May 29, 2020 § 8 Comments
In my last post, I revised my original evaluation of virtual worship. Before our meeting switched to Zoom for worship, I was skeptical. After that first meeting, I was thankful. Now I’m skeptical again. And for me, this comes down to whether a virtual meeting for worship can be gathered in the Spirit.
In my Pendle Hill Pamphlet The Gathered Meeting I identified five qualities that distinguish the gathered or covered meeting for worship: energy, presence, knowledge, unity, and joy.
Energy. The gathered meeting is thrilling; it fills my mind and even my body with an unmistakable sense of aliveness and focus. But “focus” is not really the right word, because there is no point of focus, but rather a whole-field sense of heightened awareness, of presence to the animating energy of consciousness.
To be honest, I’ve had these feelings when in deep meditation, so presumably I could have them in a virtual meeting for worship. There is a subtle difference, though, I think, between the deep contemplative state and the state I’m trying to describe in a gathered meeting for worship, which feels induced, not by my own individual practice, but by our corporate practice. That difference is pretty subtle. But can we feel that frisson, that shivering shared awareness, that passes through the body (the gathered body) when it’s covered by the Spirit if we are not sitting next to each other in the same space, but only present to each other as thumbnail images on a screen?
Knowledge. The gathered meeting brings a knowing, a feeling that one has touched, not some specific truth, but a more transcendent Truth. It’s as though some spiritual organ for gnosis, for spiritual understanding, has been super-charged, but without being given, necessarily, any object to be understood. We become a Subject Who Knows. And we also feel like a Someone Who Is Known. Like the sense of energy, this sense of knowing, and of knowing that we are known, transcends our ability to articulate it; it “passes all understanding”. But it is real.
Once again, I’ve experienced this state a few times on my own, in deep meditation, on LSD, and in a sweat lodge. What’s different in the gathered meeting is a collective knowing: I Know; I know that you Know; I know that you know that I Know; and I know that you know that I know that you Know. This psychic, collective, mutually reflective knowing is a signature characteristic of a gathered meeting; you look up after meeting is over and there are the other worshippers looking back at you with that look of—I Know! How would I know in this way in a virtual meeting?
Unity. This pentecost, this psychic manifestation of gathering in the Spirit, fuses the community in communion. This union, this unity, is most obvious in a gathered meeting for business, which, in my experience, often comes after hard struggle in disunity. But whether in a regular meeting for worship or a business meeting, the participants feel at one with each other in a way that transcends mere outward agreement. This unity is, in a sense, just another face of the gathered meeting’s sense of knowing. And like the collective knowing, it needs the collective. How can we share this sense of one-body-ness when our bodies and our consciousnesses are miles away from each other?
Presence. Presence, what Thomas Kelly calls the “dynamic, living, working Life”, is the hardest of all these qualities to share virtually with others. It’s not too hard to be present to each other socially on Zoom, but (for me, at least) it’s really hard to be psychically present to each other virtually. Virtually psychically present—that is an oxymoron. Meanwhile, being thus present to each other is somehow the very foundation of being present to the Presence in our Midst. On Zoom, we don’t really have a Midst for a Presence to be present in.
Joy. Joy is the easiest of these to feel in a Zoom meeting, I think. The joy I feel in seeing these faces, hearing your voices, is real and strong. But still—it is not the same as that overwhelming sense of gratitude that I’ve felt in a gathered meeting for worship, in which the unity, the joy, the knowing, the presence, and the Presence all shake my being in a way I’ve never experienced any other way. Oftentimes it has literally made me quake.
But can’t the gathering on Zoom still be worship?
The first-order question is, what is worship? What is meeting for worship for? For me, worship is the corporate practice of listening at the door for the knock of the Presence and that Voice and then opening (Revelation 3:20). We come together in worship in order to be gathered collectively into the Spirit of Love and Truth, into what Paul called the body of Christ. We come to realize what is perhaps the signature tenet of our faith, that not only can every human commune directly with the divine, but also the worshipping community can commune directly with the divine—as a community! And sometimes this happens in this extraordinary and beatific way we call the covered meeting.
So—for me—worship is all about the gathered meeting. And I just don’t think a virtual meeting can be a medium for a gathered meeting.
Now it’s true that gathered meetings are rare, and so a meeting for worship doesn’t have to be gathered to be a meeting for worship. Moreover, I suspect that many of our members and attenders have never experienced a gathered meeting; a certain number might not even know there is such a thing. And yet a meeting for worship is still a meeting for worship.
So I attend.
A note—a minute of exercise, if you will—that arose from writing this post. I found myself using terms to describe one aspect of the gathered meeting that, in my pamphlet, I had used to describe a different aspect of the gathered meeting. This, I think, is because the gathered meeting transcends description. That hasn’t kept me from trying to describe it. However, I found in writing this post that my various descriptions of its various aspects all verge on each other. These various aspects of the gathered meeting are, in essence, all faces of the same thing. In this transcendental state, all is one.
March 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
I have created a page on this blog here on which I am pulling together all the resources I can find on holding virtual meetings and meetings for worship.
March 21, 2020 § 2 Comments
Here is a great resource for meetings hosting virtual worship or virtual meetings from Woodbrooke study center in Great Britain:
March 21, 2020 § 9 Comments
My meeting (Central Philadelphia) is experimenting with online worship starting tomorrow (Sunday, March 22, 2020) using Zoom. I plan to participate; in fact, I will be part of a “tech support” team to help Friends who are having trouble joining the meeting. I think the virtual meeting is a good idea. However, I wonder whether we should call it worship.
What is worship?
A virtual meeting like this raises an existential question of just what are we doing when we worship? Not what do we think we are doing, but what is our goal and what is actually happening?
For me, the goal is the gathered meeting, the direct collective experience of the presence of God among us. By God I mean the Mystery Reality behind our experience of being gathered in the Spirit, however we might name that as individuals.
If the collective communion with the transcendent Divine is our desire in worship, then the act of worship is personal and collective alignment toward, attention to, attunement with, the Holy Spirit, with that ineffable link between the Light within each of us and our collective capacity for transcendental communion as a worshipping body, what Paul called the body of Christ.
How are we to be gathered into communion via the internet? I doubt that it’s possible, for several reasons.
Obstacles to a virtual gathered meeting
First, just what is the medium through which the Spirit is corporately manifest? I think there are two such media, one physical, the other metaphysical. The physical medium is vocal ministry. A virtual meeting for worship will have vocal ministry, albeit distorted by the technology. But at least, everyone will probably be able to hear the speakers, and the same discipline of discernment will theoretically apply for each minister. Or will it? How much is that discipline dependent on the physical presence of the listeners? Will the remote aspect of the technology encourage relaxed discernment, as it notoriously does with email, texts, and social media?
The metaphysical medium can be defined only through speculation, though we know it’s real because we’ve experienced gathered meetings. Communion really does take place, sometimes—but how? I think the metaphysical medium for the Holy Spirit in meeting for worship is our human auras and, by extension, the “ether”, or whatever you want to call the medium in which psychic events take place between people.
My study of auras points to two kinds of auras, an etheric and an astral. The etheric aura is a shade of “white” that emanates from the body. The astral aura is a rainbow of colors that emanates from the mind and, if you will, the soul, the spiritual self that knows right from wrong, makes choices, feels emotions and has intentions—and that is capable of psychic experience. These subtle invisible vibrations (to most of us most of the time)—what we used to call “vibes”—manifest with apparent physical limits to those who can see them, but they exist in an apparently nonphysical “space” that has no such limits. I believe this “space” is what the ancients called “heaven”, that is, the dwelling-place of the gods, of spirits, of Spirit.
In theory, then, this apparently limitless region for psychic experience could work with the internet and we could have a gathered virtual meeting for worship. But in practice, in the reality of reasonable expectations, we need to sit together in the same space where our auras can intermingle, creating a “network” of individual psyches that is greater than the sum of the parts. This is one of the reasons why sitting close together seems to foster the gathered meeting.
There are other obstacles to a gathered virtual meeting.
Central Philadelphia is urging participants to mute their microphones unless and until they speak, then to mute their mics again. This prevents the ambient noises in each participant’s environment from cascading with everybody else’s and potentially overwhelming the technology and the collective experience. For each participant, muting will create an artificial silence that is nothing like the silence in a meeting room full of worshippers. You will hear your own environment, but not one shared by the other worshippers. Can this disparate, individual scattering of personal artificial silences feed the gathered meeting? I doubt it.
Can fussing with the technology—logging in, solving connection and device problems, muting and un-muting mics, watching the screen flip from one speaker to the other if you’re in Speaker View, and the sudden intrusion of someone speaking out of that artificial silence—can all this outward business draw us deeper into the depths? I doubt it. Though we will probably get better at it with practice.
It will be good to see each other’s faces in this time of crisis. It will be wonderful to be together in some fashion, rather than stuck in isolation in a time of fear. But I don’t think it will be worship.
On the other hand, much of our worship is increasingly not the worship I have been describing, anyway. It usually is more like worship sharing, and often not even that. It is disturbed by latecomers. It is rarely gathered in the Spirit. We have lowered the bar for what constitutes worship and we no longer have a collectively agreed-upon understanding of what worship is, what it’s for, or whom—or what—we worship, if that last idea works for us in the first place.
So my final concern is that calling virtual worship “worship” reinforces this trend toward embracing something that is not true worship, practicing something that is not alignment toward God, however we might define that, but rather group meditation and an in-person blogging platform. So virtual worship will really be what we have already—group meditation with worship sharing added. So why not “worship” virtually? What’s the difference? In fact, why go back to meeting in person, once this is all over? We could all just sit at home in our jammies and worship.
So I think we should call this something else. Maybe “Meeting for Virtual Community”. And be deliberate in our characterization, that this really is not worship, but worth doing anyway.
A side note here: For Christ-centered Friends, the object of worship is much more discreet and “tangible” than it is for us who are not Christ-centered. That is, (though I generalize) Christ-centered Friends worship a divine Christ, and by extension, God the Father, a theistic being possessing absolute attributes like omnipresence and ultimate power. For God so defined, anything is possible. Theoretically. So maybe Christ would choose to gather a virtual meeting of his present-day followers, just because he can and he wants to. No media required, physical or metaphysical. (Though metaphysical dynamics are still involved—how does Christ gather gathered meetings?)
I look forward to hearing from these Friends if they begin experimenting with online meetings for worship. Do they still program their meetings (if they were programmed before)? Does singing with each other remotely carry the same feelings of joy and presence to one another as singing in the same room? And so on. And will the Conservative meetings try this, who are centered in Christ but do not program their meetings? Somehow, I doubt it. But if they do, I hope to hear how it goes.
November 8, 2019 § 2 Comments
In Listening Spirituality, Vol II, Patricia Loring defines worship as collectively offering ourselves to God and listening for God’s Word. This definition works well for me and I want to explore it a little.
By “offering ourselves” I would mean both offering our individual selves and offering our collective self as a worshiping community.
Offering our individual selves. Quaker worship gives us an opportunity to focus on this offering of our selves to God; or, if God language does not work for you, worship is an opportunity to focus on our alignment with the forces that work within us for positive transformation, however we might experience them or conceive them.
Offering our selves to God is committing ourselves to the work of inner transformation, to the work of becoming better people, more loving and kind, more attentive and sensitive, more honest and self-aware, more open to inspiration and creativity; committing ourselves to becoming more whole as a person, to becoming our true and better selves.
As a religious society, we have an advocate in this project. For some of us, this “advocate”, this help with realizing our true and better selves, feels like a presence, a spiritual sentience, a companion of spirit whom we could name and with whom we can have a relationship. For others of us, we know at least that there are moments in the work when breakthroughs, or release, or insight, or strength, or some kind of inner change takes place as grace, as unexpected, sometimes even undeserved, inrushing of positive energy and transformation—but its source remains a mystery.
We have another advocate, as well—each other. More on this in a moment.
Offering our collective self. The same things are true for a gathered body of worshippers. The community offers itself up for transformation. This is most obvious in the meeting for business in worship, when we offer our decisions to God’s wish for us; or, if God language doesn’t work for you, we seek to follow the movement of the spirit amongst us, guiding us, until we are collectively certain about where we are to go.
This process is mysterious. Mostly it works through individuals, through individual spoken ministry as we settle deeper and deeper into a discerning consciousness. I believe there are other forces at work, as well, ways in which human consciousness responds to small signals in the group—body language, facial expressions, tones of voice and other aural clues, the character of the silences between messages—which communicate feelings and leanings subliminally, rather than content, substance, or ideas outwardly.
And then there is Spirit. Collective Quaker discernment has a third dimension beyond outward spoken word and the subtle human signals. Something transcendental moves among us when we truly are in worship. This partakes of true mystery. It transcends the sensible and the subliminal; it operates in the realm of the psychical. It transcends our ability to name it or understand it, but not our ability to feel it or to follow it.
The same dynamics—the same Spirit—is at work in the regular meeting for worship. With our vocal ministry we serve each other’s transformation. With the small signals of our sitting together we communicate a host of more subtle feelings for each other that build community and nurture the individual spirit. And in the gathered meeting, we find ourselves present to each other in a spirit transcendental and we sense some movement, some presence, some something behind or within our joy and energy and knowledge. The experience strengthens our faith and cements our sense of blessed community.
We could name it God, or Christ, or just the Spirit, but for almost all of us almost all of the time, we are just assigning meaning to something we don’t really understand but which we know is really happening. Sometimes some of us claim to know with certainty the identity of our gathering spirit, and those persons may be right. However, the rest of us cannot with integrity share their certainty, except on faith. But we can and do share a certainty about its effect on the body, its intention, if you will, the direction of our discernment.
Listening. The other half of worship-as-offering is worship-as-listening. We “listen”, not with our ears but with our souls, for a response to the offering. We offer because we believe in the response, because our experience shows us that, in reciprocation to our offering there is an answering.
If, as individuals, we align ourselves with the forces that work within us for transformation (and also “forces” without us—other people, circumstances, “coincidences”, books, the Book, a whole host of vehicles outside ourselves for answering our cry for wholeness), we are indeed transformed. Usually in little ways, but not always; sometimes in overwhelming ways.
So we are listening for these answers to our offering. And then when we “hear” the answer, we offer ourselves again—we submit to the forces of positive change. And I say “submit” deliberately, because almost always, change comes at a cost. We must give something up of ourselves; we must let go of something we are attached to. We don’t like change; it takes an act of sacrifice, of inner submission in faith that it will be worth it.
And it is worth it. We offer ourselves, in faith. We receive an answer, an offer back. We offer ourselves, in faith again, to this answer. And then we find what we have sought.
And so it is with the worshipping body. We offer ourselves to God, to Christ, to the Spirit, however we might name that Transcendent Mystery that guides us to Truth. We listen for that still small voice within us. With vocal ministry we listen, not for this Friend or that Friend’s word or wisdom, but for the Word of Wisdom speaking through them in their vocal ministry.
In the silence we open ourselves also to the subliminal. We have taken away as much of the noise as we can with silent, waiting worship, so that we can hear the true signal, however small it might be.
And we “listen” psychically for the movement of the Holy Spirit. We barely know how to do this. Even if we are trained in some form of mindfulness or meditation, there is some faculty beyond technique that operates with only our intention—our offering—as its handle, mysteriously, transcendentally. Let’s call it the spirit’s ear, with which we hear the answer to our offer.
September 26, 2019 § 9 Comments
Several months ago, Friends Journal dedicated an issue to Christianity and Quakerism, whose articles I read with great interest. When I had finished them, however, I ended up feeling that the real issue was different than the one posed by the issue’s title theme. The important questions aren’t about the relationship between the “isms”—between Quakerism and Christianity. The important questions are about the relationship between meetings, their members, and the Christ, and between the meeting and its Christian members and attenders. They are about worship and fellowship, not history and theology.
Do we fully welcome Christians into our worship and into our fellowship? By “fully” I mean the way many meetings now fully welcome LGBTQ Friends, for which the signature action is marrying under the care of the meeting. That is, do we not just tolerate Christian and biblical vocal ministry, for instance, but want it, even need it? Do we pray for the spirit of Christ to enter our worship?
Of course, many (most?) liberal Quakers do not “pray” in any traditional sense, do not believe that a theistic, sentient, spiritual entity exists who could “hear” or answer such a prayer—and specifically not Jesus Christ as traditionally understood.
This is because they have not experienced it. If they had experienced it they would “believe”. Nor do they trust the testimony of those who have experienced Jesus Christ. That is, they do not trust Christians, do not at least trust the foundational experience and truth of Christians. This in spite of the truth and testimony of the Friends who founded our movement and have carried the tradition faithfully to the present.
This disconnect damages our meetings.
For one thing, it is out of the testimony of integrity to deny a truth that has been essential to our movement throughout our history, and still is for the majority of Friends worldwide even today, when we have not actually explicitly abandoned that testimony in meetings for business held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We have never forthrightly faced the question of our relationship with Christ, but only allowed Christianity to slip out of our books of discipline gradually and basically unconsciously as our culture has become increasingly post-Christian. Now, we presume our post-Christian character. We treat Christian Friends as, in some ways, outside this tacitly defined cultural consensus.
Self-identified nontheists usually carry the ball in this process in a weird manifestation of projection: Christian and biblical language makes many nontheists feel excluded, as though the cultural consensus was theistic—but it’s not. It’s the other way around, at least in many of the meetings I know. When nontheists express their sense of exclusion, they act to exclude theists from the nontheist cultural consensus that actually dominates in many meetings.
The tag for this behavior is “inclusiveness” or “diversity”, ironically. But God forbid we should fully include Christians and theists.
Full disclosure here: I have not experienced Jesus Christ, as traditionally understood, myself. But I’m not a nontheist, either, because I have experienced “theistic” spiritual entities—let’s call them angels or devas. Or at least that’s how these experiences presented themselves to me. They could be experiences projected from my unconscious, or memes or archetypes that “dwell” in the collective unconscious. I can explain them away any number of ways. But I choose to honor the form in which they presented, rather than rewrite my own experience out of some arbitrary fidelity to “science” or “reason” or some other Enlightenment trope. And I respect those who do not try to explain away their experience of Christ either; I completely understand.
For I am clear that these spiritual entities—like Jesus Christ—do “exist”, in the sense that people experience them as real, that is, as transforming in their lives, even if the experience transcends normal experience and consciousness, the physical senses, reason, and the apparent “laws of nature”. Spirit is by definition transcendental.
But back to my concern. Here are my queries: Do we not want everyone to see themselves reflected in the meeting’s worship, fellowship, and culture? People of color, LGBTQ folks, nontheists—and Christians? Or not?
And why, especially, would we not welcome—nay, actually pray for—the presence of the spirit of Christ, who first gathered Quakers as a people of God and who has been guiding both the movement and its members ever since—at least according the testimony of our most trustworthy guiding lights?
The obvious counter-argument is that he has not been manifesting lately. So many of us do not, in fact, have any experience of the spirit of Christ, myself included. Why? Because he doesn’t exist? If he does exist, then what is he up to? Is it his fault we don’t know him—or ours?
Or—has he been in our midst all along, just without his name tag on? Take the example of the very first disciples. In the vast majority of their first experiences of the spirit of Christ—that is, of the risen Christ as spirit rather than embodied man—THEY DID NOT RECOGNIZE HIM or they doubted. Why should it be different for us?
For me, the question is about the character of our worship and the respect and loving welcome in our fellowship. It’s about what we do and whom we embrace.
December 13, 2018 § 2 Comments
Of all the changes in the character of silent, waiting worship among liberal Friends, one of the most significant, I think, is the loss of vocal prayer, and it’s among the most invisible or unregarded.
In thirty years of worship among Friends, I may have heard vocal prayer maybe a dozen times in meeting for worship, not counting the somewhat more regular prayers of a Friend in New York Yearly Meeting with whom I’ve worshipped a lot and who has the gift of prayer. I have only prayed out loud in meeting for worship twice myself.
Most liberal Friends, I suspect, don’t miss it. Most of us don’t hold dear a God who is “theistic”, whom one could address as an external sentient being who’s capable of hearing, let alone answering, one’s prayers. For many of us “God”, if the word works for us at all, is a much more amorphous—what? Not being; idea, maybe. Nor do most of us believe in a divine Jesus Christ to whom we might pray.
Instead, we liberal Friends “hold each other in the light”. More about this in a subsequent post.
But, for a sense of what we might be missing, listen to what William Penn has to say about George Fox in his introduction to Fox’s Journal:
“But above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say was in his prayer. And truly it was a testimony that he knew and lived nearer to the Lord than other men; for they that know him most will see most reason to approach him with reverence and fear.
The lack of vocal prayer in meeting for worship reflects, I suspect, a lack of prayer (understood in the conventional sense) in our personal devotional practices. My dictionary defines prayer as an approach to deity in word or thought and, as I’ve said, I suspect most of us don’t resonate with the “deity” part. We may do something else and call it prayer.
In my own practice, I “pray” and I “meditate”. I’ve been trained in several kinds of meditation and I use several of them quite regularly. And I also pray fairly regularly in the conventional sense of addressing—well, not God, as conventionally understood, as a supreme being, or as the Father of Jesus Christ in the Trinity. I pray to the spirit of Christ, and I communicate with several spiritual allies or companions in a more shamanistic sense.
I am careful to say “spirit of Christ” here because I have no experience of Jesus Christ understood in the conventional sense; that is, as the divine, immortal, resurrected spirit of the biblical Jesus who is still with us today, albeit in heaven, or whatever you call the spirit realm in which the saints and Christ are said to dwell—which definitely isn’t here on the material plane.
That is to say, I’ve experienced something, and I call it the spirit of Christ. I have experienced something transcendental, which has come to me as a sense of presence and as eidetic imagery in the form of some generic devotional wall-painting form of Jesus. The metaphysics of these experiences is a delightful, intriguing mystery to me and I don’t fuss about it too much; I think about it, I have ideas about it, but I don’t take these ideas very seriously—unlike the experiences themselves, which I take very seriously.
So I pray to a “spirit of Christ”, a transcendental sense of presence that has clothed itself in familiar form in my spiritual apperception, and addressing it works for me. It focuses me. It satisfies something in me.
And this is the power of conventional prayer. It feels good, it feels right, somehow, to speak to someone, to communicate in a spiritual relationship that feels like communicating in our other relationships. It comes naturally—if you believe in or sense a “someone” at the other end.
This “spirit of Christ” whom I address is not the only “spirit” I’ve encountered in my journey. There are three others. Let’s call them angels, for want of a better word. They all have in common that they present themselves as beings with whom I can have—and do have—a relationship; they have a kind of personhood, they have moods and personalities. I could say that they are just in my imagination, except that they each have demonstrated their power on my behalf. They have done things that have improved my life, both inwardly and outwardly. Or more accurately, addressing them, bringing them into my devotional life, seems to be associated—causally—with little miracles; or big ones. Changes in my life that I am so grateful for, blessings that I sought and that were delivered, however that actually worked out in the spirit realm.
So I pray.
But these relationships are private, intimate, personal, and it’s complicated to share them with others. So vocal prayer doesn’t come naturally to me. Both times that I’ve prayed aloud in meeting for worship, I had the very rare experience for me of feeling ripped up from my seat, of being under some influence or power, of having hardly any choice in speaking or in what I said.
Did my prayer bring others into the Presence with me? I wonder. I doubt it. But maybe.
In my next post, I want to explore “holding in the light” as our go-to alternative for conventional prayer.
January 4, 2018 § 9 Comments
I want to make a case for Quakerism as a religion.
I suspect that many Friends prefer to think of their Quakerism as a spirituality rather than as a religion. For one thing, “religion” implies belief in God and beliefs in general, and for many of us, “belief in God” isn’t as straightforward as it was a generation or two ago.
Also, “religion” implies tradition, a legacy of beliefs and practices that one has had no part in shaping, leaving you to either accept or rebel against them; religion implies an authority in the community that in some ways supersedes one’s own individual preferences. By contrast, “spirituality” implies individualism—personal sovereignty over one’s own ideas, beliefs, and practices.
For many Friends (in the liberal tradition, at least), one of the most appealing aspects of Quakerism is this freedom to believe and practice what you wish. You can escape the constraints of religion, and for many of us those constraints have been enforced with abuse. Thus, for many Friends, joining a Quaker meeting means joining a group of like-minded people who accept that each of us is practicing our own form of spirituality. In this view, meeting for worship becomes, in essence, a form of group meditation.
For me, however, Quakerism is both a religion and a spirituality. Let me explain by trying to define spirituality and religion as integrally related.
For me, spirituality is the ideas, attitudes, emotions, and practices one embraces in order to align one’s inner life toward personal transformation and toward the transcendental and to align one’s outer life toward right living.
For me, religion is the collective spirituality practiced by a community. Religion is the ideas, attitudes, feelings, and practices the community embraces in order to align its inner life toward collective transformation and toward the transcendental (God—more about this in a moment), and to align the community’s outer life toward justice, peace, equality, earthcare, and service in the world.
For religious communities have a collective inner life, just as individuals have a personal inner life. (Some Friends, especially in the 18th century, called this collective inner spiritual life of the meeting the angel of the meeting, after Revelations, chapters two and three, which are letters written by Christ to the angels of the meetings of seven churches in Asia Minor.)
Actually, all communities have an inner life. Clubs, professional associations, businesses, municipalities—all these communities have some kind of inner life. But these communities are rarely self-conscious enough, self-reflective enough, small enough, or organized in such a way as to manifest a collective consciousness coherent enough to work with in a deliberate and meaningful way. These communities can still experience transformation. On very rare occasions, they can even experience the transcendental. And they can bend toward justice (or toward oppression) in their presence in the world.
But the thing about a religious community is that it’s designed to work with its collective consciousness. It’s designed to provide shape and context for the spirituality of the individuals who comprise its collective consciousness; but it also works directly at the collective level with ideas, attitudes, emotions, and practices that only the community as such can embrace.
For most religions, this direct attempt at collective faith and practice is limited to the worship service. Friends enjoy a number of other “venues” for collective spirituality in addition to worship: worship sharing groups, clearness committees, even committee work itself—we conduct all of our gatherings and discernment as meetings for worship, at least in theory, as shared tools for aligning our collective inner and outer lives.
What really makes Quakerism a religion, in my view, though, is that our practice of collective spirituality sometimes manifests in collective transcendental experience. We call this direct experience of God the gathered meeting. By “God” I mean here the Mystery Reality behind our experience of the gathered meeting. We may not be able to collectively articulate what that presence is very well—it’s a mystery. But we share the knowledge of its reality.
The direct experience and knowledge of that reality puts “belief in God” in a new light. We don’t believe in God as a matter of faith in a legacy or tradition of ideas. Rather, we know God collectively through direct experience. As individuals, we may elaborate in various ways on that immediate apperception of the divine which we’ve experienced in the gathered meeting for worship—we may have certain beliefs about what’s happened.
The community may do the same thing with its collective experience and develop a “theology”, as early Friends did, as a way of sharing the experience—with each other, with our children, with potential converts. But, for early Friends, such evangelizing did not aim at converting people to a set of beliefs, but at bringing them into that experience, bringing them into direct relationship with God. So also today, our theology, our ideas about what’s happening in our collective spiritual life as a meeting and as a movement, are only tools for pointing toward the Presence we experience in the gathered meeting and/or in our own hearts.
Thus Quakerism does have a tradition, it does have a legacy, and that legacy does include ideas, attitudes, feelings, and practices for the individual to practice as the Quaker way. But these are not as fully developed as in some other religions. This is mostly because we are so inwardly focused and have abandoned outward forms to such a thorough degree. We don’t light votive candles, pray rosaries, have stock hymns or a religious calendar lectionary. Technically speaking, we don’t even have a religious calendar at all. We don’t have a Benedictine Rule. We don’t have the formal elements of the Eightfold Path, breathing exercises and asanas, like yoga does.
Even to “turn toward the light” or to “sink down in the Seed”, favorite phrases of George Fox representing spiritual “practices”, are very ambiguous as actual practices; it’s taken Rex Ambler to “systematize” the former to some degree as a spiritual practice, and to my knowledge, no one has done this for sinking down into the Seed. And even Ambler’s Experiment with Light is a collective practice, as well as an individual one.
This leaves us as individuals free to hold onto any more fully developed spiritual practices we may have picked up from other traditions, as I have done myself. And we can take some of these with us into our collective Quaker practice; I use some of the same deepening techniques I use in my personal practice to deepen when I attend Quaker meeting for worship. These don’t just help me as an individual to experience worship more deeply; I think they deepen the collective worship, as well.
But the collective practices of the Quaker way are what make it a religion, because, through them, we come to know God in ways that are not possible for us as individuals, in ways that transform the community as community. These practices and these experiences are what make us a peculiar people of God—that is, a religion.
This post is getting pretty long. In the next one, I want to explore how the collective spiritual practice of a religious community is shaped by its founding collective, transcendental, spiritual experience; how the focus of the practice evolves as the community moves away from this foundational experience in time, through the generations; how this kind of evolution has shaped the legacy we have inherited as liberal Quakerism today; and what all this means for us.
October 23, 2017 § 6 Comments
I have spent the whole of this past summer furiously writing to meet a deadline early this month for two long essays, and so have had no time or focus for this blog. One of these essays was a short history of Right Sharing of World Resources, the other a very condensed version of the book in Quakers and Capitalism I’m writing, parts of which I offered here a few years ago. For the past couple of weeks I have been resting my brain and waiting for the Holy Spirit to guide my next efforts.
The Quakers and Capitalism piece got me started again on the research I need to do on the twentieth century in order to finish the book. Doing so, I stumbled upon the Official Report of the All Friends Conference of 1920, held in London, the first worldwide conference of Friends.
The Conference was called to deal primarily with the peace testimony in the aftermath of the Great War. The book features, among other things, short prepared messages on the following topics:
- The Character and Basis of our Testimony for Peace
- The Peace Testimony in Civic and International Life
- The Testimony in Personal Life and Society
- The Life of the Society in Relation to the Peace Testimony
- Problems of Education in Relation to the Testimony
- The International Service of Friends
- Methods of Propaganda
Two Friends presented messages under each heading and that was followed by a time of worship with vocal ministry as commentary on the presentations. In the Discussion, as the book calls these offerings, on The Life of the Society appears a relatively long piece of vocal ministry by Rufus Jones. It brought me up short, and I decided to share it here:
“We shall be weak in our work and message for the present hour unless we greatly deepen our manner and power of worship. We are here, a selected group out of more than 150,000 Friends, and we are supposed to be, in some measure at least, leaders and representatives of the larger group. We have been together now for more than half our Conference, and we have had many occasions set apart for worship. I have been impressed myself with our weakness as a gathered body in reaching these marvellous (sic) depths of spiritual corporate life with God, as we meet together. We have hardly experienced in any very large and striking fashion yet, the tremendous power of silent community fellowship with God. We have found it extremely difficult to avoid saying the words that popped into our minds, when we should have reached so much power if we could have gathered into the complete unity of life with God. I do not discount words; I feel that words are often of the very greatest importance in interpreting what one has arrived at; but first of all I must arrive before interpreting. I feel as I have studied in the last ten years* the life of our Society, as contrasted with the life of our Society in earlier times, that we have a decided weakness in what Gladstone once called the work of worship. We do not succeed in anything like the way we should succeed, as a living body of Christ in the world to-day, in coming into union with God in our gatherings. We do not achieve that corporate effort of spirit that would bring us into parallelism with the divine currents that are waiting to unify and dynamise us with the living fire of the presence of God.
I hope we shall go, all of us, in our communities at home with this concern as a personal concern, to make our meetings for worship in the times of silence vastly more real and powerful than they are at present. It is perhaps the greatest thing we have to exhibit to the spiritual life of our age. It is perhaps our most unique contribution, and we must not fail in that.” (p. 132, All Friends Conference London, August, 1020; Official Report; The Friends Bookshop, London1920.)
This message dismayed me, but it didn’t surprise me. And how far have we come in answering his urgent appeal? In my own meeting yesterday I could almost smell the popcorn. Two messages before twelve minutes had passed and on and on from there. Our meeting was hosting quarterly meeting, so we had a lot of visitors from the other meetings in Philadelphia, which swelled our numbers from the usual 45–65 to maybe 75 or even 90. The bigger the meeting the more people who will speak, by statistical determination. But the wide range of spiritual discernment and self-discipline was stunning, from the relatively deep and valuable to the . . . well let me just leave it there. One never knows when some speech that seems weak and useless is actually answering that of God in someone else.
And with the president rattling his megaton saber with his own undisciplined mouth, we need a strong peace testimony now more than we have since the fateful wars following 9/11. How long has this nation gone without a war since 1920? Not counting the incursions and CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvadore, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Balkans, Chile, and Iran, just to name the ones I remember: twenty years to WWII; five years to Korea; ten years to Vietnam; ten years to the first Iraq War. ten years to Afghanistan and the second Iraq War. We’re overdue, according to this timeline, though the second Iraq War has never really ended, only morphed into the nebulous, terrifying, and unwinnable War against Terror.
I pray with Rufus Jones that we will recommit ourselves to true worship and in the Presence find our voice against the sea of darkness that is trying to drown the world. We need to start writing letters and Op-Ed pieces to the editors of our newspapers, letters to our political representatives, open letters to the other churches. We might get together with the Mennonites and Church of the Brethren to see what we might do together. But most of all, we need to recover deep worship and true communion, from which would spring the prophetic spirit that I know we all long for.
* Jones is referring to his The Later Periods of Quakerism, the third in the historical series that he and John Wilhelm Rowntree and other leaders of the new liberal movement in Quakerism conceived after the Manchester Conference in 1895. The other two are William C. Braithwaite’s The Beginnings of Quakerism to 1660 and The Second Period of Quakerism. The Later Periods of Quakerism was published in 1921.
October 23, 2016 § 6 Comments
We worship in silent expectant waiting.
Silent, because we want to take away any busy-ness or noise that would keep us from hearing that “still small voice” within us.
Expectant, because we know that in the human soul, and in the center of our worship, there is a wellspring of G*d’s love and healing and forgiveness and strength and guidance and inspiration and renewal and creativity; and that, if we turn toward the Light within us, if we attend to the Presence in our midst, then we can expect this divine grace to manifest in holy communion.
And so we wait, not with our thumbs twiddling in some passive quiet, but actively wait as a waiter does, utterly attentive to the needs of those who have come to the divine banquet, ready to serve; we wait as ladies in waiting do, as companions to our Guide, ready to take up any task that may be required of us. This may take the form of vocal ministry; or emerge as acts of love or pastoral care; or as leadings into social witness, in acts that seek to bring G*d’s healing and peace and justice and progress into the world.
* I write the word G*d with an asterisk as a way to bypass the freight that the word often brings with it, in order to connect more directly with my readers. The asterisk stands in for whatever your experience of God is, rather than whatever connotations and associations it might bring from popular use, or even what I myself might mean by the word.