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.

§ 8 Responses to Seeking the gathered meeting

  • […] the requisites for experiencing the gathered meeting (discussed here), […]

  • Joyce Holwerda says:

    Dear Steve,
    Thank you for writing down what our aspirations are. I am just preparing for a Monthly Meeting next week and this reminds me.

  • Ellen Pye says:

    Dear Steven,
    It was good to read your blog. I was especially thankful for the fact that you mentioned being on time as the first requirement for helping to create a truly gathered meeting. I’ve been eldered for reminding Friends of this, with remarks that sort of suggested that ‘better late than never’ was the attitude to take.
    If worship is the expression of the utmost respect, how much respect is there for either the Presence or those present when someone saunters in late? In classical concerts, latecomers are held back outside the hall until the next piece, out of respect for the performer(s) and courtesy towards the rest of the audience. Does that not tell us something?
    When I was little, I had punctuality drummed into me; my Mother would say:”If you are late, you are stealing someone else’s time”.
    Some Friends come in about ten minutes before the end; I wonder what they get out of it. With Friends entering off and on throughout the all too brief hour, no depth can be reached. it’s like baking a soufflé while constantly opening the oven door to add a few more ingredients; the result will definitely be disappointing.

    Ellen Pye,
    Vancouver MM, Canada

    • Yes, being on time seems so basic and obvious. Nevertheless . . .

      When I came to the meetinghouse last Sunday, I was myself late by my standards; it was 12 minutes of. There were no other cars in the parking lot. I wondered whether I had missed something in an email blast. By 10, three of us had shown up, one of them a new attender who almost didn’t come in because the place looked so empty.

      It’s doubly shocking that you would be eldered for saying something so essential.

      Well, in my experience, this behavior is extremely hard to change. One person can’t do it; you just ending up being the meeting noodge. Hopefully, one can enlist your ministry and worship committee, whose charge it is to protect and nurture the quality of worship. They, at least, should be on board. Yet in my experience, such committees often either do not get it or cannot muster the resolve to take on the eldering.

      Thanks for your thoughts. We’ll keep at it.

  • Samat says:

    Dear Friend:

    I came across your blog the other day and have read your series of posts on the “gathered meeting”. I sent the following message to you as an email message, but I thought I might as well post it here as well. I completely agree that it is what the Society of Friends was about at its inception, that it still is what it should be about, and that Friends have largely lost what they are about. I also completely agree that what Marcelle Martin has called the experience of “common-union” is what Jesus and his companions were about. In addition to the biblical common-union experiences you’ve cited, we have the other key gatherings of Jesus that were more than just physical gatherings (the sermon on the mount gathering, the loaves and fishes gathering, and the last supper gathering), but apparently shared experiences of common-union.

    It’s quite clear that the Christ Spirit that Jesus fully embodied is in fact the “Spirit of Gathering”, or Spirit of Common-Union, as the term “Logos” in the original Greek of John 1 suggests. This term is etymologically related to a Greek term for gathering. John 1 makes clear that in our Essence all Humanity is gathered into oneness, though currently in our life on Earth, this light-oneness is obscured by a separative darkness that resists the Light-Spirit of Common-Union.

    That this Christ Spirit urges us to leave behind the dark spirit of separation and gather into common-union is clear from the “one vine” speech of John 15:4-6 and related “body of Christ” passages in the Pauline letters. “Gathering” in this spiritual sense obviously recalls Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”) and 23:37 (“how often would I have gathered thy children together”). Most significantly, this Spirit in Jesus urges us to be perfect in oneness in John 17:21-23. This is a foretelling of the two Pentecost common-union experiences described in Acts 2 and 4. Traditionally, this is the founding of the “church” (ekklesia = gathering), so this common-union experience is the very foundation of Christianity, as exemplified by the Spirit of Common-Union manifested by Jesus in his life.

    I have had this experience of common-union in groups from time to time in my life: in the intentional communities of my childhood, in one or two Friends meetings, in Sufi gatherings, in “community building” groups using the group process developed by M. Scott Peck, etc. The gathered/covered meeting is not something that is unique to Friends, but it is a definite state of shared self-awareness of our identity as an integrated I and We. For those who experience it this unique state is unmistakable, like a special fragrance that one learns to recognize. The sense of shared joy, love, and peace that accompanies it is also unmistakable, as is the thirst for more of the same. What’s more, it’s precisely what the world is most missing and most needs.

    Though I had had some experiences of common-union in a group throughout my life, I first became sensitized to the importance of this common-union state for all of Humanity about 20 years ago on a trip to England. I had been invited to visit a friend of a friend in West Yorkshire. On the evening I arrived, we were sitting around chatting and my new friend mentioned that there was a hill nearby that we might like to climb in the morning: “It’s called Pendle Hill.” To say the least I was gobsmacked (as the Brits say). Having grown up in a Friends family, I of course knew about Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill from an early age, so I said to my friend that it was striking that I should have come to the foot of the site of Fox’s vision by apparent accident. My friend replied: “Well let’s go up it tomorrow, and maybe you’ll have a vision of your own.” My heart sunk at this statement because of course visions can’t just be ordered up, and if you expect one
    that very expectation might block it.

    So the next morning we did go up Pendle together, and–to my amazement–I did in fact have my own vision of a “great people to be gathered”. This was a clear day, so–since there’s nothing else of any great height for miles–you could see for a great distance in every direction: to the sea to the West (as Fox remarks in his Journal), to the Lake District to the North, and to far fields in other directions. It was as if I could see over the whole earth.

    Suddenly I had a sense of the state that all of Humanity was in all over the Earth: a state of fear-based separation that caused people to shrink up into their small ego-centered selves and create endless meaningless suffering. (This is Fox’s “ocean of darkness”.) I then saw that in the future everyone would open up out of this shrunken state like flowers and embrace each other in love and joy (the “ocean of light”). Next I had the sense that I was standing on the hill several centuries in the future, and I could see large caravans of people approaching Pendle from every direction, both walking and riding on animals and in carts. They were dressed very colorfully and were singing joyfully and making music with various instruments.

    When they reached Pendle, they formed a series of concentric circles with joined hands all around the hill, at various elevations all the way up. Those of us in the top circle also joined hands. We all began to breathe together as one, under the inspiration of the covering Spirit. It became clear that this was a “Global Common-Union” celebration, designed both to bring this local group into deep common-union with each other, with Nature, and with Spirit, and also designed to bring this local group into common-union with the rest of Humanity, who were all gathering at local “power points” throughout the planet at this same time.

    It’s taken me some years to realize that this was indeed a version of Fox’s vision of a “great people to be gathered”. The “great people” is obviously all of Humanity, and the “gathering” is not just a physical level gathering but is in fact the “gathering in the Spirit” that is experience in the common-union of the “gathered meeting”. The “gathered meeting” in this case is the sustained gathering of all of Humanity in Global Common-Union.

    It is quite clear to me that Spirit wills to bring all of Humanity into a state of “Global Common-Union”, a sustained planetary gathered and Spirit-covered meeting. Only in this globally-shared state can Humanity leave behind all the meaningless suffering we’ve created from our “fallen” state of fearful ego-centered separation (that is in all of us!). This is the “Day of the Lord” and “Kingdom of Heaven” that Fox and Howgill and others were “moved to sound”. It is the birthright and destiny of Humanity to experience this state together, as a glimpse of our inherent Divine Manyness-in-Oneness.

    I recently visited Swarthmoor Hall. As I walked up the same path Fox apparently followed when he first arrived, it came to me that he had in mind the “sounding the day of the Lord” that came to him not long before on Pendle Hill. So what exactly is this “day of the Lord”? Of course, it’s an Old Testament concept that appears in many of the Old Testament prophets. But most notably, it refers to the passage in Joel 2 that is quoted in Acts 2:17 about the Pentecost common-union experience being a foretaste of the “pouring out of the Spirit upon all flesh”. (The Greek of Acts 2 has eschatai hemerai = “last days”, but the Hebrew of Joel 2:1 has yom yehovah = “Day of the Lord” in the King James, where “the Really Existing One” is a better translation than “Lord”.) In other words, the Day of the Lord refers to all of Humanity sharing the experience of the “pouring down of the Spirit”, that is, the experience of Global Common-Union.

    All of the great spiritual traditions have their own version of this vision of a future state of “Heaven on Earth”. In addition, major spiritual teachers like Meher Baba and Sri Aurobindo have formulated their own visions of a coming age of Global Common-Union experienced by all of Humanity.(See Meher Baba’s discourse on the “New Humanity”: )
    and the last chapter of Sri Aurobindo’s “The Life Divine”: ) So the ground has been prepared for all of Humanity to join in an alliance to bring about the New Humanity and the New Earth of Global Common-Union in partnership with the Spirit of Common-Unity who we all are in our Essence.

    If we intend to join with Spirit (our own “Higher Divine Self”) in this great cocreative work of planetary transformation, we must find ways to deepen, sustain, and spread the gathered meeting common-union experience, not just among Friends, but rather among all of Humanity. Those of us who have experienced glimpses of this blessed state and are called to share it with Humanity must band together in an alliance for that great purpose. In approaching how to do that many questions arise.

    Here is one important question: “Is the Friends ‘Meeting for Worship’ as currently named and conceived in fact the best or only medium for deepening, sustaining, and spreading the Common-Union experience?” My own experience suggests that it is not. Perhaps it needs to be re-named as “Meeting for Common-Union”, with an explicit common intention that that’s what it’s for. And perhaps we need to consult Spirit together about possible variations of the actual form and length of meetings. I’ve sat in too many meetings where there was no common intention about why we were there together, and where the termination of the gathering after 30 to 60 minutes seemed totally arbitrary and contrary to the intention of Spirit. It seems to me that early Friends had more of a common intention for a “gathered” meeting in Common-Union and that they let Spirit take whatever time was necessary to bring that about.

    Another key question: In the 2 passages in Acts 2 and 4 that describe the common-union experience of the early Christians, the text says that immediately after sharing this experience they “had all things in common”. Have we paid enough attention to these rather striking statements? Have most Christians missed a central aspect of what it means to be a Christian, namely “having all things in common”? And is in fact having all things in common a necessary part of deepening, sustaining, and spreading the common-unity experience? If so, just how do we go about it?

    In summary, not only is the gathered meeting (common-union) state of the essence of Quakerism, but it is of the essence of Christianity, and is in fact the state of shared self-awareness that is our very Essence, as aspects of the Christ Spirit. Finally, it is our destiny to share this state of loving and joyful common-union with all of Humanity, so that we can bring Heaven to Earth.

    Would you like to get together to share experiences and discuss questions related to how Humanity can transform together into a Global Gathered Meeting or Common-Union state? I am currently living in Charlottesville, VA. It would be relatively easy for me to travel to eastern PA, where you are apparently located.

    In Common-Union,

    • Samat, thank you for this wonderful comment.

      I yearn so deeply to go to Pendle Hill myself. I have gone to Firbank Fell where the first of the “gatherings” that Fox envisioned on Pendle Hill took place, and had a little sense of that place’s spiritual energy, but your experience on Pendle Hill sounds truly extraordinary.

      I, too, have experienced the “gathered meeting” in other contexts besides Quaker meeting, so I know that it is universal. In fact, I suspect that the same kind of thing is happening for actors and musicians when they fall into a communion with each other and the audience.

      As for the eschatological gathering of all humanity, do you know the work of Teilhard de Chardin? He speaks of this in some depth in Human Energy and The Activation of Energy, especially.

      And as for getting together, I would like that. I’m actually located in central New Jersey (Hopewell), though my meeting is in Yardley, PA. I clearly feel called to help Friends rediscover the power and joy of the gathered meeting. The gathering of all humanity is perhaps beyond my ambition. But I would like to meet, if possible.

      Maybe others reading this blog are interested? . . .


  • Peter Crockett says:

    Thank you, Friend,
    for this valuable article, one I’ll likely share with a couple Friends. It has things new to me, things I’ve read before, and all brought together in a very clear way to think about them and sit with them.
    Ever seeking the Light,
    Peter, St. Petersburg MM

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