Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Knock and it shall be opened?

The New England branch of Quakers is rewriting its book Faith and Practice. This month we were asked to provide feedback for a chapter on worship, starting with this:

Any willing person may come into communion with the Divine without special
ritual, at any time, in any place, under any external circumstance. All that is
required is desire, humility, and a willingness to wait for the Teacher who is
beyond time to come and teach in the present moment. The heart of the life of
the Religious Society of Friends is the communal meeting for worship. It is here
that we have the opportunity to experience the Sacred Presence in a way that
draws us into community and informs our lives, both as individuals and as a
religious body. Vital worship depends far more on a deeply felt longing for God
than on any particular practice.

Upon hearing these words read in business meeting last week, I felt grief at how much they differed from my experience.

In the seven years I’ve attended Friends’ meetings, I’ve never sensed the divine (either in or out of meeting). No meeting for worship has ever felt “gathered” to me. Maybe seven years isn’t long enough, or maybe I’m doing something wrong. I’ve certainly spent a good portion of worship time distracted, but I understand this happens to the best of Quakers.

From what I have heard people of faith say about their spiritual lives, I believe that they are genuinely experiencing something deep and powerful. I don’t think they’re making it up. But I have never tasted it.

During my year at Pendle Hill I described this situation to two Friends. One, from an evangelical meeting in Kenya, answered that I needed to pray harder. The other, from a liberal meeting in California, told me I was so in touch with the universal divine that I wasn’t even sensing it as a separate entity. Neither answer felt particularly helpful to me.

This is the truth I understand: there is no guarantee I will ever experience the divine. Maybe God has me written into her calendar for next Tuesday, and if I am paying attention then I will finally sense her. Maybe it will happen in a few decades. But maybe never.

I don’t expect Quakerism to bend over backwards to include nontheists like me. After all, as this chapter points out, worship is the heart of Quakerism. But it’s painful to hear my experience denied. Perhaps the intended meaning of this paragraph is “nothing outward is required to experience God - no clergy, no special ritual.” But that doesn’t mean that it will definitely happen. Some of us knock at that door and never make it inside.


Anonymous said...

You don't know me (Jeff's friend David pointed me here), and what I have to say doesn't seem to point at the heart of your post. I want to say it anyway.

I've never been to Quaker meeting, but the spaces that have held approximately that place in my life (druid rituals, radical faerie heart circles, contact improvisation jams) have all felt ungathered more often than not. Sometimes partially gathered, with some people knit together and others standing outside. Sometimes just a bunch of disjointed individuals. In fact, looking back on the last time I felt a jam had taken up a really good communal experience and energy, there were people there outside that community.

I think, sometimes, we do get there, or get close enough so that "there" seems at least potentially in our reach. But it's hard for me to point to a time when that has happened, especially a time with more than a few people present. Maybe we have only ever gotten close.

Like I said, I've never been to a Quaker meeting. But it's hard for me to believe you could be the only one around who feels or has felt that way.


Barbara Morrison said...

Hi, Julia.

It's too bad your questions didn't open up a larger dialogue because I'm sure you are not alone. I'm guessing most people have different definitions of what "coming into communion with the Divine" feels like, some of which you may have experienced.

I've only been knocked off my feet three times in my nearly 60 years, but have often experienced what Virginia Woolf called "moments of being" which seem to me to be transcendental in a different way. Music and dance seem to do more for me than worship services.

I love the name of your blog and the quote from which you took it.