What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spiritual Formation

April 20, 2014 § 5 Comments

Helping our members find the spiritual practices that work for them and nurturing them in their practice, matching their religious temperaments and spiritual gifts with the appropriate disciplines.

For most Friends, “spiritual practice” boils down to going to meeting for worship once a week. But the unique character of Quakerism encourages us to go further in our spiritual practice than just one hour of quiet in the week. The essential elements of Quaker worship—expectant silence, vocal ministry, and its attendant need for discernment—coupled with our rejection of outward forms of worship, mean that the worship is only as deep as we can make it from inside ourselves. In order to share a deep worship experience—ideally, to share a truly gathered meeting for worship—it would help us to strengthen our capacity for deep silence, practiced discernment, and confidence in our ministry.

Meanwhile, Quakerism doesn’t offer individuals very much in the way of distinctive personal spiritual practices designed to meet these needs. We are given no tools for releasing ourselves from the distractions of the world or the distractions of our own minds and bodies, or for deepening our consciousness, or for focusing our attention on G*d. We have no breathing techniques, no relaxation techniques, no focusing techniques, and no catechism classes, no required religious education programs that would equip us with tools that facilitate communion with the Divine.

Yet I believe that these kinds of techniques can be extremely useful. They are not necessary; all that is necessary is to turn our attention and our will toward the Light within us. But they are valuable. They can deepen our “practice” of Quakerism and enrich the life of the spirit. They also can deepen our collective experience in worship.

Helping our members find the spiritual practices that work for them is one of the more important roles a meeting could play in its members’ religious lives. Because trying to do it on your own is not easy.

Developing and maintaining a regular devotional practice is extremely hard for most of us. First, we have to know what to do. What are “spiritual practices”? How do I find out what they are? How do I learn them? Can I learn them from a book? How do I know which ones will work best for me?

Then, once I’ve settled on a practice, when do I find the time to practice? Who can help me mature in my practice? And if I run into stumbling blocks, who can help me get back on track?

Our meetings should be helping our members and attenders answer these questions for themselves. For the benefits are tremendous, not just for the individuals involved, but also for the meeting as a whole. Even a handful of Friends in a meeting who are regularly attuning themselves to the Divine in their own lives and in their own ways, and who know how to go deep in meeting for worship, will deepen the experience of worship for everyone else.

So what tools are we talking about?

Meditation and prayer. We worship in a silence that is more than just the absence of noise. If we want a deep worship experience, if we want to contribute to that deepening, we should be practicing silence. This points us toward the disciplines of meditation and prayer. We should seek out deepening exercises that feel natural to us and that guide us into our own silent depths. And we could be exploring ways to focus the mind, because in prayer we are focusing our mind on G*d.

As meetings, we could be providing members with opportunities to discover prayer and meditation techniques, and these programs would serve best if they were real workshops, in which the participants get to try these techniques out. I think meetings should regularly offer such opportunities to learn centering techniques, and in as broad a range of technique as possible, so as to meet the various temperaments of the membership. No one technique is likely to meet everyone’s needs.

But if there were a technique that could work for everyone, I suspect it would be centering prayer. This technique is simple, effective, and very open-ended in terms of “content”—the centering prayer word or phrase can be whatever you want. And centering prayer can be learned from a book—it’s that simple; and there are a number of good books out there.

Discernment. We wait in the rich silence of worship for the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is the very soul of Quaker spirituality—listening always for that still small voice and seeking always to be open to G*d’s guidance and inspiration. This happens most commonly and most clearly in vocal ministry in meeting for worship, but it applies to all forms of ministry—eldering, pastoral care, witness and service. . . .

This kind of spirituality points us toward the disciplines of meditation and prayer, again, for the listening part, and to the discipline of discernment for the the aspect of recognizing the call and understanding its direction. In addition to our  prayer and meditation in our practice, we should seek out resources on discernment—books and pamphlets, clearness committees, retreat opportunities, and so on.

Study. Without trained paid professionals, it is up to you and me to make sure that our tradition survives. For a Quaker meeting to work well, a certain critical mass of Friends in the meeting must know our tradition. This points us toward the discipline of study and to the spiritual gift of teaching. 

I think meetings need at least two people who know the tradition well enough to teach it. If a meeting does not have these human resources, it could develop them or import them from nearby meetings or from the yearly meeting through religious education programs. Few of us are scholars and not everyone is even a student by temperament, so a meeting is lucky to have someone with such a temperament. If a meeting finds itself bereft of such learners and teachers, then you could form study groups and learn and teach yourselves. For how are we going to survive if we do not pass our tradition along to the future? And how can you be an effective Quaker meeting if no one really knows their Quakerism?

I suspect that an awful lot of our meetings don’t have any members who are conversant enough with deepening techniques, or with the traditional faith and practices of Quaker discernment, or with the rest of our tradition, to share these things with the meeting. With luck, though, these resources will exist within the quarterly or regional meeting, or at least within the yearly meeting. Meetings that aren’t equipped to provide these kinds of programs for themselves should actively seek them out in their wider Quaker community.

In his Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster discusses other spiritual practices, as well. Along with meditation, prayer, and study, he includes in his discussion of the Inward Disciplines fasting. This is an under-utilized and under-valued discipline, in my opinion, not that I’ve done much fasting. But every time I have done it, I have been impressed with how effective it is, especially as an aid to deeper meditation and prayer. The benefits really kick in late in the second day, in my experience. And except for the discipline part, it’s really easy.

Foster discusses several Outward Disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. Simplicity and service are quintessentially Quaker, at least in theory. So is submission: instead of “submission”, we speak of faithfulness to the promptings of the spirit in the faith and practice of Quaker ministry—readiness to submit to a leading, whether in meeting for worship as we feel led to speak, or elsewise in the movement of the spirit toward witness or service. Solitude can be hard to get in this life and this world, especially if you have children. But like fasting, it brings surprising benefits. In my own practice, I often combine solitude with time in nature; there’s something about being alone in a forest or out in the desert or on the seashore that dissolves the barriers between flesh and spirit.

Foster’s third group of disciplines he calls Corporate Discipline: confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Worship, of course, is a Quaker strength. We do know how to gather under the wings of the Spirit. Confession feels more foreign to us. But I suspect that, when our meetings find themselves in conflict, turning to confession would often deliver us from our fears and hurt and anger. For guidance, we have clearness committees—and eldership. Many of our meetings have disempowered their potential elders. This has been a big mistake, though it does seem that the old culture of eldership had lost its way. So now it’s time to recover a new culture of eldership that respects the individual in the ways that we now take for granted, and yet actively seeks to nurture the life of the spirit in a meeting’s members.

Quaker culture is not very welcoming of the kinds of celebration that other churches practice. I am thinking especially of the eucharist and of music, of the rituals and holidays that bring celebration into the lives of other faith communities, and the pure joy of good music. The Catholics and Orthodox and Episcopalians understand celebratory ritual and, as good as the Bach preludes and the hymn singing were in the Lutheran church of my childhood, I think the black church has always been the benchmark for celebration through music. We have potlucks. I am not being sarcastic. We do have our ways of celebrating. In fact, in my opinion, the Quaker meeting for marriage is as good as religious celebration gets, when it’s done well. Unless it’s a memorial meeting. How often have I experienced a gathered meeting for worship while celebrating the life of a Friend! For that is the purpose of the discipline of religious celebration: to bring the worshippers into the joy of G*d’s love by awakening our own.

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§ 5 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spiritual Formation

  • isaacsmith says:

    Great post, Steven. I’ve become a big fan of Experiment with Light as a spiritual practice, though I agree Ambler’s interpretation of early Friends’ writings isn’t the only one. But as a way to engage Friends with our own tradition, particularly in Meetings who aren’t much acquainted with it (or are reluctant to apply it), it’s a great tool.

    I would love for Meetings for Worship to have more celebratory elements. It should be possible to retain the unprogrammed nature of the meeting, while also allowing for more forms of expression than an impromptu sermon or reading from Scripture. As it happens, Brent Bill has been advocating for something like this approach for pastoral meetings: Keep the elements of the service (sermon, readings, hymns) but ditch the programming; or rather, leave the programming to God. Obviously, with liberal Friends, you would need to handle it differently: A written sermon may not be acceptable, but what about reading from the queries in our Faith and Practice? My local Meeting does this monthly, in fact. As for music, incorporating it would depend on how musically literate your Meeting is. We don’t expect Friends to deliver messages in, say, Japanese if they’re not fluent in it; how, then, can we expect congregational singing if the congregation isn’t already practiced in music? At the same time, if you did incorporate music as a possible form of expression in worship, it would need to be something simple, with little orchestration if any. Perhaps Friends should take up shapenote singing?

  • Alastair Reid says:

    There is also the writings of Samuel Bownas in particular his book A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister. It is some time since I read it but I think there were some useful parts dealing with spiritual guides particularly in relation to ministry.

  • treegestalt says:

    I have agreed for a very long time now… and yet.

    Is it worth considering that some of these things may have been lost for a reason? In a recent worship group I was definitely ‘thinking’ — but with a sense that this was not ‘merely thinking’, that because I intended (and had had some practice in seeking) to be attuned with God in this worship, the thinking itself was being Led. Meditation (trying not to compulsively-think-so-much) had its value, but so did this.

    Techniques can help reach — and techniques can become distracting alternatives to — the communion that Friends are intended to reach.

    We don’t need to make ourselves a Testimony of Rejecting Technique. We gave up music, as you say, because it’s hard to use music without music using us, without music becoming a distracting alternative. Yet we also know that music can be helpful.

    Maybe our Society of Friends has lost some useless baggage while collectively wandering in the desert of the last forty years, or possibly some essentials… but perhaps it’s just that we didn’t need to carry so much. If this is the Promised Land we’re straggling into, can we look at it all with fresh eyes?

    • I agree with you about the potential intrusiveness of technique. I used to teach Silva Mind Control, a pretty sinister-sounding name for a quite valuable self-help, pop-pscyh, pseudo-scientific program for deepening and focusing, which has a special focus on spiritual healing. Mind Control is thick with techniques, and I found that I was handling my own experience with tools so much that I had lost my “touch”—I was mediating my own experience and my inner life with tools that were quite effective, but always in the way. I gave up the practice of saturating my life and experience with spiritual instruments.

      But I still use their main deepening technique all the time and I still use their focusing technique on occasion, both in modified form. They really work.

      And I’m not sure there ever were any such techniques in earlier forms of Quakerism to lose. I haven’t found them. Rex Ambler apparently claims to have found them, but I think he has inferred them, that early Friends were doing something instinctively that he has distilled into a technique—one that many Friends seem to find really useful.

      So I guess I’m calling for knowledge, rather than ignorance, and for choice. I do think our meetings would be doing our members a great service by exposing them to such things, and then, of course, everyone chooses what works for them, or nothing at all.

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