Seeking the gathered meeting
June 5, 2013 § 8 Comments
Seeking the gathered meeting
So what are the crucial factors that seems to help gather the meeting for worship most reliably?
Spiritual depth. First, I believe a critical mass of individuals who possess in themselves a certain spiritual depth makes a real difference.
Seasoning. Most likely, they are Friends who come already seasoned by regular immersion in the Spirit through their own devotional practice. Such elders are likely know the way already into their own depths (Bill Taber’s “first door” as he described it in his Pendle Hill pamphlet Four Doors Into Worship).
Preparation. Hopefully they also come to meeting that morning especially prepared, having spent a time, or a whole morning, in prayer, meditation, Bible study, or whatever practice helps them deepen, rather than listening to NPR or reading the New York Times, or diverting their minds with things that are likely to pull them outward from the depths. For families, preparation might include eating breakfast together and trying to make time for some family devotional practice.
Experience. Ideally, but not necessarily, a critical mass of participants have experienced the gathered meeting already, and so they know its joys and power. Their knowledge, their faith, and their yearning may help the meeting find its way to Bill Taber’s “third door” into worship, the one that leads to their collective center.
Ministry. Perhaps they possess the gift of vocal ministry, for it very often is a cascade of deep vocal ministry that draws the meeting into a gathered state.
Serving the meeting as elder. There are things one can do besides just radiate, and practicing them will make the gathered meeting more likely, whatever your spiritual depth. In fact, these practices develop one’s spiritual ‘muscles’. They may start as just exercises in your imagination; that’s fine. Eventually, they will bear fruit and blow your mind.
Prepare the meeting space. Come early, so that you have already started a meeting for worship when the other worshippers begin streaming in to their places. Welcome them inwardly and help them find the silence that is waiting for them.
Pray. Pray for the meeting; pray for those who rise to speak; pray for those who you know bear a burden or are unwell; pray for those whose burdens are unknown to you, but surely do exist; pray for the gathered meeting. Pray for our own deepening, awakening, and renewal. Pray for the gift of prayer, the ability to find a prayer so authentically within yourself that, when you pray it out loud, you draw the meeting into the spirit of prayer along with you. Pray to G*d, whatever that means to you, and not just for something in a general way—if you can. I do believe that such a “theistic” focus does sharpen our spiritual attention and that this is somehow more powerful than a more generalized sense of spiritual desire. But each person must find a way to pray that works for them.
Listen. Seek inwardly to recognize the need for ministry among your fellow worshippers—of any kind: pastoral, spiritual, material . . . Develop a pair of spiritual antennae. I like to focus on each person in the room individually for a moment long enough to let some impression emerge.
Commune. Try to commune with the angel of the meeting. Friends of old used to believe that every meeting had an angel, because of their reading of the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation, which are letters addressed to the angels of seven churches in Asia Minor. That is, try to attune to the meeting: reach in to know that undefinable thing that we all recognize when we visit other meetings, how each meeting does have a distinctive feeling or spirit. It is hard to commune with the angel of your own meeting because it is partly a manifestation of your own spirit, and we are ever more blind to ourselves than to others; but it’s still a great exercise in communion.
Give thanks. Be specific in naming some of the things you are grateful for in your meeting, especially the people. Name specifically for yourself some of the spiritual gifts that members of the meeting bring to your community. Think about how you might nurture or even just acknowledge their gifts, as an act of gratitude.
Give love. Single people out and hold them in that love you feel. Single people out whom you do not particularly love and love them, too. That especially.
Ordered, open worship. It really helps when the meeting observes some of the basic conventions of Quaker worship:
Be on time. Very few (like zero) worshippers come into the meeting room late.
Wait. Friends allow at least 20 minutes of collective deepening before anyone speaks. Ministers give themselves and the meeting sufficient time to absorb the vocal ministry that came before them before they speak.
Ministry. Most importantly, all those who rise to speak should exercise a level of spirit-led discernment, such that their ministry deepens the silence and draws the meeting closer to the Life and Truth. Let me speak more concretely: deeply question for yourself any message that refers to superficial affairs, outward events, or that offers personal observations. Or at least, check to see that the affairs, events, or observations you feel led to share are not more superficial, outward, or casual than the vocal ministry that has already been offered. The goal of your self-discipline is that your message will draw the worshipping body more inward rather than outward, more toward a profound silence than toward busy thought, more toward love than toward fear or division.
Outward helps. Some additional outward practices seem, by the evidence, to support the gathering:
Proximity. Sitting close together, so that all can feel each other’s presence and no one feels that some worshippers are being left out—or leaving themselves out—by their remoteness. (I personally believe that it is the human aura that provides the medium for the psychic dimension of the gathered meeting.)
Space. A meeting room or space that feels like the enfolding wings of a dove, a space whose size, bench configuration, and walls give the feeling of warm and proximate enclosure without feeling confining.
Comfort. Reasonably comfortable seating.
Corporate knowledge and intention. A certain level of knowledge in the meeting—of the conventions of worship, of the traditions of Friends regarding ministry, of the existence, faith, and practice of the gathered meeting itself, certainly help the community gather. Most if not all of the worshippers should know that there is a there there, something deeply to be desired and worth the discipline required. Those who have experienced the gathered meeting should share their experiences, so that everyone in the meeting can feel their joy, acquire their faith, and share their hunger.
The meeting for business in worship. As I have said, several of the most gathered meetings I have experienced were meetings for business in which the worship fulfilled the community’s desire to do God’s work. Here are some things that help a business meeting become gathered:
The business meeting is a meeting for worship. This is the most important principle of all. We naturally do much of our mundane business in a rather mundane way. But even during the humdrum of meeting business, maintaining a considered, stately process with real pauses for deepening between agenda items keeps the body close to the center that it will need when more weighty matters come before it. Then, the key to arriving at spirit-led decisions is to worship—to wait truly on the Spirit to lead.
Spirit-led clerking. A clerk with the gift of discernment can sense when the body’s yearning for unity is real and help it find its way. Maintaining the sense of worship is really important; most important in this regard is it to protect the silence between contributions: give Friends enough time to recognize the truth in what someone has said (or the folly), before calling on the next speaker. Call for extended periods of silence when necessary. Feel your gut (I mean, literally pay attention to your abdomen). Breathe deeply. Pray. Listen for the littlest nudges inside you. Be willing to call on someone out of instinct, not feeling bound by the practice of first to rise, first to speak.
We all are clerks. Better yet would it be if all members of the worshipping body acted inwardly as though they, too, were clerking the meeting. Not that we should critique the clerk’s work, but that we should, like the clerk, pay closest attention to the movement of the Spirit in the meeting and seek ways, inwardly through prayer and, when led, in vocal ministry, to help lead the community into Truth and unity of spirit.
Corporate knowledge of Friends practice. Many Friends, unfortunately, come to the meeting for business in worship ignorant of our traditions. Meetings should regularly remind themselves that they are worshipping while they work, and they should take the opportunity to educate themselves about business gospel order, especially regarding the prerogatives of the presiding clerk. The main object of this education, vis a vis the gathered meeting, is to establish the meeting for business as a meeting for worship, which means that we rely on the Spirit to lead us into unity, not coming to a decision through consensus. No one in the meeting should feel free to hold the meeting hostage with their prejudice, and the clerk should not allow them to do it.
Love. Perhaps the most important factor is love, because it connects people so powerfully and we all understand it and possess it. However mature the worshippers—or not; however deep or shallow the “spiritual consciousnesses” of some of the participants, critical mass or not; all a meeting really needs to be gathered is love for each other. If enough Friends focus on that love, if enough Friends channel that love, silently in their hearts or vocally in their ministry, the meeting cannot help but fall into the Heart.
Even hate or conflict in the meeting cannot hinder a gathered meeting if enough worshippers channel sufficient love. Love of the enemy is perhaps the most powerful conduit to gathering that there is.
Grace. Then there is grace—the unexpected gift of God’s Presence. The fact that the meeting can be gathered spontaneously, without effort, just like that.