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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
June 5, 2013 § 8 Comments
Seeking the gathered meeting
So what are the crucial factors that seems to help gather the meeting for worship most reliably?
Spiritual depth. First, I believe a critical mass of individuals who possess in themselves a certain spiritual depth makes a real difference.
Seasoning. Most likely, they are Friends who come already seasoned by regular immersion in the Spirit through their own devotional practice. Such elders are likely know the way already into their own depths (Bill Taber’s “first door” as he described it in his Pendle Hill pamphlet Four Doors Into Worship).
Preparation. Hopefully they also come to meeting that morning especially prepared, having spent a time, or a whole morning, in prayer, meditation, Bible study, or whatever practice helps them deepen, rather than listening to NPR or reading the New York Times, or diverting their minds with things that are likely to pull them outward from the depths. For families, preparation might include eating breakfast together and trying to make time for some family devotional practice.
Experience. Ideally, but not necessarily, a critical mass of participants have experienced the gathered meeting already, and so they know its joys and power. Their knowledge, their faith, and their yearning may help the meeting find its way to Bill Taber’s “third door” into worship, the one that leads to their collective center.
Ministry. Perhaps they possess the gift of vocal ministry, for it very often is a cascade of deep vocal ministry that draws the meeting into a gathered state.
Serving the meeting as elder. There are things one can do besides just radiate, and practicing them will make the gathered meeting more likely, whatever your spiritual depth. In fact, these practices develop one’s spiritual ‘muscles’. They may start as just exercises in your imagination; that’s fine. Eventually, they will bear fruit and blow your mind.
Prepare the meeting space. Come early, so that you have already started a meeting for worship when the other worshippers begin streaming in to their places. Welcome them inwardly and help them find the silence that is waiting for them.
Pray. Pray for the meeting; pray for those who rise to speak; pray for those who you know bear a burden or are unwell; pray for those whose burdens are unknown to you, but surely do exist; pray for the gathered meeting. Pray for our own deepening, awakening, and renewal. Pray for the gift of prayer, the ability to find a prayer so authentically within yourself that, when you pray it out loud, you draw the meeting into the spirit of prayer along with you. Pray to G*d, whatever that means to you, and not just for something in a general way—if you can. I do believe that such a “theistic” focus does sharpen our spiritual attention and that this is somehow more powerful than a more generalized sense of spiritual desire. But each person must find a way to pray that works for them.
Listen. Seek inwardly to recognize the need for ministry among your fellow worshippers—of any kind: pastoral, spiritual, material . . . Develop a pair of spiritual antennae. I like to focus on each person in the room individually for a moment long enough to let some impression emerge.
Commune. Try to commune with the angel of the meeting. Friends of old used to believe that every meeting had an angel, because of their reading of the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation, which are letters addressed to the angels of seven churches in Asia Minor. That is, try to attune to the meeting: reach in to know that undefinable thing that we all recognize when we visit other meetings, how each meeting does have a distinctive feeling or spirit. It is hard to commune with the angel of your own meeting because it is partly a manifestation of your own spirit, and we are ever more blind to ourselves than to others; but it’s still a great exercise in communion.
Give thanks. Be specific in naming some of the things you are grateful for in your meeting, especially the people. Name specifically for yourself some of the spiritual gifts that members of the meeting bring to your community. Think about how you might nurture or even just acknowledge their gifts, as an act of gratitude.
Give love. Single people out and hold them in that love you feel. Single people out whom you do not particularly love and love them, too. That especially.
Ordered, open worship. It really helps when the meeting observes some of the basic conventions of Quaker worship:
Be on time. Very few (like zero) worshippers come into the meeting room late.
Wait. Friends allow at least 20 minutes of collective deepening before anyone speaks. Ministers give themselves and the meeting sufficient time to absorb the vocal ministry that came before them before they speak.
Ministry. Most importantly, all those who rise to speak should exercise a level of spirit-led discernment, such that their ministry deepens the silence and draws the meeting closer to the Life and Truth. Let me speak more concretely: deeply question for yourself any message that refers to superficial affairs, outward events, or that offers personal observations. Or at least, check to see that the affairs, events, or observations you feel led to share are not more superficial, outward, or casual than the vocal ministry that has already been offered. The goal of your self-discipline is that your message will draw the worshipping body more inward rather than outward, more toward a profound silence than toward busy thought, more toward love than toward fear or division.
Outward helps. Some additional outward practices seem, by the evidence, to support the gathering:
Proximity. Sitting close together, so that all can feel each other’s presence and no one feels that some worshippers are being left out—or leaving themselves out—by their remoteness. (I personally believe that it is the human aura that provides the medium for the psychic dimension of the gathered meeting.)
Space. A meeting room or space that feels like the enfolding wings of a dove, a space whose size, bench configuration, and walls give the feeling of warm and proximate enclosure without feeling confining.
Comfort. Reasonably comfortable seating.
Corporate knowledge and intention. A certain level of knowledge in the meeting—of the conventions of worship, of the traditions of Friends regarding ministry, of the existence, faith, and practice of the gathered meeting itself, certainly help the community gather. Most if not all of the worshippers should know that there is a there there, something deeply to be desired and worth the discipline required. Those who have experienced the gathered meeting should share their experiences, so that everyone in the meeting can feel their joy, acquire their faith, and share their hunger.
The meeting for business in worship. As I have said, several of the most gathered meetings I have experienced were meetings for business in which the worship fulfilled the community’s desire to do God’s work. Here are some things that help a business meeting become gathered:
The business meeting is a meeting for worship. This is the most important principle of all. We naturally do much of our mundane business in a rather mundane way. But even during the humdrum of meeting business, maintaining a considered, stately process with real pauses for deepening between agenda items keeps the body close to the center that it will need when more weighty matters come before it. Then, the key to arriving at spirit-led decisions is to worship—to wait truly on the Spirit to lead.
Spirit-led clerking. A clerk with the gift of discernment can sense when the body’s yearning for unity is real and help it find its way. Maintaining the sense of worship is really important; most important in this regard is it to protect the silence between contributions: give Friends enough time to recognize the truth in what someone has said (or the folly), before calling on the next speaker. Call for extended periods of silence when necessary. Feel your gut (I mean, literally pay attention to your abdomen). Breathe deeply. Pray. Listen for the littlest nudges inside you. Be willing to call on someone out of instinct, not feeling bound by the practice of first to rise, first to speak.
We all are clerks. Better yet would it be if all members of the worshipping body acted inwardly as though they, too, were clerking the meeting. Not that we should critique the clerk’s work, but that we should, like the clerk, pay closest attention to the movement of the Spirit in the meeting and seek ways, inwardly through prayer and, when led, in vocal ministry, to help lead the community into Truth and unity of spirit.
Corporate knowledge of Friends practice. Many Friends, unfortunately, come to the meeting for business in worship ignorant of our traditions. Meetings should regularly remind themselves that they are worshipping while they work, and they should take the opportunity to educate themselves about business gospel order, especially regarding the prerogatives of the presiding clerk. The main object of this education, vis a vis the gathered meeting, is to establish the meeting for business as a meeting for worship, which means that we rely on the Spirit to lead us into unity, not coming to a decision through consensus. No one in the meeting should feel free to hold the meeting hostage with their prejudice, and the clerk should not allow them to do it.
Love. Perhaps the most important factor is love, because it connects people so powerfully and we all understand it and possess it. However mature the worshippers—or not; however deep or shallow the “spiritual consciousnesses” of some of the participants, critical mass or not; all a meeting really needs to be gathered is love for each other. If enough Friends focus on that love, if enough Friends channel that love, silently in their hearts or vocally in their ministry, the meeting cannot help but fall into the Heart.
Even hate or conflict in the meeting cannot hinder a gathered meeting if enough worshippers channel sufficient love. Love of the enemy is perhaps the most powerful conduit to gathering that there is.
Grace. Then there is grace—the unexpected gift of God’s Presence. The fact that the meeting can be gathered spontaneously, without effort, just like that.