“Wait, you’re a christian now?”
“You are completely irrational.”
“Hooray! We both believe in jesus.”
“I love oatmeal!”
I attend quaker meeting regularly at Northside Friends in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve been going to meeting off and on since my mid-20’s.
Some of my atheist / agnostic friends don’t understand why I attend, because I am agnostic.
Conversely, non-quaker christian friends think they understand why I attend meeting, but they’re probably wrong.
First off, here’s some personal background:
- I don’t believe in the following: divinity, salvation, aliens, crystals, higher powers, jesus, god, mary, chakras, reincarnation, sin, etc.
- I’m repulsed by traditional christian church services. Clergy instructing people on what to believe or do, whether it’s liberal or conservative, isn’t for me.
- However, I’m still kind of woo-woo. Maybe a little New Age-y at times. I believe in the power of symbolic thinking and mysticism. Alchemy, goddesses, tarot cards, and science fiction are hardwired into my brain. I don’t actually believe in any of these things, but their imagery and words resonate strongly within me.
- As a child, I attended church maybe 3 times, so I don’t have any negative (or positive) experiences with religion.
- As an adult, I have anxiety and occasional panic attacks. Listening to Tibetan bells seems to help. Attending quaker meeting seems to help, too.
First off, I’m not a member of my quaker meeting. I’m an attender, a non-quaker person who participates in the life of meeting. Many quaker ideas make a lot of sense to me, like “the light,” “witness,” “discernment,” and “clearness.” I also recognize the value of the quaker testimonies of simplicity, equality, and peace.
For me, the most important practice of quakerism is meeting for worship. Some practices, like quaker marriage ceremonies, are refreshingly simple and inspired. Other practices, such as decision-making based on “unity” or the process of becoming a member, feel bureaucratic and conservative.
In quaker meeting, meeting for worship is an hour of unprogrammed, silent worship. There’s no set order of events, and anyone can speak if they feel moved to speak. Many quakers talk about the holy spirit moving them to speak, but different quakers and attenders have different reasons for why they might speak.
Although I don’t always understand what people say during meeting or why they say it, I use it as a chance to practice empathy and patience.
I have never spoken during meeting for worship, I just wait. Wrapped in the communal silence, I wait for something to happen. I’m waiting for I-don’t-know-what, and I don’t know what I would do if I-don’t-know-what happens.
I define this something apophatically, or by negation. It’s not working myself up until hope becomes frenzy, frenzy becomes exaltation. It’s not trying to hallucinate. It’s not imagining what divinity looks / feels / tastes / sounds / thinks like. All I know is that I’ve never experienced it before. So I wait.
Sometimes I feel chills and find myself in a state of heightened sensitivity. I imagine an immense holy beast behind me, its ethereal breath on my neck. Other times I imagine otherworldly light, only perceptible by sidelong glances. But, even as I have such an experience, I know them to be fantasies. These are just metaphors.
Honestly, I have no clear idea what my something would feel like. But I have the yearning for something beyond myself. Quakers might call something similar to this “a leading.” At least I think they might. I may never find my leading, my something. It may not exist. But I accept that.
At the end of each meeting, I feel better, even without a revelation. I am among fellow seekers. I have helped build a structure of silence. I have taken a break from my own cares, and I am nourished by the opening.