Joys of the Quaker Way—The Gathered Meeting
December 5, 2014 § 3 Comments
One morning during the time I was writing Good News for the Poor: The Economics of Redemption in the Common-wealth of God, while I was in the shower thinking about the Last Supper, it dawned on me that there was only one loaf of bread for the meal, and that that single loaf carried a kind of sacramental truth that I had never perceived before, a significance that was both spiritual and economic.
Normally, each of the disciples would have had his own loaf of bread. Diners in Jesus’ world would tear pieces off of their loaf and use them as pincers to pick pieces of meat and vegetables out of the common dish. You can see this at work in the parable of the man with a night visitor who goes to his neighbor to ask for three loaves of bread (Luke 11:5-10), one for his visitor, one for himself, and one for . . . Elijah? his wife? The story doesn’t say; that is not its point.
The fact that Jesus and his disciples had only one loaf at the Last Supper—which clearly was going to be an important meal—meant either that Jesus and his disciples were very poor, which we know in fact they were—we have several stories in which they were going hungry and only a “miracle” intervened; or they were doing without in radical solidarity with the poor—they were poor in the spirit. Or both.
This little opening gave me shivers. It was thrilling. I could hardly wait to tell someone—only there was no one to tell just then. And even when I finally did have someone to share the experience with, it lost a lot in the telling. I couldn’t really share the joy I had had in that moment, even though I still carried much of that joy with me.
For the feelings I had that morning are still with me, still quite vivid when I think about the moment, the opening, the meaning of the thing, the way it laid another stone on the foundation of my understanding of the economics of redemption. Even right now as I write, I am seeing a new thing about that one loaf of bread, how it fulfilled the prophetic promise of the Jubilee that Jesus declared at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4. And right now, the joy is back! But again I am alone, at my desk, on a cloudy morning in the city of Philadelphia. You, my reader, are still in the future, and perhaps somewhere on the other side of the world. I really cannot share this joy with you as I would wish to.
This is the way with the joy of openings, and even of leadings and calls to ministry, to a large degree. These experiences are inward, they are personal, even solitary.
Not so with the gathered meeting for worship. The unique and beautiful thing about the gathered meeting for worship is that you share the joy with others.
I talked about this in my series on the gathered meeting, that the signature characteristic of the gathered meeting is joy:
Each of these aspects of the gathered meeting—energy, presence, and knowledge—inspire joy. The psychic and physical thrill are joyous. The sense of presence—of each other’s presence and the deeper something extra—gladden the heart, awakening a unique kind of love for each other and for G*d. And the knowledge, too, is deeply satisfying—to know that you have found something holy, that is, whole-making, however ineffable, or that, in doing G*d’s business, you share in the community’s communion of unity.
I experienced the gathered meeting most recently, after a long spell without, at New York Yearly Meeting’s Summer Sessions this year in July. We had labored through several business sessions over an important set of recommendations for establishing a new direction for the Yearly Meeting that would be more focused on local Friends and local meetings. It got nasty. There were tears, there were accusations and distrust and fear. The committee responsible for the recommendations went back to work and returned with revisions. And suddenly, there we were in the presence of the Holy Spirit. As one Friend after another spoke in unity with the new vision, joy spread like sunlight over a lake at dawn. There were tears. As we left the meetingroom, there were smiles and hugs; there was love all around.
This was not just a shared joy, by which I mean the way you feel when someone you love shares their joy with you, so that you feel some of it, too. This was collective joy. For the unique gift of the gathered meeting is that we feel the joy together in that moment, each of us directly, and we know that others are feeling just as we do ourselves, and we know that they know that we too are feeling this joy, and we know that they know that we know that they know. Oh, what joy this is!
For all the joy I have known in the practice of the Quaker way as an individual, none in my experience matches the collective joy I have known in the gathered meeting.