“That of God” in the Gathered Meeting

April 1, 2021 § 5 Comments

I suspect that many Friends would agree that the central principle of Quaker religion is the presence and activity of the Light within us. For early Friends, as for us, this is based on our experience, not on some legacy concept from our tradition which we then accept on faith. We know that something within us brings us into direct, unmediated communion with God. 

To express this experience, early Friends did turn to their tradition. They found their experience articulated in the opening sentences of the gospel of John and called it accordingly, the Light: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)

Today, many Friends have a new way to express our experience of the Light Within—“that of God” within. Whatever we call it, this presence, principle, or capacity within us still enlightens us, with its guidance, healing, conviction, forgiveness, renewal, strengthening, and inspiration. Though we rarely get into the metaphysics of how it works, the Light Within, or that of God within us, somehow enables for us holy communion.

The second essential and distinctive principle of the Quaker faith in my opinion is the gathered meeting. Not only can any individual commune directly with God, but also the worshipping community can commune directly with God as a community, without any mediating persons, rituals, or substances. This is the principle behind our worship practice and our discernment and decision making practice. We submit the call to ministry to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. We submit the governance of our community to the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than to human politics. We surrender the gathered body to the Presence in our Midst.

What is this Presence? What enables the collective mysticism so distinctive to Friends? What is the corporate analog to the Light within each individual? Just as “that of God in everyone” is key to individual communion, so something is key to our collective communion. What do we call that something?

The traditional answer, of course, is Christ. It was the spirit of Christ who first gathered those Seekers on Firbank Fell in 1652, as George Fox opened the way for them with his preaching. In the centuries since, Friends have testified that it is the spirit of Christ who has gathered us and guided us as a movement.

However, this formulation no longer works for a lot of Friends. Without the kind of direct experience of Christ that so enlightened early Friends, many of us have become averse to a Christ-centered articulation of our experience. I feel the same way as regards the traditional salvific theology of Christ taught to us by the conventional church. But I have received an opening that reconnects my experience to my tradition in a continuing revelation. I share it only because I hope it will serve others as it does me.

First, as always for me, experience: we still are gathered in the Spirit now and again. Whatever we call it, something still is at the center of our worship, upwelling with Spirit, bringing us into mystical union with each other and with itself. That is, in the gathered meeting, the worshippers share something transpersonal, something that transcends our personal experience in the sharing, something that awakens in us collectively the deepest joy, gratitude, unity, and astonishment. Whatever we call it.

To express their experience of personal revelation of Spirit, early Friends turned to their tradition—to the Bible—and found in John’s gospel a way to express it—the Light. Where would we turn to express our experience of the gathered meeting, if not to our tradition, as well? Granted, we no longer have unity about the Bible’s authority. But the Bible’s authority is not the issue, for three reasons.

First, Friends have never given the Bible ultimate authority; that is the Spirit’s alone. 

Second, where else would we turn? To the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita? To the Quran or the Analects of Confucius? To the humanist philosophies of Bacon, Locke, and Descartes? 

The Christian context and the biblical content are our tradition. They are the only spiritual tradition we have in common. To turn away from them is to hack at our own roots with the axe of perversity, with acts of peevish obstinacy. It’s a kind of collective self-wounding.

And here is my third reason for not denying the value of our tradition: the Bible is a proven vehicle for personal revelation and renewal, even for those who reject its authority or find parts of it disagreeable, as I do and I have. Experience proves that one can find “that of God” in the scriptures. That’s why denying their value is perverse. 

That doesn’t mean that they are above criticism or correction. Nor do I deny how they have been weaponized for oppression and suffering; this was my original reason for turning against Christianity and the Bible. The Bible is not holy, nor would I even call it sacred, except insofar as it can be a channel for revelation. Building on its value as a potential channel for revelation fosters continuing revelation.

Thus, for me, the expression that works to name “that of God” in the gathered meeting is the spirit of Christ. I am making no claims here about Jesus as the Christ, but trying to name a bridge between my experience and my tradition.

Here’s why: “Christ” means, in Greek, “anointed” (as does the Hebrew word “messiah”). So “the spirit of Christ” is the spirit of anointing. The same spirit of anointing that Jesus experienced and declared for himself in the fourth chapter of Luke: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; he has anointed me (christ-ed me) to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18). 

That spirit anointed all the prophets before Jesus. It anointed Jesus. It anointed the disciples at the Pentecost. It anointed the Seekers on Firbank Fell. And it anoints us today, in our vocal ministry and for our other ministries. It anoints us in the gathering of our community into oneness and joy. Whatever we call it.

I call it the spirit of Christ, the spirit of anointing. For me, the spirit of Christ/anointing is “that of God” within the gathered meeting.

The Gathered Meeting – Pendle Hill, August 14–16 (virtual)

July 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear readers:

Pendle Hill program on The Gathered Meeting. I will be facilitating a virtual Pendle Hill program on The Gathered Meeting next month, working from my Pendle Hill pamphlet of the same title. I hope some of you are able to participate. Details below.

Date: August 14–16

Info and registration link: https://pendlehill.org/events/the-gathered-meeting/?bblinkid=233450785&bbemailid=23138102&bbejrid=1575042267

Cost: $35 Basic; $50 plus; discounted because it’s virtual.

Registration: You can register online using the link above or by phone (610-566-4507, ext. 137). We will be limiting participants to 30. Registration closes on August 14 at 8:00 am or when we reach capacity.

Schedule: 4 sessions, Friday evening, Saturday morning and afternoon, and Sunday morning. Click here for the full schedule.

Invitation: I invite my readers to consider joining us for a deep exploration of the importance and character of the gathered meeting, and the prospects for fostering more gathered meetings in our own meetings.

The downside is that we won’t be able to worship together in each other’s presence or share the fellowship that comes from living and exploring together at Pendle Hill. The upside, though, is that people can attend who might not otherwise be able to, from all over the world, really, and because of the reduced price.

I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Steve Davison

Virtual Worship

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.

Conclusion

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.

Christ-centered worship

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.

The Spirit

June 30, 2018 § 1 Comment

I have been reading Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and the book really speaks to me. One of the reasons is that he begins with his own personal journey as a religious person, and my story mirrors his quite closely. Also, the “theology” that follows this autobiographical chapter retains this personal feel and is quite accessible. I’m used to reading dense theology and detailed biblical commentary, but it’s refreshing to read something so direct and yet so full of truth.

Borg’s book also builds an elegant bridge between our root Christian tradition and the religious sensibilities that now characterize the liberal Quaker movement. He offers an understanding of God, Jesus, and the religious life (he calls it the Christian life) that I think would appeal to many of us. Not, perhaps, to the dedicated non-theists among us, though his understanding does not require a traditionally theistic faith. The book’s Christian language may be off-putting to some, if they’ve come to experience it as toxic, but the ideas—the ideas speak to me, just as Borg’s personal story does. This book is for those of us who are not willing to jettison the core of the Quaker tradition, as non-theists must, but who still can’t buy the traditional theistic understanding of God that dominated our tradition until the maturing of the modern liberal Quaker movement.

In his initial broad outline of who Borg thinks the pre-Easter Jesus is, the Jesus we can glimpse from the gospels who is still unburdened by what the tradition has subsequently added or reinterpreted, he defines “the Spirit” in a way that I suspect might resonate with many liberal Friends.

First, he describes Jesus as a “spirit person”, “a ‘mediator of the sacred,’ one of those persons in human history to whom the Spirit was an experiential reality.” (p 33) Then, in a note, he talks about “Spirit”:

I use the phrase the Spirit in as generic a sense as possible, and not the specifically Christian sense of the (Holy) Spirit. By the Spirit I mean the sacred, understood as that nonmaterial reality or presence that is experienced in extraordinary moments. Religious traditions name it various ways. In Christian terms, Spirit is synonymous with God, so long as God is understood as an experiential reality and not as a distant being. (p. 42, note 26)

Borg goes on to talk about the implications of such a view for the Christian life: “It shifts the focus of the Christian life from believing in Jesus or believing in God to being in relationship to the same Spirit that Jesus knew.” (p. 39)

God as an experiential reality rather than as a distant being—to me, that is simple and elegant, and, for me, it’s true. My own definition of God for a long time has been the Mystery Reality behind our religious and spiritual experience—whatever that experience is. It’s real; we know it is real because the experience has changed us for the better. But it’s also mysterious. It transcends normal experience, normal consciousness.

And it’s transpersonal—it comes to us from beyond the boundaries of the self. At least it does sometimes, for example, in the gathered meeting, which has a psychic dimension of communion with the other worshippers. That dimension, that medium for the communion between the worshippers, that transcendental, transpersonal sharing of consciousness that takes place in the gathered meeting, is the sacred, the Spirit, for me. It’s not a distant being; it’s an experiential reality.

Many spiritual and religious experiences are solitary experiences, utterly internal and subjective, and so perhaps merely projections of our own inner workings, our subconscious minds, if you will. But we should not say “merely”. For there is nothing “mere” about it. These solitary experiences are also mysterious and real, and for the same reasons that the collective experience of the gathered meeting is real and mysterious. To say that the same Spirit we encounter in the gathered meeting is also that which we experience in these solitary experiences is a statement of faith; or more accurately, it testifies to a feeling of inward—and therefore unverifiable—knowledge.

Finding the Quaker path has integrated these two levels of experience in my life—my personal spiritual experiences, many of which have taken place outside the Quaker tradition, and the shared experience of Quaker community. The Quaker faith has given me a way to understand both in common terms. Quaker faith offers a common framework for meaning between my personal experience and our collective experience. And Quaker practice, especially, of course, the meeting for worship, has given me a way to renew that experience, to return to that dimension where the sacred mystery waits, waiting for me and for us to wash in its baptism again.

The Gathered Meeting—A Pendle Hill Pamphlet

May 1, 2017 § 1 Comment

I have been on vacation for several weeks and also not led to write anything particular lately, but I do have a bit of news: Pendle Hill has published an essay of mine on The Gathered Meeting as Pendle Hill Pamphlet number 444, published in April 2017. Here is a link to their page for the pamphlet.

Much of this pamphlet first appeared as a series of entries in Through the Flaming Sword under the Category The Gathered Meeting. Note that entries for this and other categories appear with the most recent entry at the top, so to read them in the order in which they were published, you have to start at the bottom.

In several of those entries, I found myself exploring the role of the Christ in the gathered meeting and I did not include that material in the pamphlet submission, both because of limits on the length of the piece and because those thoughts really were an exploration that evolved as I was writing and they never quite coalesced into something that felt solid and experience-based enough to trust as a contribution to the pamphlet.

I am still thinking about how we were gathered at first as a people of God by the spirit of the Christ and how we are gathered today. I think these are important questions, but the answers I have so far are useful to me, but still only an unfinished personal exploration, and in the pamphlet I wanted to be as useful to others as possible. I do plan to return to this theme of the Christ and the gathered meeting and write more about it.

More on “consciousness” and the gathered meeting: personal consciousness, collective consciousness, and the Christ as siddha

September 28, 2013 § 3 Comments

I have not posted in a while—intense deadlines at work have been a distraction. But I have kept writing, only waiting for some time to confirm that these pieces were ready for publication. Here, I return to the theme of the gathered meeting. (Meanwhile, however, I am going on vacation tomorrow for a week. So I hope my readers will comment, if they feel so led, but I won’t be able to respond to your comments until I get back.)

In previous posts on this theme, I have asked how the Christ gathers the meeting, while I have circled an understanding of the Christ in terms of consciousness, a recurrent theme in this series. It’s time to look at “consciousness” itself more closely, especially as it might apply to our understanding of the gathered meeting and of the Christ. And here I am talking about both personal consciousness and collective consciousness.

Unfortunately, Christianity’s understanding of personal consciousness is primitive in the extreme. Being so theistic at its core, Christianity’s real strength lies in its understanding of personhood, of psychology, personality, feelings, will, and the religious dimension of human social systems (though, in this regard, I feel it has given unwarranted emphasis to the social systems of monarchy and the law and has only begun to focus on democracy and ecology). But I’m talking, not about personality or personal psychology, but about consciousness itself, the underlying miracle of the human being that is capable of self-understanding and transcendental communion.

And Christianity’s understanding of collective consciousness—well, such a thing hardly exists at all—only, as far as I know, in the work of Teilhard de Chardin. In fact, like me, Teilhard virtually defines the Christ in terms of collective consciousness. Teilhard deserves his own post(s), so I will defer a discussion of his work for now.

To understand more deeply the religious dimension of consciousness, we must look outside the Christian tradition, and especially to the East.

Some insights on the gathered meeting from yoga, the ancient Indian science of consciousness

I was an avid student of yoga for several years. My formal affiliation in those days was with Self Realization Fellowship, the organization founded to teach Kriya Yoga in North America by Paramahansa Yogananda, one of the great Indian gurus of the 20th century.

But I started with Transcendental Meditation, which was the Western world’s institution for another deeply respected school from India. And living within striking distance of New York in the 1960s and ‘70s gave me and my friends access to a number of other teachers based in the City, most notably, Ram Das and Hilda Charlton. Hilda Charlton held fairly regular satsangs in Manhattan and every time I went, Ram Das was there.

Hilda Charlton was a mildly gifted siddha yogi. A siddha yogi is an adept with the ability to psychically reach into a student’s consciousness and effect some spiritual transformation, to help the student’s spiritual progress along. Once when I attended one of her satsangs, she did some laying on of hands and she laid her hands on me.

When she touched me, I felt her presence and I felt a thrill, a jolt of awareness and joy. I don’t know how transforming it was. But it did blow my mind.

Such an experience has only limited spiritual value, if it does not demonstrably transform you. I can’t say that that experience changed me at all except to reinforce a faith in my practice. At the least, however, it suggests that a gifted teacher can posses psychic power. Such a teacher is called a siddha.

Siddha yoga emphasizes close relationship between teacher and student. Actual physical proximity is important, face-to-face encounter with the teacher, preferably living closely together in an ashram or community settlement, because just living in the presence of such a soul is transformative. And there are moments when the siddha’s power manifests, when she or he sees an opportunity to reach into you and grab a piece of your karma and set it straight, usually by yanking it out. The path of the siddha yoga devotee is one of extreme personal devotion and self-sacrifice. You are baring your soul to another in utmost faith. Sound familiar?

I think Jesus was a siddha. His ashram was a traveling ashram, instead of a settlement, which probably upped the level of commitment required even more.

I think of the story in the gospels of the Syro-Phoenician woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, and Jesus felt his power go out from him. Or again, the experience of the lame man at the healing pool in the gospel of John; or of Jesus healing the blind man by mixing his spittle with dust. In a wonderful book titled Jesus the Healer, the author looks at Jesus’ healing miracles from various angles, and has really interesting things to say about his parables as psychic koans, stories that reached into his listeners and opened a channel for him to transform them. And Jesus often knows what’s really going on inside his disciples.

The skeptic would say, of course, that what I experienced was no more than a form of hypnosis, the power of suggestion. This is a frequent explanation of Pentecostal experience, of “holy rollers” and faith healers. And in my case, with Hilda Charlton, they may be right; in fact, I suspect that they are right. But siddha yoga is real, siddhas do exist, and this reality confirms, at the very least, that a realm or medium exists in which interpersonal psychic/spiritual communication takes place.

I have been there, not only in gathered meetings for worship among Friends, but also in moments of communion while meditating with other meditators, as a student of yoga and as a student and teacher of Silva Mind Control. (I know, that’s a truly sinister sounding name, but actually a rather benign but remarkably effective pseudo-scientific, pop-psych self-help program. I taught Silva Mind Control for several years in the mid-1970s. More about that later.)

When I was a disciple of Yogananda, Yogananda was dead. He died in 1947, I think, the year I was born. But I was taught that we was still alive as a guru, that he still had the power to work with me as a student. His transformational autobiography, The Autobiography of a Yogi, is full of stories in which his own teachers going back several generations, continued to teach him, even though they were dead. Sound familiar?

Who’s to say that the Christ as siddha is not also still capable of gathering his people? (In fact, Yogananda himself considered Christ one of his teachers, having had mystical experience of Jesus, as he describes in The Autobiography.) Without direct experience, I can only conjecture. But I have had experience of the siddha galvanizing a community into a covered state of spiritual unity. Maybe that will be my next post.

But back to the gathered meeting and the relevance of what I’m discussing here. My experience of siddha yoga, and the faith and practice of siddha yoga, all suggest that there is a psycho-spiritual dimension in which direct communion between people, and between disciples and teachers, does exist. That, I believe, is the medium in which the gathered meeting takes place.

A short history of the gathered meeting

July 18, 2013 § 16 Comments

On July 8, Bill Rushby wrote this in his comment on my post on The gathered meeting and Jesus the Christ—some questions:

I think there are important questions that are being missed here. In discussing this blog, we have moved off into “rabbit trails” concerning the theological basis of Quakerism.

No one here has offered an explication of the concept of “gathered meeting”. And, at least in this blog and discussion, the origins of this idea have yet to be probed. It would be useful to narrate some specific experiences of gathered meetings, both in the ministers’ (and other) journals/memoirs and in the personal recollection of the parties to this discussion. The theological context of these experiences would also be relevant.

I have been trying to explicate the gathered meeting in terms of experience and testing early Friends’ testimony that the gathered meeting has its origins, as an experience rather than as an idea, in Christ. I have been trying to square their testimony, which I believe, and their experience, which I trust, with my own. And I was just about to start a series that does describe my own experiences with the gathered meeting. Some other commenters have done this along the way, as well.

My approach so far is something of a departure for me. Usually I start a project like this with research and then try to make that concrete. This time, I’ve started with concrete experience and haven’t done any research, though all along my intellectual temperament has has lured back into the realm of ideas and the whole thing has been an exercise in theology.

I do think that the “idea” of the gathered meeting came from scripture, as did almost all the “ideas” of early Friends. And I’ve said already that I suspect that Matthew 18:20 is the original source for the idea, though I believe there are others. I remember Bill Taber mentioning Acts 15 in this regard, the so-called Council of Jerusalem, in which the disciples decide whether to accept Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. And, as I note below, there’s Matthew 23:37. But in fact, I don’t really know where this idea came from for sure, or, just as interesting to me, when Friends began using the phrase “gathered meeting”.

Still, Bill’s comment reminds me that I have covered some of the ground he seems to be looking for already in an article I wrote for the January 2013 issue of Spark, New York Yearly Meeting’s print journal, titled simply The Gathered Meeting. It’s too long to publish in this blog, except in installments and I don’t know if I want to do that. You can read it by following the link above. But I do want to excerpt at least one section of it, headed A Short History of the Gathered meeting. Here it is:

The gathered meeting runs as the essential thread of spiritual ignition in our tradition. This began with the original gathering experience of Jesus’ early followers. It reemerged in the birth of the Quaker movement, and in it Quakerism has found its Guide ever since.

The first recorded gathered meeting in our root tradition was the baptism of Jesus, in which all assembled shared a psychic experience of God’s revelation in some way. This continued in the event we call the transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John were all caught up with Jesus in a vision of Moses and Elijah. Whatever else those events were, they were gathered meetings for worship in which Jesus and his friends were all gathered up into a shared religious experience. The defining example of a gathered meeting in our root tradition was Pentecost, in which several thousand were converted to the Way that Jesus taught in a manifestation of the Spirit through the apostles’ vocal ministry shortly after Jesus’ death.

The term gathered meeting comes, I suspect, from several passages in Christian scripture, and especially, from Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, on how to elder wayward members. It ends with this promise: “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also.” This promise is the foundation of Quaker worship, and especially, of Quaker meeting for business in worship.

The first recorded gathered meeting in our Quaker tradition was the fulfillment of George Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill of a “great people to be gathered” (see note below)—the convincement of the Seekers at Firbank Fell in 1652, the initiation of the Spirit that jump-started our movement. The journal of George Fox and of many other early Friends and continuing through all the periods of Quakerism into at least the middle of the 19th century are full of descriptions of meetings that were covered by the Holy Spirit and “the power of The Lord.” (“The power of the Lord was over all” was their way of saying that a meeting was so overflowing with the Holy Spirit that some Friends quaked.)

Note: I wonder whether Matthew 23:37 may have been on George Fox’s mind when he saw “a great people to be gathered” in his vision on Pendle Hill at the beginning of his ministry: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” A number of other biblical passages use gathering in the harvested grain or the flocks as metaphors for the final judgment, and these may also have informed early Quaker use of the word “gathered”; examples include: Matthew 12:30, 13:30, 24:31, 25:26, 31-32, and Luke 3:17.

The gathered meeting and Jesus the Christ—some questions

July 5, 2013 § 24 Comments

A couple of commenters a while back raised the question of why I have focused so much on the Christ as the gatherer of the gathered meeting. The answer is that I don’t really know why. Or rather, that this is the direction in which I’ve been led, all unexpected. I have not been systematic in my approach to this series. Rather, I have been following trains of thought and publishing them when they seemed seasoned enough.

I have explored ways in which I feel that the consciousness of the gathered meeting corresponds to the glimpses we get in Christian scripture of the consciousness of the Christ, which has led me to speculate about the Christ as consciousness. In this regard,  I can say that I believe we are “gathered in Christ” when we find ourselves in the gathered meeting, though I have not directly experienced Christ in that way.

So Friends in all ages have said of the gathered meeting, that they were “gathered in Christ”. But how exactly does the Christ “gather” a meeting? On the surface, this looks like a question that can only lead to what early Friends called “notions”, airy speculation that is, at best, only a shadow of the truth. But for theistic Friends, for whom this talk of consciousness misses the point, that Jesus the Christ is a distinct divine person active in the world and in our lives and in our meetings and capable of relationship, not some vague “consciousness”, then the question of how Christ gathers a meeting seems to me more than just a diversion.

Presumably, if he exists (and I believe he does) and he is present in the meeting, and the worshippers sense his presence, then some kind of “hub and spoke” connection gets made between the Christ and the individual worshippers. But what about the “rim”? How does the presence of the Christ enable the worshippers to sense each other in a gathered meeting? For this is one of the signature characteristics of the gathered meeting.

The answer might be that the Christ acts as a conduit for communication between worshippers, that our consciousnesses flow through the Christ as the hub of a wheel, as it were, and then on out to the other worshippers along the “rim”, to whom he is present also. To use a cybernetic analogy, we communicate with each other through the Christ much as computers communicate with each other through the server in a computer network.

The Christ consciousness serves the worshipping community as the medium through which we become spiritually present to each other. (I am tempted to explore John 15 along these lines: “I am the vine, you are the branches”; or John 14: “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”)

But I have reverted to my consciousness language again. This, as I said, may not satisfy the more theistic Friends among us, who, I suspect, focus more on communion with Christ than they do on communion with each other. They may have no such speculative and metaphysical approach to a “Christ consciousness” in the gathered meeting, but are satisfied simply to say that Christ gathers us and leave it at that.

I think I feel encouraged to pursue this consciousness angle because I have no direct experience of the Christ as the gatherer of the gathered meetings I’ve experienced. Moreover, I am hungry for more; the gathered meeting is all too rare among us these days. So I am seeking for ways to improve our chances of being gathered. I am looking for elements of both faith and practice that might foster the gathered meeting.

And I suspect that Christ is one of the key factors of faith. I can hear my Christian readers saying to themselves, no, Christ is THE key, the indispensable factor. But isn’t this just a confession of faith? Where is the evidence? Are there not gathered meetings in which no one experiences the Christ? Certainly, one does not have to believe in a divine Jesus Christ to experience the gathered meeting. So, in terms of actual experience, it’s not clear that a traditional faith in Christ is necessary. But that doesn’t mean that the Christ isn’t necessary.

In fact, I am inclined to agree that Christ is key. As I have said, I believe that Jesus the Christ actually exists, though I have not experienced him as such myself. Thus my own experience leads me to relax and expand my understanding of who and what the Christ is to explain what actually happens. This exploration of consciousness is part of my effort to do that.

I guess I’m evangelizing a new way to think about Christ. How did I end up here?

The gathered meeting—energy, presence, knowledge, and joy

June 26, 2013 § 4 Comments

Whatever else the gathered meeting is, it is an extraordinary consciousness. In my experience, this consciousness is one of energy, presence, knowledge, and joy.

The gathered meeting is exciting, thrilling, even, not just psychically or emotionally, but often physically, as well. In the gathered meeting, my body has felt charged, as though my whole nervous system was lit up. My head, especially, has felt like it was somehow pressurized, as though it wanted to burst, though not in a painful way. I have quaked.

The sense of presence has been very strong, but oddly generalized most of the time. I could sense the presence of the other worshippers quite palpably, but not usually the presence of any specific person in the room. There sometimes have been moments, though, when I did become more fully aware of individuals, but this hasn’t lasted very long.

And there was something else, too, a power or depth to the sense of the presence of the other worshippers. I am tempted to call it a synergy of the consciousnesses of the worshippers, a consciousness of the meeting, but that’s getting too specific about what is really just too mysterious to properly describe. All I know is that there is an extra aspect of power and depth that accompanies the sense of presence in the gathered meeting. I call it the Holy Spirit, as a way of saying that I sensed the presence of G*d, not as a discreet psychic entity with a personality, as we usually think of Jesus, and certainly not as a Supreme Being, as many people conceive of God, but rather more “generalized”, as a beatific energy and consciousness.

The gathered meeting brings “knowledge”, also, but like the sense of presence, this knowledge is indistinct, at least when the gathering happens in a regular meeting for worship. It doesn’t feel the way holding the knowledge of a fact in your mind does. It feels more like an extended sensation of discovery, the way you feel when suddenly something comes clear to you when reading a book, for instance, when you know you have just learned one of those things that will change the way you look at the world. You’ve had that experience of reading a book that opens you up. . . . It’s a special kind of “aha”, a discovery that carries a special sense of thrill and depth and significance.

For me personally, it resembles very closely the way I feel when I have a breakthrough in my Bible study and some puzzle or mystery comes clear. This has happened to me quite often, and some of these moments have remained with me quite vividly. It’s thrilling, that feeling: it swells your heart. It makes me eager to go find someone and tell them what I have just discovered. And it lasts for a while, minutes, sometimes many minutes. And it flashes back sometimes when I recall it, or especially, when I do eventually tell someone about it.

Yes, the knowledge that comes with the gathered meeting feels like that. But, unlike a discovery in Bible study, there isn’t any content to it. Just the feeling of knowing something important.

Unless we’re talking about a gathered meeting for business in worship. The gathered meeting for business in worship carries the same energy and sense of deep presence, but the knowledge is specific, intelligible, and capable of articulation. After struggling, perhaps, to find unity, maybe even in the face of deep divisions, suddenly the body knows what its decision is. Perhaps some powerful vocal ministry has drawn the Truth up from the Well in our midst and the meeting, upon recognizing it, suddenly precipitates into unity. The clerk or the recording clerk presents a minute and everyone acclaims their approval with extra enthusiasm, knowing that at last, they know the way, for it lies open before them.

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.

What a blessing the gathered meeting is.

The Gathered Meeting—Good News!

June 21, 2013 § 5 Comments

Friend John Edminster has been a very faithful reader and supporter of this blog. A while ago he shared with me a draft of a little piece of his that has reoriented me in this project of exploring a theology for Liberal Friends. One of his points is this:

We do not need a new theology; we need good news!

I agree. This has made me rethink how I approach this project.

In an earlier post, I defined “theology” as a way of talking about our religious experience. A “theology” can be thrilling, energizing, even transforming for a person like me, for whom the life of the mind and the life of the spirit are inseparable. But for most people, theology is just ideas, interesting at best, boring at least, and at worst, destructive and divisive.

“Good news”, on the other hand—a gospel—is a way to transform the world we live in and the lives we touch. Real “good news” won’t speak to everyone, either, necessarily. But for those it does reach, nothing will ever be the same.

For centuries the gospel of Christianity has been that Jesus the Christ has saved us from our sins. I’ve already said that, based on my own reading of Scripture, the gospel of salvation is mostly Paul’s good news, and that the gospel of Jesus is much more focused on ministry to the poor. But what is my good news?

I suspect that many Friends may find the question presumptuous and impertinent. Christian Friends, who deify Christ, may rankle at a mere mortal claiming an authority that they feel rests only in the Christ himself (or maybe in the Bible, though Quakers have traditionally held that, since Christ is a living presence to us all, he remains the ultimate authority, not the Bible).

Liberal Friends, on the other hand, may rankle at the idea of gospel itself: “gospel” smacks  strongly of evangelism, and even of evangelicalism, of proclaiming a message you think people should not just hear, but accept—or else. I myself am unafraid of evangelism. For I do believe we have something transforming to proclaim.

That is, I believe that I have good news to proclaim—not just some ideas I think are cool or that might be useful to Friends. It actually does feel presumptuous to me to say this, yes, but that is how I feel.

By comparison, my “good news” is not as profound or transformative as the “good news for the poor” that Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4—an answer to their poverty, relief from their suffering, and deliverance from their oppression. My “good news” is much more modest. Perhaps I should just say that I can testify to the joy I have found among Friends in the gathered meeting for worship. This my good news:

  • that each one of us is capable of direct, unmediated communion with G*d*—we know G*d directly through the  joy and transformation we experience in the gathered meeting;
  • that, even more astoundingly, our religious community—our Quaker meetings—are also capable of direct, unmediated communion with G*d; we know G*d directly through the collective healing and love and unity and joy and transformation we experience in the gathered meeting;
  • that G*d’s revelation continues unbroken from the beginning of creation until now—we experience G*d’s revelation personally in the form of leadings to ministry, and in other ways, and collectively in the guidance and healing and love and unity and joy and transformation we experience in the gathered meeting, especially in the gathered meeting for business in worship and our other gatherings for discernment; and
  • that G*d’s love inspires us and strengthens us to live outward lives that testify to the truths G*d has inwardly revealed to us individually and collectively—individually, we are called to live our lives as testimony to the Truth, while collectively, we have been gathered into unity on a gradually evolving and expanding set of testimonies.

My good news is that, in the gathered meeting, we have directly experienced wholeness of spirit, both as individuals and as worshipping communities. For hundreds of years we have seen the promise of direct communion with the divine fulfilled in the gathered meeting.

The world is hungry for this experience. It has come to doubt the promise of such a thing. We can testify to its ongoing reality.

 

*  Every once in a while, I remind my readers that by “G*d” I mean the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual/religious experience—whatever that experience is. I am using an asterisk instead of an “o” in order to wrest the word from the habitual responses we often give it when we read it.

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