Toward a Quaker culture of place
February 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
My meeting (Yardley, Pennsylvania) sits on a beautiful piece of property. The meetingroom has windows along two opposing walls and one set looks out into a stand of mature conifers to a vigorous, volatile stream that falls a decent distance from a dam. The waterfall is easily audible from the room when the windows are open in warmer weather. Some years ago, the stream flooded catastrophically and filled the room with mud. A third wall, opposite the entrance to the room, has more windows framing a large fireplace that hosts a blaze in colder weather. The elements are treasured members of our worshipping community.
Many Quaker meetings have similar experiences. Even urban ones. Brooklyn meeting went into a period of mourning when a new skyscraper radically altered the skyscape offered by the meetingroom’s huge vertical windows. These intimate connections with an environment sometimes draw the meeting into outward engagement, as well. Yardley Meeting has been central to a local movement to save the stream’s dam system and the pond one of these dams created and which some ancestors of the meeting had played a part in creating in the first place.
So history, ecology and worshipping Quakers often form a mutually supportive bond—a covenant—that can enrich the meeting’s life, protect the meeting’s place and contribute to the wider community’s well-being.
My favorite example of this convergence of history, ecology and religious life is the settlement of Friends in Richmond, Indiana. Why Richmond? Friends settled in Richmond originally, having migrated from the slave culture of the South, because it was as far away from slavery as they could get and still live within the territory ceded to European Americans by the indigenous peoples of the region in one of the few land transfer treaties all parties considered legitimate (the Treaty of Fort Stanwick, I think it was)—and still have a stream suitable for a mill. The White River is one of the reasons Richmond is an epicenter of Quaker life.
This piece of history is potentially a seed for a religious culture of place for Richmond Friends. But how could we go deeper, to a deep ecology of the spirit? How could we integrate the ecosystems our meetings inhabit with the religious life of our meetings more intimately? Or do we want to?
A seed for this kind of spiritual ecology does rest hidden in our Quaker DNA, but apparently as a recessive gene. One only has to think of the role that Pendle Hill and Firbank Fell played in the visionary life of George Fox and thus the history of early Quakerism. Then there’s the incredible amount of time Fox spent outdoors during his long ministry, but especially in the beginning. George doesn’t talk much about these things and it’s impossible to speculate about their role and importance without having been to these places. But once you go there—wow!
I’ve not been to Pendle Hill, but Firbank Fell blew my mind. Bill Samuels has a couple of good photos and the excerpt from Fox’s Journal recounting his preaching to the Seekers there. But the photographs do not convey the sense of height and distance you get from standing there, the closeness of the sky. The Yorkshire Dales are narrow valleys situated between tall, steep ridges. Standing where those Seekers stood, your view is blocked by the surrounding ridges on two sides, giving an enclosed, even intimate feeling. Turn ninety degrees, though, and you look out over a vast prospect from a great height. It is a powerful place that richly rewards the pilgrim who visits.
But this ‘spiritual ecology’ gene is recessive, driven underground, as it were, by our religion’s intense interiorness, our inward focus on the Inner Light and the Christ within, our silent worship, the way we’ve raised up the direct, personal experience of God. Many of us have had profound, even life-defining spiritual experiences in nature, but our corporate experience is almost completely circumscribed outwardly by the meetingroom and inwardly by this inward attention.
It’s worth noting, though, that virtually every major revelation in the Jewish and Christian and even Quaker traditions has taken place outdoors and often through natural agency and/or in the wild: this God seems to prefer meeting God’s people out of doors. Jesus himself was so familiar with the “deserted places” of Galilee and Judea that he could have served as a trek guide. He’s always hiding out in the wilderness, from the beginning of his prophetic career right after his baptism (and later, from his own disciples) to the end of his career, hiding from the temple police on the Mount of Olives. I’ve made a study of the spiritual ecology of Jesus’ ministry—where he went to do what and why, and the role that the landscape played in these key events—and it’s clear that he worked the landscape as part of his own spiritual practice. And this kind of land-based spiritual ecology goes back to the very origins of western religion, in which ecology, technology and the highlands of Palestine played an essential role in shaping the emergence and early evolution of our tradition (a topic for future posts).
So what would a deeper Quaker culture of place look like?