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.
May 29, 2020 § 3 Comments
Virtual worship—I take it back—again.
Looking forward to the first virtual meeting for worship hosted by my meeting, I wrote a blog post in which I said that I thought it would be worth doing but that it would really be a kind of group meditation, not a meeting for worship. I proposed calling it something like “Meeting for Virtual Community”.
Then, after that first Zoom worship, I took all that back. It was so great to see my Friends’ faces, hear each other’s voices. I felt such a strong sense of community.
But now I’ve attended a number of these meetings and I feel my original concern has been confirmed. These meetings are good, really good, in some ways. But I don’t think they really are worship, not in the deepest sense, anyway. In the sense that we are meeting at the same time to turn together toward the Spirit, we can call it worship. But in the sense that we are collectively turning toward the Spirit in our midst . . . about that I’m not so sure.
Or, to put it another way: I can’t imagine a virtual meeting for worship being gathered in the Spirit. Can you? How would you know it’s gathered? How would you “sense” the qualities that are such a blessing in a gathered meeting?
Thus—for me—if a virtual meeting cannot be a medium for a gathered meeting, it rather strains the meaning of meeting for worship. I want to dig deeper into this question in the next post by looking at the qualities of the gathered meeting. But here I want to explore the more mundane aspects of meeting virtually and how they impact the quality of worship.
The holy communion that we feel with God (however you would describe this Mystery Reality) and with each other in the gathered meeting seems to depend on the subtle perception of small signals working with a mysterious extra-sensory capacity for psychic connection.
Sound. Take the quality of the silence. It’s not really silent in the meeting room. People shuffle, a horn is heard outside, maybe birds in the summer. In the meeting room, we share this quiet ambient auditory environment. The vocal ministry carries through a room whose acoustics we all share.
By contrast, here in my study, I hear the annoying grinding of the timer we have on lights we have in the windows. I hear the horns and sirens of my neighborhood, and so on. You my fellow worshippers do not hear these things. Your vocal ministry comes through not quite in real time accompanied by the acoustics of the room you are in (though at least I can usually hear you). My local “silence” is my own, our shared “silence” is artificial and dead, until someone speaks. Then it is artificial and yet oddly immediate.
Sight. Then there’s the visual—on Zoom, a gallery of little faces that it is wonderful to see, but weirdly static. In our meeting’s meeting room, my vision becomes increasingly unfocused; the room itself dominates and most folks are far enough away not to see very well (Central Philadelphia Meeting is large and our room is large). I keep my eyes closed much of the time, but when I open them, I am still able to continue sinking into the Deep because it is relatively easy to “unfocus”.
On Zoom, I’m looking at a small screen—a short-range focus full of inviting images. I am tempted to look at face after face, and to zoom through the panels to see the other faces not displayed on the screen. This pulls me up and out, not down and deep. And each worshipper’s background is another inviting distraction. If I keep my eyes closed, I am in my study with my sounds and not with you.
Activity. Occasionally in the meeting room, someone gets up and leaves. And of course, there are always latecomers. (How I miss those latecomers now.) On screen, people move around, pop in and out. I pop in and out to answer my spouse or whatever. People eat and drink, which they would not do in the meeting room. We seem to feel free to mix our worship with other activities when sitting in our own homes and using an electronic device.
Smell. Who knows what role the shared but subtle odors of the meeting room play in our worship experience?
Auras. I have said before in my pamphlet on The Gathered Meeting and in this blog that I believe one of the mediums for the psychic dimension of the gathered meeting is the human aura and the entwining of auras in the meeting room. This is pure speculation. But presumably there is some medium that makes psychic experience possible, and whatever it is, I doubt that it works through the internet.
This gets to the heart of what we’re doing in worship—collective focus on the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual and religious experience—and its consummation in the gathered meeting. As I said above, I want to look at that in the next post.
Vocal ministry. But first a final word about vocal ministry. It seems to me that the vocal ministry in my meeting has gotten noticeably better since we’ve been meeting virtually. Fewer people speak. The messages seem more concise. And often they seem to come from a deeper place.
Why is this? Is it the gravity of the circumstances that are keeping us from each other? A heightened sense of our feelings for each other and the need to be of spiritual service? A paradoxical effect of the technology that makes our messages more immediate because we are speaking to faces rather than to a room, and we ourselves are so visible to our listeners? All of the above?
I would like to know whether my readers are having the same experience with the vocal ministry in their virtual meetings for worship.
March 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
Well, I take it all back. Virtual meeting for worship this morning was actually quite wonderful. We were joined by folks who could never have been there otherwise—a very sick member from her hospital bed, a distant Friend from Albuquerque, and another from Beirut, several from Pendle Hill.
We started the Zoom session at 10:30 and were almost all sorted out technologically by meeting time at 11:00. Sixty-seven people by my count at the peak; that is, 67 windows, but a number of windows included couples.
The vocal ministry was quite satisfying to me, and I am the most judgmental person I know when it comes to vocal ministry (though I withhold judgment of my own).
As for my own, here it is, somewhat expanded:
I’ve been reading Spiritual Nurture Ministry Among Friends by Sandra Cronk. Sandra is no longer with us. She was one of the founders of The School of the Spirit and the author of a great Pendle Hill Pamphlet on Gospel Order and of a book on The Dark Night of the Soul, which condition I would define as when all the things you thought were essential to your spiritual life, or even your being as a person, are taken away, leaving you bereft and naked before your own reality.
Sandra had been through a dark night of the soul herself and had nurtured ministers who were going through it. She knows that such times can crack you open and let in a new flood of the Light, a powerful breakthrough deepening of the life of the Spirit. (George Fox went through this himself, famously, which William James describes and analyzes in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience.) But the nurturer of someone on that journey can’t fix it. All you can do, really, is be prayerfully present, to accompany them, to be a light in that darkness yourself, in the faith that God will eventually be more fully revealed and encountered.
I think our nation, and indeed, our civilization, is about to go through a collective dark night of the soul. The moment is fraught with danger; people get weird when they get really scared, especially when they’ve been taught to blame it on someone else. But it holds great possibility, as well, and will certainly call many people into Spirit-led service of all kinds.
It’s hard to be “present” to a nation, except for staying informed and then voting, and supporting the institutions that define us as a people, while at the same time looking for that in-breaking Light, for opportunities to really transform the system on behalf of the least of us.
And we can be present more locally. A restaurant around the corner from us here in Philadelphia offers take-out now at 20% discount. We got a great dinner night before last. They say the response has been good—they’ve got payroll for at least the next two weeks.
And we can be present to each other, virtually, as we did this morning, if not in person. It’s not as good as in person, it’s not the same. But it is way better than nothing. The meeting is beginning to organize Virtual Quaker 8s, which I think is a great idea. I plan to start holding virtual Bible study.
We still have much to be thankful for.
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: