Monday, February 19, 2007

Among Friends

"Quaker thought is both mystical (waiting upon God) and prophetic (speaking truth to power)."

"A Friend's meeting, however silent, is at the very lowest a witness that worship is something other and deeper than words, and that it is to the unseen and eternal things that we desire to give the first place in our lives. And when the awake and looking upwards, there is much more in it than this. In the united stillness of a truly 'gathered' meeting, there is a power known only by experience, and mysterious even when most familiar."

Caroline Stephen, (1908).

I'm enamored of the idea that religious experience is about trembling in the face of what's greater than ourselves. I'm even more fond of the Religious Society of Friends because this notion, reflected in their common name "Quakers", derives from an insult given by a seventeenth century judge to their founder, George Fox (1624-1691). Fox suggested the man should, "tremble at the word of the Lord."

It has been weeks since I attended a meeting, and yet I'm still excited about that morning. A friend of mine had been interested in the RSFM, so we decided to look into local gatherings. We found one in the U-District and drove over on a Sunday.

Quaker meeting spaces are generally laid out so that each person can see all others. Some, like the one we visited, are set in the round. This eschews all hierarchy, any sense of differing roles or status among the participants. Even if there is a facilitator, this person sits among the rest. The RSFM is an egalitarian community that from its earliest days stressed the unity of its members no matter their race, sex or place in society. The structure of a meeting--if you can call it that--encourages all viewpoints to be offered and the Friends will hear them out with the intention of understanding God's will through this dialogue. Within the non-binding tenents of the church there is even an acknowledgement that there is much to learn from non-Christian faiths and systems of thought.

"Religious knowledge, like the appreciation of beauty, is not attained by a logical process of thought but by experience and feeling. Quakers maintain that the teaching of Jesus is a practical method for the guidance of the world today, that religion is concerned with the whole of life, and that, beyond a certain point, definition becomes a limitation."

What does bind the Quakers together is the Light of Christ that resides in every person. Meetings are taken in silence (for the most part, though there are programmed events as well depending on the individual customs of a particular community), with each person delving inside to listen for the Light of God to speak through her.
Within the RSFM no one creed is espoused, no direct study of scripture is engaged in, no sermonizing is included. There is no need for these when one can access the Light.

"The term comes from John 1:19:
'The true Light, that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.' Logical consequences of this belief are:
*that every man and woman has direct access to God; no priestly class or 'steeple houses' (churches) are needed
*that every person - male or female, slave or free is of equal worth
*that there is no need in one's religious life for elaborate ceremonies, rituals, gowns, creeds, dogma, or other 'empty forms.'
*Following the inward light would lead to spiritual development and towards individual perfection."

As a product of one of the most stringent and doctrinal institutions in the world I was awestruck by the simplicity of the meeting. Anyone had license to speak at any time, were they so inspired. Some gave reflections on their personal battles, others recounted stories of hope and still others initiated debate with political or philosophical prompts--Quantum Mehanics, Zen meditation. By in large, however, words were absent. I spent a lot of my time pondering the faces of the congregation. What were each of these people gathering from the silence? My mind was overactive...but throughout the hour--which seemed longer for its lack of ritual--there were brief passages when my spirit was quiet and receptive; through these I felt at the tip of a funnel of collective peace.

The Quaker movement has an important history that I won't chronicle here, at least not in detail. I think it is useful to highlight, though, that as much or more than any other Christian denomination the Friends have been instruments of social justice. They were at the forefront of abolitionism, pacifism and struggles for American Indian rights in this country. With all of the emphasis on personal discovery and seeking the Light, one might assume a lack of perspective. However, the RSFM makes clear that belief is not the key--there is no immediate salvation in acceptance (if the point is even to be saved, which it is not for many Quakers)--but how we translate our spiritual understanding into our everyday actions.

This history and way of life that complicate my immediate tendency towards an old family dilemma: without rules, rituals or worship--when we put religion on our own terms--we fall into relativism and away from selfless loyalty to God. Quakers as a whole, skeptical about the Bible and strict terms of belief, offer some of the greatest examples of living in unity with Christ.

A short bibliography for further reading:
*The New York Yearly RSFM's statement of
Faith and Practice
*A history of the Religious Society of Friends


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