Quaker Retreat Weekend

©2008, Ramona K. Silipo. All rights reserved.

One of the qualities of Friends that attracted me was spontaneity.  Another was the all-encompassing participatory nature of Quaker activities. It took me much of this weekend to realize that this was the reason I was so uncomfortable at the retreat; but I finally recognized that I was peculiarly disoriented because everything was completely staged. Speakers were appointed in advance and there was virtually no time for communal worship or quiet reflection at the beginning or end of the sessions. Everything seemed regulated and orchestrated to me.

I’ve been a Quaker in name for only eighteen years. That’s longer than many others I’ve met, but nothing compared to a lifetime of Quaker experience. I’ve been a member of only one unprogrammed meeting, and visited others. So I write with limited experience, but I’m fully aware that each meeting does things in its own way.

But isn’t it just the human condition that we are generally comfortable with what we know; that we have expectations based on previous experiences; and that we feel uneasy or irritated when our expectations are disappointed?

I was eagerly looking forward to this retreat, especially since my husband had never been to a Quaker retreat and I wanted to share the experience with him. So there I was at my first meeting retreat in England, trying to get into the swing of things. But I couldn’t. My expectations had been disappointed.

The meeting retreats I’ve known have been very different, almost completely spontaneous, with minimal necessary structure. The Retreat Committee made the actual practical arrangements of place, dates, etc., and developed the query for the retreat. They worked out the schedule, listed topics and assigned convenors for the sessions and small group discussions (the only pre-appointed people), from a list of volunteers who had signed up. Then they let everything flow from there.

These retreats were based on silent worship at the beginning of each session (usually about half an hour), followed by Quaker dialogue, when everyone in the circle had  the opportunity to speak (or pass). The numbers were not huge, varying over the years between about 35 and 70 participants (not including children, who had their own activities or child care).  Each person had ample opportunity to participate.

Small group sessions were set in separate rooms, so we could hear ourselves think and hear what others were saying, the groups discussing a “sub query” for an hour. For instance, one year the retreat query was, “How do we experience God in our day-to-day lives?” The sub-queries included one on whether we felt a personal relationship with Jesus and one for those who wanted to get outside and experience God in the natural world. At the end of the small group discussions, the groups came together again and the convenor (or a group member) gave a brief summary of their discussion.

Although this structure sounds similar to the retreat just ended, the key element was spontaneity. Nothing was planned other than the queries; everything else flowed  from the Spirit’s movement among us. I left that sort of retreat energized, invigorated, excited about Quaker life and Quaker process.

At Charney Manor, things seemed contrived; more intellectual activity and thought process than Spirit inspiration or leading. I left this retreat exhausted and left early because I simply couldn’t find it in myself to stick it any longer. Perhapsy this is all my own skewed perception and will change in time.

And I do not mean to say that the retreat didn’t go well. It went quite well, I think. Everything seemed to go pretty much as planned, with the few minor bumps that any gathering of this size and nature have. The planners obviously had everything well-organized. For me, the high point was the Saturday night sharing– music, poems, stories, things that were personal and important to those who were allowed to share. There were moments of Spirit that evening, and it made the retreat very worthwhile.

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