In calm and cool and silence, once again
I find my old accustomed place among
My brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue
Shall utter words; where never hymn is sung,
Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung,
Nor dim light falling through the pictured pane!
There, syllabled by silence, let me hear
The still small voice which reached the prophet’s ear;
Read in my heart a still diviner law
Than Israel’s leader on his tables saw!
There let me strive with each besetting sin,
Recall my wandering fancies, and restrain
The sore disquiet of a restless brain;
And as the path of duty is made plain,
May grace be given that I may walk therein,
Not like the hireling, for his selfish gain,
With backward glances and reluctant tread,
Making a merit of his coward dread,
But, cheerful, in the light around me thrown,
Walking as one to pleasant service led;
Doing God’s will as if it were my own,
yet trusting not in mine, but in His strength alone!
– “First-day Thoughts,” John Greenleaf Whittier
I’m going to talk today a bit about my religion. Our regularly scheduled SF stuff and political sermons will resume next week.
I am a Quaker, specifically a universalist Liberal Quaker. On Sunday mornings I sit in worshipful silence with my Friends, center down, and wait and listen for the Presence. My wife calls it Shekhina, that of God which is immanent. Christian Friends call it the Holy Spirit. Other Friends usually call it the Light, or the still, small voice, or Spirit. We’re not particular about theology.
Sitting in worship is never easy. Any of you who have tried to meditate know the monkey-mind. Add to that an intentional lack of instructions or guidance, and a knowledge that the Presence is here, among Friends, and you can’t feel it, and it can all drive a Friend mad. I have gone months of “dry” sits, where I never even feel the Presence, much less hear the still, small voice or am commanded to stand and give vocal ministry. Whittier speaks to my condition, when I’m at my best.
But even a dry sit leaves me revived a little, calmer and cooler, more connected to myself, my fellow humans, and my God. And a good sit, where I feel the Presence and commune with it and with my Friends out of the silence, that is a quiet miracle that fills my heart with joy and gratitude enough to last months.
Last May, the Clerk of our Meeting asked me to be the one to close the Meeting. At the end of the appointed hour, a certain Friend shakes the hand of the Friend next to them, and guides the Meeting out of worship and into the announcements and fellowship that you’d recognize from my mother’s Episcopal church or, for that matter, my wife’s Jewish service. The Friend who closes is also responsible for “holding the Meeting in the Light” and praying for the Friends present. It is an honor, insomuch as my peculiar people can give honors while abhorring them.
That week, a Friend’s son died of an overdose. Another Friend took me by the arm on my way into the Meeting-house and told me, in hushed tones, so I would be ready.
The Presence was palpable that day, an invisible but immanent tiger and an open wound that we all shared. I sweated and breathed hard, trying to channel the sheer spiritual energy in the room ripped open by his early death. Friend after Friend rose and gave inspired ministry, spoken through of grief and pain and above all, love and tender affection for this Friend in need and all Friends in their need. And the Spirit was with them, and with me, and with us. I stumbled through the formulae of joys and sorrows, of First-day school’s report, of announcements, of rise of Meeting. And I stumbled home, exhausted and humbled.
That was the last time I felt the Presence in Meeting.
I was representative of Central Coast Friends to Pacific Yearly Meeting. PYM is the umbrella organization for all the Liberal Quaker meetings in Hawai’i, California, the Southwest, Mexico, and Guatemala. It’s also an annual gathering in the woods of Marin County that’s best described as Quakerstock. We gather in Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business, in classes to learn effective protest techniques and nonviolent communication, in groups to discuss how to help immigrants, transfolk, Young Friends and elders. And, as representative, I had to be there to fly the colors for Central Coast Friends and to see to it that our needs and our concerns are addressed by the Yearly Meeting.
That was last July. And on the second day, the sun rose in the west.
Well, not literally. But I went to the morning meeting for worship, and something happened to me. Worship was no longer dry, it hurt. The Clerk of PYM spoke of “lifting the veil,” I felt a thick rug choked with mud-dust lowering before me. It felt like the Presence was actively pushing me away, and when I emerged to start the day’s business, I was shaking like a tent-rope in the wind. I felt torn away from the Spirit, and from my Friends around me, and from myself. I could barely understand English, and wandered stupefied among the buildings at Walker Creek Ranch.
It intensified when I met with my worship group, and I could not understand English. I couldn’t remember the beginning of a Friend’s sentence by the time they got to the end. Even my French (which I usually speak with God) was confused. A blackbird lighted on a branch above my had, and I heard God laughing in his caw, but everything was so far away and behind lead-lined glass.
Meeting for Worship went from a solace and a sanctuary that brought me closer to my fellow human beings and to my own self and to my God to a horrible dark night of the soul that drove me out into the spiritual rain and bolted the door behind me. And it happened overnight, as if God flipped a switch.
I did not do very well at PYM, which lasted another three god-damned days.
When I came home, and Melissa saw my thousand-yard stare, she took care of me and sang the Mi Sheberach (the Jewish prayer of healing) for me. The spiritual horror of PYM faded into memory and journaling, and I went back to my local Meeting.
It was the same effect – the ripping, the sundering, the driving out into the rain, the thick wall that grew in the place where the walls and veils are to be torn down and lifted. It wasn’t as strong, but it was clear – I was no longer welcome in the meeting-house, read out of Meeting by God Himself.
I still don’t understand why, but I trust that God knows why.
I spent six months wandering in the wilderness. I thought I sent a letter to the Clerk about my sabbatical, but I can’t seem to find it now. I journaled, calling God all sorts of fascinating names, and I sat in silence alone, and I read the Sermon on the Mount and Psalm 46 and John 1:9. I stopped doing or reading anything of Friendly persuasion except a short pause after Melissa’s HaMotzi over the food. For a few months, I didn’t even feel Quaker – like that Quaker identity belonged to someone else. The only spiritual solace left to me was hearing my wife sing her prayers, donned in her tallit and kippah, the Inner Light shining from her face. That’s not metaphor, incidentally – it is a living experience as plain as the sun in the sky and one of the reasons I married the woman.
I became meaner and angrier in those months, and it wasn’t just the election. I acted like a right bastard, and not like a Quaker, as John Reid could tell you. To those of you I hurt, I am sorry. You never deserved that.
In December, I had a lot of time to think for myself, because of how radically ripped away from myself and others I was. And I reread Whittier’s poem, and was amazed to find it didn’t hurt. I memorized the lines and reflected on sits I have known – my first vocal ministry, Hong Kong meeting the day before I left China, the meeting of the balloons when I knew God, the revolutionary meeting in Berkeley Meeting-house when light and thunder appeared and commanded “soyez tranquille, et connaisez que je suis Dieu,” my wedding to Melissa, the first time I held a Meeting in the Light, the opportunity with Melissa and Lloyd Lee Wilson, that wounded, pained First-day full of love.
I went back to Meeting the First-day after the day called Christmas. In calm and cool and silence, once again, I took my old accustomed place among my brethren. It was a dry sit, and Friends were glad to see me, but it did not hurt. Just by not hurting, it was a revelation and a solace. My wilderness was over, and I was welcome back in the Meeting-house.
It took until two weeks ago to nerve up enough to go back again. Another dry sit.
On Saturday (Sixth-day), I felt a tug of conscience to go to the Planned Parenthood demonstration and show my support. I ignored it, and grieved, and asked God’s forgiveness for ignoring a clear leading. Marmaduke Stephenson left his plow, just walked away in the middle of his field, following a leading to become one of the Boston Martyrs. I stayed home because of a hangover.
This last First-day, as I sat, I felt the Presence among Friends, surrounding us and penetrating us and binding us together. It was a brush by, as my senses turned back inward and my monkey-mind churned, but I had felt it. I felt the Presence that inspired Lao Tzu and Siddhartha Guatama and Ste. Jeanne d’Arc and Bayard Rustin and John Woolman and Jesus of Nazareth. I felt the Presence in Meeting, and took solace from it, and healed a little.
At fellowship, a weighty Friend asked what I had gone through, and I felt close to her, and told her the truth as far as I can manage. I smiled at other Friends and spoke with them as Friends, among Friends, not as an exile or a stranger. I walked out of the Meeting-house and I felt the bright sun on my skin and the vivid green that the rains gifted us. I borrowed books from our Meeting’s small library and asked Friends how they were doing, how was their sit today.
I read again Douglas Steere’s redactions of George Fox and John Woolman, and I fall in love again with the plainness and the mysticism and the quiet of my Quaker faith. I sit in silence and I hold my wife’s hand in grace over our meals. I feel Quaker again.
I’ve even begun journaling, as any good Friend aught.
I don’t know why God read me out of the meeting, and made coming home so arduous and painful. I don’t know why God has lifted my excommunication and allowed me back into the Presence. I am grateful beyond words, and have learned gratitude beyond words, but I don’t think this is enough. This wasn’t the reason I was read out for six months. Perhaps someday I’ll know why. Until then, I am grateful that I can seek the Presence, and mindful that this can be withdrawn in a night, and the next morning the sun will rise in the west.
I have plenty of room to screw up – my convincement is an ongoing process and probably always will be. Quakers in general are not big on the “rise born again and without sin!” sort of action. But I have felt the Spirit move within me, and it is good. And if Spirit leads me again, I will follow it, and take care not to outrun my Guide.
(For those of you interested in attending, Central Coast Friends Meeting meets at the San Luis Obispo Odd-Fellows’ Hall, at 520 Dana St., every Sunday morning at 10:00AM.)