Yesterday I joined my local Quakers at Meeting for Worship, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now. I first started going to Meeting in early 2014, albeit sporadically, when I was both unemployed and suffering from clinical depression, and as a result spending a lot of time staying with my friends in North London who are not only lovely people but also have two cats. If I was there over a weekend, and awake early enough on Sunday mornings, I’d go with J to her local(ish) Meeting, at Hampstead. Going to Meeting the first time was very different from any other religious service I’d ever been to, and took a bit of getting used to. Quakers have no priests, no worship leader, no order of service – they sit in silence, waiting to see if anyone is moved by the Spirit to speak. I knew what to expect, but it still took most of the hour for me to settle, and the subsequent times were almost as bad. After all, the other times I’d been silent in worship was during period of silent personal prayer, or when asked to actively think on something, rather than try and clear my mind and listen – not to someone or something, but for something, inside.
I’d known there was a Quaker Meeting House near me for years, as there was a signpost for it off one of the main roads I used to travel down a lot when I was in high school, and since going to Hampstead Meeting I’d always meant to go. But, as with most things I intend to do, it didn’t happen until much later than I planned. So why now? Because I read a book which inspired me. Several Christmasses ago, Mum put The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier in my stocking, but while the blurb on the back sounded interesting I was never in quite the right frame of mind to actually start reading. Roll on my current job, where for five months I’ve been travelling up to Lincoln every Sunday afternoon and returning home every Friday evening. It’s an eight-hour round trip door-to-door, and as I’m on the train rather than driving it leaves me with a lot of time to fill. So I’ve been using it to good effect by making my way through the pile of books in my To Read/Haven’t Read Yet pile, one of which was The Last Runaway. It’s an amazing book that I highly recommend, which has inspired me to do more than just go to Meeting again, but there were several passages which made me rethink my approach to the silence found in Meeting, and have really helped me get the most out of my experience there.
Before, I was waiting in expectation like everyone else, but I was always waiting for something to happen – waiting for someone to speak, or offer a prayer – which meant I was in a more-or-less constant state of anticipation. Every time someone shifted position, or cleared their throat, or picked up a copy of Quaker Faith & Practice, I expected them to offer ministry. And being on tenterhooks the whole time meant I very rarely found peace in the silence, even when a Friend did speak. After reading Ms. Chevalier’s book, I was still waiting in expectation, but waiting for something to happen. Ministry doesn’t happen at every Meeting, and weeks can go by when no-one is moved to speak. That doesn’t mean the Meeting has failed, just that the coin has come down heads rather than tails as opposed to coming down edge, or not at all. So on Sunday I found myself able to sink into the silence, and at times feel connected to everyone else there waiting as well – the lightbulb moment/s I had when reading being put into practice – we weren’t waiting for something to happen inside the Meeting room, but for something to come in from outside. I think the best way of explaining the difference I felt is by analogy of waiting for the post. Say you’re only going to be at home for three hours on a Saturday morning, and you’re waiting for the postman to come. When I started going to Meeting it was as if I had a parcel coming sometime that day that I had to sign for and had to be in to recieve, when I was only going to be at home for a while. Every time someone moved it felt like hearing footsteps coming along the pavement – is it the postman? Will my parcel arrive in time? Is this it? But now I’m able to relax into the waiting silence – knowing that there’s a parcel on the way, but that if it hasn’t arrived by the time I need to go out then it will still get delivered and be there when I return. Still waiting, still wondering if the footsteps belong to the postman, but not concerned if they don’t come to the door.
As a result I felt at peace during Meeting, and was able to empty my mind more than I usually can, even when meditating. It was a wonderful experience, helped along my the ministry that was offered by three of the Friends there. Each ministry was only a couple of minutes long, but gave us a lot to think about. I’ve no idea how much time had passed when the first Friend got up to speak, but maybe half an hour. He gave a ministry inspired by a Quaker conference he’d recently been to, about working to solve environmental and social issues, such as climate change and immigration. The image that he was told and shared with us was that of a tree – each leaf/person is very small in relation to the tree/problem, and as people we can feel very small when set against a problem such as climate change – there is a feeling of not being able to do anything, that whatever contribution we can make is so small it won’t make a difference, and even though we’ll do it anyway because we should, such as put things in the Council-collected recycling, it doesn’t feel like we’re helping. Same for the leaf – it’s so small, and its contribution is so tiny. But with enough leaves doing minute amounts of photosynthesis the tree will thrive. And with enough people doing whatever tiny bit they can, even if it’s just donate £2 a month to an aid charity, it will make as much a difference to the problem as the leaves do to the tree’s growth.
Several minutes after this ministry another Friend got up to speak. Inspired by the previous ministry, he shared something a colleague who works as an analyst for peace processes across the world told him, which is that they fail the first time. And the second. And often the third, and more. Until one day they don’t, and the peace process holds. And every time the process fails we learn something – something about how the participants think, or how things got to this state of affairs, or what might work, what doesn’t work, what people actually want, that sort of thing. Which is then used the next time to try and get closer to resolving the issue. The thing to remember, he said, was to try not to be discouraged when the peace process fails. Every time it doesn’t work, people get closer to finding a way to make it work, and that it’s worth making the attempt every time, even if you know you may not see the results in your own lifetime. If I wanted to more fully tie this second ministry with what I heard in the first, or to carry the analogy over, it would be like the leaves on a sapling – they’re never going to see the tree in its full majesty, with a mighty trunk and branches casting shade over a wide area, but the work they do before they fall enable the sapling to grow, and give it the potential to become a mighty tree.
Then, in probably the last quarter of Meeting, a third Friend stood and spoke of something she used to do as a child, which she was inspired to share by the previous two ministries. She spoke of having to do a fiddly, annoying task which seemed to take forever – when she was younger one of the jobs the children would have to do is pick out all of the little stones and bits of dirt from the lentils that were to be used for that day’s dinner. After being harvested they would be taken from the farm to the market, and the market to home, and all sorts of debris would end up in the lentils as a result. And when you’re cooking for a family that’s a lot of lentils to pick through. But even though picking out tiny bits of stone took ages and felt like it would never get done with so many lentils to sort, she knew that afterwards it would provide a good meal for everyone and that it would be worth it in the end. She also said that when all the children were out and it was just her mother working, the job was still done in the knowledge that dinner would be made and the family fed. The idea being that even when a task seems thankless, and annoying, and insurmountable, and it feels like it’s just you alone in the world doing it, it’s still worth doing for the benefits provided later down the line.