Virtual Worship IV – Zoom and the Gathered Meeting

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.

Virtual Worship III

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.

Spirituality vs Religion, Meditation vs Worship

December 29, 2019 § 6 Comments

One of the signature characteristics of our time is that many people have a spiritual life, or they want one, but fewer and fewer people want a religion. This trend has been working its way into Quaker culture, as well.

Years ago, I was a friendly adult presence at a Quaker high school conference. In one of the exercises, the facilitator designated one end of the room “spirituality” and the other end “religion” and we were invited to place ourselves along the spectrum. There was a crowd at the spirituality end, a sizable group just left of center toward spirituality, stragglers thinned steadily out toward religion—and then there was me. I’ve always had a religious temperament. I have experienced this phenomenon many times among us since.

The result of this trend in liberal Quakerism is that many Friends and attenders treat meeting for worship as group meditation, “an hour in which to find your truth”, as the A-frame placard says which my meeting puts on the sidewalk outside our entrance. This is an invitation to meditate, not an invitation to worship.

Nothing against meditation, mind you. I’ve been trained in several kinds of meditation, and I practice my own mash-up form all the time. And I’ve been in several satsangs that practice group meditation, which are great. But they’re not worship.

Meditation takes you deeper into yourself. Worship takes you out of yourself. Worship is more like listening to music than like listening to the “still, small voice” within. Worship is paying attention to something that transcends self.

Of course, one transcends one’s self in deep meditation, also; and the “something” we attend to in worship is within us, too, yes. That’s why centering is the first stage in worship. The door to worship is within us.

But that something we seek in worship is not just within me; it’s within all of us in the meeting room. And more to the point, it’s within us—as an us, as a collective consciousness. There’s a “that of God” in the collective consciousness of the gathered worshippers, just as there’s a “that of God” (whatever that means) in each one of us.

When we find ourselves in a gathered meeting for worship, we know that this transcendental something I’m referring to is real, and not just a facet or manifestation or dweller in my own individual consciousness. We come out of worship spilling over with joy, and looking around, we see that our fellow worshippers are filled with that same joy themselves. We have shared the joy of gathering in the Spirit.

I think of that gathering spirit as the spirit of Christ. Not necessarily the spirit of the risen Jesus, which traditional Christians infer from their reading of Christian scripture; that seems rather unlikely to me, metaphysically speaking, and certainly not objectively verifiable but only for one’s self alone through personal experience.

Rather, what I call the spirit of Christ is the spirit of anointing, the spirit that Jesus invoked in Luke 4:18–21, quoting Isaiah 61:1–2—the spirit that descended on him at his baptism, the spirit that descended on the apostles at the Pentecost, the spirit that descended on the first gathered “Quaker” meeting at Firbank Fell when George Fox convinced the Seekers, the spirit that Friends have been gathered in as a people of God ever since.

I experience that spirit is an emergent communion of a collective consciousness that is fully focused on the transcendental Mystery that dwells in the midst of the gathered worshipping community (and in the midst of each worshipper’s soul). For sure, it may be more than “emergent”; that spirit may have identity, sentience, and presence independent of the gathered worshipping community. For all I know, it’s the spirit of the risen Jesus.

However, while the worshippers rise from such a meeting knowing that, yes, that was it, that was covered in the Holy Spirit, in none of the gathered meetings I’ve experienced has anyone, let alone the whole gathered body, risen up and said, Ah! Yes, there he was, that was the risen Jesus. So inference as to the Spirit’s preexistence or independence or sovereign identity is, for me, just speculation. I know it’s real; its identity and its other qualities, are yet a mystery; to me at least.

So why call it the spirit of Christ? Because doing so reconnects us with our tradition and at the same time pulls our tradition forward, and because Christ is uniquely and truthfully descriptive. For “Christ” is a title for a consciousness, not the last name of a historical person. “Christ” means “anointed”, anointed of God as Spirit for some work. And, in the gathered meeting, have we not just been anointed by the spirit, just like Isaiah was in chapter 61 verse 1, and just as Jesus was in Luke 4:15–31? “Christ” is the awareness that one has been anointed for some divine work and the consciousness through which one is empowered for the work. For Jesus in Luke 4, the “work” was “good news for the poor”, a ministry of debt relief through radical reliance on the providing spirit of God and radical inter-reliance within the worshipping community for its execution.

And for us? For what work have we been anointed? Or have we, in truth, been anointed in the Spirit in the first place? Do we, in truth, worship? Or are we “just” meditating?

Worship as Offering and Listening

November 8, 2019 § 2 Comments

In Listening Spirituality, Vol II, Patricia Loring defines worship as collectively offering ourselves to God and listening for God’s Word. This definition works well for me and I want to explore it a little.

By “offering ourselves” I would mean both offering our individual selves and offering our collective self as a worshiping community.

Offering our individual selves. Quaker worship gives us an opportunity to focus on this offering of our selves to God; or, if God language does not work for you, worship is an opportunity to focus on our alignment with the forces that work within us for positive transformation, however we might experience them or conceive them.

Offering our selves to God is committing ourselves to the work of inner transformation, to the work of becoming better people, more loving and kind, more attentive and sensitive, more honest and self-aware, more open to inspiration and creativity; committing ourselves to becoming more whole as a person, to becoming our true and better selves.

As a religious society, we have an advocate in this project. For some of us, this “advocate”, this help with realizing our true and better selves, feels like a presence, a spiritual sentience, a companion of spirit whom we could name and with whom we can have a relationship. For others of us, we know at least that there are moments in the work when breakthroughs, or release, or insight, or strength, or some kind of inner change takes place as grace, as unexpected, sometimes even undeserved, inrushing of positive energy and transformation—but its source remains a mystery.

We have another advocate, as well—each other. More on this in a moment.

Offering our collective self. The same things are true for a gathered body of worshippers. The community offers itself up for transformation. This is most obvious in the meeting for business in worship, when we offer our decisions to God’s wish for us; or, if God language doesn’t work for you, we seek to follow the movement of the spirit amongst us, guiding us, until we are collectively certain about where we are to go.

This process is mysterious. Mostly it works through individuals, through individual spoken ministry as we settle deeper and deeper into a discerning consciousness. I believe there are other forces at work, as well, ways in which human consciousness responds to small signals in the group—body language, facial expressions, tones of voice and other aural clues, the character of the silences between messages—which communicate feelings and leanings subliminally, rather than content, substance, or ideas outwardly.

And then there is Spirit. Collective Quaker discernment has a third dimension beyond outward spoken word and the subtle human signals. Something transcendental moves among us when we truly are in worship. This partakes of true mystery. It transcends the sensible and the subliminal; it operates in the realm of the psychical. It transcends our ability to name it or understand it, but not our ability to feel it or to follow it.

The same dynamics—the same Spirit—is at work in the regular meeting for worship. With our vocal ministry we serve each other’s transformation. With the small signals of our sitting together we communicate a host of more subtle feelings for each other that build community and nurture the individual spirit. And in the gathered meeting, we find ourselves present to each other in a spirit transcendental and we sense some movement, some presence, some something behind or within our joy and energy and knowledge. The experience strengthens our faith and cements our sense of blessed community.

We could name it God, or Christ, or just the Spirit, but for almost all of us almost all of the time, we are just assigning meaning to something we don’t really understand but which we know is really happening. Sometimes some of us claim to know with certainty the identity of our gathering spirit, and those persons may be right. However, the rest of us cannot with integrity share their certainty, except on faith. But we can and do share a certainty about its effect on the body, its intention, if you will, the direction of our discernment.

Listening. The other half of worship-as-offering is worship-as-listening. We “listen”, not with our ears but with our souls, for a response to the offering. We offer because we believe in the response, because our experience shows us that, in reciprocation to our offering there is an answering.

If, as individuals, we align ourselves with the forces that work within us for transformation (and also “forces” without us—other people, circumstances, “coincidences”, books, the Book, a whole host of vehicles outside ourselves for answering our cry for wholeness), we are indeed transformed. Usually in little ways, but not always; sometimes in overwhelming ways.

So we are listening for these answers to our offering. And then when we “hear” the answer, we offer ourselves again—we submit to the forces of positive change. And I say “submit” deliberately, because almost always, change comes at a cost. We must give something up of ourselves; we must let go of something we are attached to. We don’t like change; it takes an act of sacrifice, of inner submission in faith that it will be worth it.

And it is worth it. We offer ourselves, in faith. We receive an answer, an offer back. We offer ourselves, in faith again, to this answer. And then we find what we have sought.

And so it is with the worshipping body. We offer ourselves to God, to Christ, to the Spirit, however we might name that Transcendent Mystery that guides us to Truth. We listen for that still small voice within us. With vocal ministry we listen, not for this Friend or that Friend’s word or wisdom, but for the Word of Wisdom speaking through them in their vocal ministry.

In the silence we open ourselves also to the subliminal. We have taken away as much of the noise as we can with silent, waiting worship, so that we can hear the true signal, however small it might be.

And we “listen” psychically for the movement of the Holy Spirit. We barely know how to do this. Even if we are trained in some form of mindfulness or meditation, there is some faculty beyond technique that operates with only our intention—our offering—as its handle, mysteriously, transcendentally. Let’s call it the spirit’s ear, with which we hear the answer to our offer.

Worship as the School of the Spirit

January 21, 2019 § 2 Comments

Quaker meeting for worship is a classroom and an exercise room in the school of the Spirit.

In the meeting for worship we learn and we practice how to center down, how to sink down in the Seed, wherein dwells our Guide.

And when that Guide prompts us to speak in meeting for worship, we learn and we practice recognizing the call, and to test the call to discern whether we should speak, and what we should say, and how we should say it, and to remain faithful to our Guide when we do rise to speak.

This spirituality of listening and of discerning and of surrendering in our action is schooling for the Spirit-led life outside of meeting, in the rest of our lives.

The Well at the Center

October 7, 2018 § 3 Comments

There is at the center of the meeting for worship a well, a spiritual well, a well of living water, as Jesus referred to it in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in the gospel of John.

We come to the well, to meeting for worship, for spiritual refreshment. We come with a cup, as it were, made of our attention, our intention, made of ears open and hearts yearning to hear and be filled.

While there, some of us may find that we are called to be the server. With our vocal ministry, we are called to lower our bucket into the depths, to raise up this living water, and to ladle it out.

The deeper we lower the bucket, the cooler the water, the richer the savor, the deeper the refreshment.


August 19, 2018 § 7 Comments

Worship, at least in the traditional understanding, is all about service—giving God what God wants/requires.

You can tell what a community thinks God wants by looking at their worship service. For most Christian communities, that means prayer, praise, (some) thanksgiving, repentance, teaching and exhortation regarding the rest of God’s will, reassurances on God’s behalf (even to the point of absolution), and leadership from those upon whom God has presumably conferred authority.

Looking at the Quaker meeting for worship, we could infer that God wants:

  • silence; that is, a radical simplicity of form that removes all outward interference from . . . what?
  • expectant waiting (though this is not outwardly very apparent); that is, filling this silence, this absence of interference, with attention to . . . what?
  • and ministry, a word which means service.

The silence removes interference from the world’s distractions and those promptings, both outward and inward, that might carry us away from . . . what? From the Spirit. It is the Spirit to which we are giving our attention with our expectant waiting. It is the Holy Spirit  that we are trying to make room for with our silence. It is God whom we serve with our vocal ministry.

In theory, of course. All of this is the ideal.

All of this is also a legacy that we have inherited. And we haven’t thought very searchingly about it.

So let’s ask more primary questions: What does God want? And how do we know what God wants. (Let’s leave aside for a moment all that’s implied by saying “God” in the first place.)

I think early Friends looked to two places to find out what God wants: to scripture and to the direct revelation of Christ’s spirit. From scripture (John 4:24) they got: God is spirit and those that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. From direct revelation: “In truth” apparently meant totally in spirit, that is, without anything else but our inward and collective spiritual attention—no outward forms.

The silence was designed to make room for the direct revelation of spirit. They were waiting for that presence in their midst. And they were serving Christ as conduits of his revelation through vocal ministry when the presence came as expected.

But now let’s return to what I meant by “God” above. To the degree that we have let go of a God who might want something from us, we have jettisoned the essential ingredient of worship as service. Now whom—or what—do we serve with our worship, with our expectant waiting, our spiritual attention, our vocal ministry? If we are not in relationship with a God who wants or requires something from us, as persons or, especially, as a community, does it makes sense to even talk about ministry, that is, service, in our approach to worship?

Some Friends might answer that now we serve each other and, by extension, the community, and it serves us. Maybe in fact, that is what we’ve been doing all along. That God no longer has anything to do with it—it’s just us.

If that were true, it would mean that we haven’t asked ourselves some important questions about what we’re doing in worship. We’re just going along with these legacy forms of silent worship and vocal ministry the way the Church of England was going along with its legacy forms in the 17th century, without reexamining the basic premises of our worship. If all we’re doing now is serving each other (or nothing at all), then maybe some other worship form would serve us better.

But then I wouldn’t be interested in being a Friend. I want some thing more. I want something transcendental, that is, trans-personal, greater than the sum of our individual selves. I want the gathered meeting, that is, the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit.

And because I have in fact experienced that presence, I know there is something to be served, even if it’s not “God”, not a remote being who might want something from us, but still a Mystery Reality behind that experience of gathering. For want of better words, a spirit, in truth.

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