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Friends Meeting: the B sides
Good morning Friends. I have a most wonderful story to share with you today.
Nothing less than God’s Will fell into my hands this morning!
And I have you to thank for that. I’m not sure exactly who you are just yet, but more will be revealed in due time. Timing is indeed everything!
This morning I drove to meeting with a hopeful anticipation which has grown on me these past six months, seasoned with a slight ambivalence. I left my house a little late, partly because I prepared a Greek orzo salad for today’s potluck, but mostly because I felt I could skip the forum, which is a first for me.
After finding a parking space on our slippery snowy streets and placing the salad in the kitchen I meandered toward the forum. I knew from reading the bulletin online that the forum, which I sometimes call adult Sunday school class, would be singing. By now I know that singing is not nearly as frequent in Quaker meetings as it is in other religious gatherings, it is certainly not ‘programmed’ at this meeting, and come to think of it, the forum really is not very much like adult Sunday school class after all.
Silence. Listening. Waiting.
Ok, I believe I’m finally getting that.
Worship sharing, which apparently consists mostly of waiting silently, seems to be a very powerful tool, and I feel that I’ve reached some comfortable familiarity with it. Listening silently – what other kind of listening is there? - listening for a message arising from within each other is the basis the forum strives to start from.
However, ‘worshipful singing’, the title of this morning’s forum, I imagined to be more of a challenge because I still have numerous unresolved feelings about my religious upbringing.
Not to alarm anyone, but I sometimes wonder if Meeting for Worship is something which I can support, even as an imposter, because waiting in silence provides excellent cover! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve asked as many Quakers as I can what exactly it is you do during Meeting for Worship, I’ve read as much as I can about un-programmed meetings, and I have tried to follow this practice in my own way. If the outward appearance is calm reverent silence, the dictum of “fake it till you make it” works quite well for this recovering drug addict!
Singing, on the other hand, brings this spiritual practice into real time, almost like the difference between the ‘prepared arts’ of painting or writing, versus the performing arts of dancing, music, or acting.
I knew that if I were to support Worshipful Singing it would almost force me to join in from the heart. Music touches me deeply, and what could be more intimate than my own voice? Singing with others is a form of surrender to a group; I must continuously yield to your timing.
Please do not be offended, but I have great trouble trusting others, particularly trusting organized groups, and especially trusting organized religious groups! I am keenly aware that much of this mistrust stems from not trusting myself. But some of my story includes close calls with what I can best describe as cults: both a cult of an evangelical Christian variety as well as a pseudo-psychological cult.
Some days I take big steps to walk in here.
And some days my heart is large enough to be aware that others too may travel great distances to join this Friends meeting.
Well, nothing is ever quite as traumatic as I expect it to be, and I felt mostly okay singing the last few Christmas carols before Meeting for Worship. Once while the forum waited for a carol to be requested I looked up a hymn which used to be my favorite: ‘Of the father’s love begotten’ to the tune of Divinum Mysterium. After about 16 years I could only remember the first verse, and I discovered that I was no longer truly comfortable with the rest. I still love the tune and I try to hold on to the Mystery in Divine Mystery.
Mysery suggests that More will be revealed. There’s always more to learn, to discover.
Sometimes I actually enjoy my day job in science precisely because of Mystery in Nature. A spirit of wonder and awe goes hand in hand with humility: I can only learn something new when I can admit that I do not know!
This is the first step in recovery: I don’t know jack!
I do not know how to live with drugs and I don’t know how to live without them – I’m screwed! (FYI : I cleaned up that last word a bit to keep the message ‘family friendly’, but understand that this message springs up out of pain and despair).
My first sponsor had me look up many words in the dictionary because it’s a spiritual practice: a dictionary, a body of work of scholars is a power greater than myself, and learning to think clearly and communicate with others will restore me to sanity. (That’s step 2 for all you ‘normal’ people out there).
“To permit to enter or use”, “to entitle to enter”. A ticket to a show reads “admit one”, it allows me to enter into the event. My response to the Truth must be to allow it to enter into me, perhaps even to use me.
At the very least I will be changed by the Truth.
“Spirituality is when my internal subjective experience matches external objective reality” – Pari Anton.
Scientific discoveries comprise much of the film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and most likely its authors were inspired to share that message in hopes of catalyzing some change created by all who see it.
(But I digress. Most of that was a way of avoiding my feelings – even while I write privately I still try to hide!)
Silence. Listening. Waiting. Admitting. Joining. Supporting. Surrendering.
Meeting for Worship can be a struggle. I do what I can, or perhaps I do nothing as I can, in order to let go of the endless stream of thoughts and reactions which occur within me as the meeting progresses. If God is the space in between my thoughts, as someone said, well, good luck fitting in there!
There are some techniques to help quiet the mind.
Or so I have heard. (know any?!)
Occasionally I might focus on my breathing, or ask a higher power for help to listen, or I may borrow a mantra for a while.
My posture might encourage listening. Sometimes I will leave my hands open in my lap, palms up as a cue to receiving, being open. This morning however, I tended to hold onto my seat and tried to keep my act together. I was still a bit frazzled from an arduous trek in the snows of the White Mountains which brought me home just after midnight this morning.
I was also a bit unsettled by the frequent rapid sharing which has earned the nickname of ‘the popcorn meeting’.
But let there be no doubt, the first words which I shared this past summer are still true: I’m really grateful that all of you are here!
Now I am reminded of my dilemma: which pronoun should I use: “You” or “We”?! When do I decide to join this ‘We’? Or when do I discover it is ‘Us’?
Silence. Listening. Waiting.
I have found some favorites. I try to keep my mind and heart open and agree to practice the principles of open-mindedness, willingness, patience, acceptance and tolerance towards everyone.
Nevertheless, I did hear a message which resonated deep within and perhaps coincidentally it came from a Friend with whom I feel it is natural to be a friend.
The message is: Every child born is the Messiah!
Many people I know would find this message blasphemous, and to pre-empt their conniption fit may I suggest: ‘Be still and know that God is God’.
‘Be still’ comes first.
‘Be still’ also means ‘shut up’.
Trust me, I am trying to say this with all the Love I can.
allow the message to sink in,
to drop right down like a pebble into the pond,
slipping down until you can feel it land into its rightful place at the very bottom.
Only after you are still and wait can you ever know that God is God.
The more baggage I bring with me to meeting, the more rehearsed answers I carry, the longer it will take for any pebble of truth, any facet of the same message to sink down far enough to where it can really touch me.
Fortunately by thoroughly examining Friends Meeting in Cambridge, and by reading Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting, I can see that there is a lot less of the usual baggage brought to Meeting for Worship by the members than I have seen elsewhere.
There is no doctrine or dogma, there are no creeds, there are no sacraments. This is un-programmed, and what a wonderful, risky, annoying, aggravating, rewarding and even occasionally mysterious experiment this is!
Mildly literate 17th century English peasants turn out to be a bunch of geniuses. Who knew?
Either that, or ‘the power of God was over all’.
Be quiet. Listen. Wait. Ponder.
Every child born is the Messiah.
As well as I can recall, the message continued something as follows: If we can greet every child with Love, and nurture them, each child can grow into a leader, an innovator, a prophet, a new guide.
This should not be too hard to see.
Every teacher is a student and every student a teacher.
The torch must be passed sometime. But the torch is not necessarily a set of doctrines which has been completely worked into perfection long ago, chiseled in stone, to be slavishly and blindly followed.
The Truth is Organic. It Grows!
Certainly Truth in Science grows. And startles, surprises, baffles and unsettles!
Kurt Godel discovered that “any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete.”
I humbly admit that I really do not understand what that means. I lifted the quote from Wikipedia. But I can say that it sure sounds like it must be surprising and unsettling to any techie control-freak engineering type.
If I may take a hop, skip and a jump to paraphrase:
Human understanding of Truth can not be both consistent and complete.
If not even mathematics, the queen of sciences, can be both consistent and complete, how much less so can creeds and notions of theology?!
When asked why he had stopped writing The Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas replied, "I cannot go on… All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."
Doctrine and dogma are dead.*1 Buh-bye!
I just never knew in 38 years that Truth within a religion could be organic and grow. But is Quakerism a religion?!
I felt so stifled within a doctrinal religion that it never occurred to me that there might be a religion where New Information could come in. Un-programmed meetings, group mysticism allow for more to be revealed. Anyone at any time can, or perhaps does reveal some facet of the Truth.
Add this concept to the mix: all forms of human behavior are an attempt to communicate – and that really pries the lid off this whole thing!
Perhaps the Message was always there, I just could not receive it at the time. There was too much static on my radio dial.
If I understand correctly, and if you are what you claim to be, there is not a separate class of membership. The qualification for vocal ministry comes from within, not without, and you practice this realization in a way I have never seen before!
Are you aware that this is revolutionary?!
Is it any wonder that so many early Friends were imprisoned?!
True democracy threatens the status quo which is still diametrically opposed to real freedom and real democracy. The more things change the more they stay the same.
But again, I digress. Please bear with me, this ship does get piloted safely into port eventually.
More silence, waiting, listening.
Listening within, and listening without.
Once again I made it to the end of meeting intact, and eagerly awaited the children’s Christmas pageant.
I can not adequately describe what happened next, for reality is beyond representation. (Is that what Godel said?)
The coincidence of my internal dialogue and external events got pretty wild. Some of my friends in an anonymous recovery fellowship tell me that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.
Right about the time the re-telling of Jesus’ birth occurred at Rise of Meeting, the meeting continued within.
The performing arts, to stand and deliver, has always scared the hell out of me. Watching anyone, but especially kids perform a play or music always stirs up unresolved feelings, so perhaps I meditated and prayed a little more fervently than usual.
I certainly felt more of “Be Here Now” than I have in a rather long time.
A voice within began to ask: “Can I stay?”
I recognized this question, or message, at a few levels simultaneously:
‘Can I stay?’ asks the man, the scientist, the objector, the protestor concerned about doctrines, dogma, creeds, politics, unholy and entangling alliances, endorsements of outside enterprises, ad nauseum.
‘Can I stay?’ asks the recovering drug addict, whose chronic low self esteem tells him the he does not belong anywhere.
as the pebble touches the Deep,
‘Can I stay? Please can I stay?!’ asks the Child within.
Because I like it here!
These people are great!
And so I asked my higher power: “You tell me if I should stay”.
By now, unconsciously my hands had opened and turned palm up.
I became aware of this because something very light and delicate landed in my hand.
It landed again and again.
I opened my eyes and saw Origami swans in my hands.
And I became aware of Friends around me reacting with laughter with the children, playing the part of angels in the balcony, who threw origami swans over the meeting.
“We seem to be getting the brunt of it” a Friend seated next to me observed with good humor as we continued to get showered with beautiful colored paper birds.
I stared in disbelief into my hands for a long time.
And struggled to maintain some composure.
It just wouldn’t do to start sobbing uncontrollably during a children’s Christmas Pageant. I mean – good God! – get a grip, will ya?!
I have experimented with sitting in many places within the meeting, but have more or less retreated to the right back corner below the balcony. (Anyone notice a theme of hiding?). That was the one place where I could not possibly miss that Message. For me, it had to be obvious.
A profound lesson about God’s will from over nine years of recovery is this:
It’s right in front of you!
By the time I made some formal ninth step amends a couple years ago it became clear to me that God’s will for me is not so much a matter of what but rather how.
First off, making amends means: change my behavior. What have I done differently lately? Or am I still repeating the same mistakes over and over again expecting different results? Because that is insanity.
As I traveled to visit a few family members, admitted some wrongs, listened carefully, looked for ways to repair the harm I had caused, and began new conversations with them, I often reflected upon my past with regret, but began to gain some acceptance.
I used to think of God’s will, or perhaps fate, chance, or even the cosmos, as answers in the back of the teacher’s edition of a textbook. I thought that I was supposed to find out exact answers to the question “what” – such as what school should I go to, what should I study, which job should I get, should I get married, and to whom, which apartment should I live in, etc.
Now, I believe in something which I can not understand, but just somehow makes sense, and that frustrates and infuriates the atheist, the scientist, the critic and cynic on the committee which meets inside my skull every day.
My belief or intuition goes something like this: I get to make choices.
Then I get to learn to live with the consequences of my choices. I can learn to see most of the possible consequences, and from those perhaps predict the most probable consequence of my choice, but I can not plan the result. Accepting and paying for the consequences of my actions I have heard labeled ‘responsibility’.
But some consequences of choices are not foreseeable.
Occasionally what others and myself may have intended for evil, turn out to be good. Joseph, Israel’s son, got the opportunity to see that and share it with his brothers after many years, so the story goes. So there are powers greater than myself at work and some people call these unknowns ‘fate’, ‘luck’, ‘Providence’ etc.
So “God’s Will for me”, meaning “What”, is right in front of me, and I get to choose. And whatever I choose will be God’s will. Yeah, I know, reductio ad absurdum: what if I choose to rob a bank? How could that possibly be God’s will for my life?
‘How’ is the answer – God’s will for me is to “practice these principles in all of my affairs” (step 12). As far as I can see, these principles are such methods as:
Plus a few more I forgot.
So if it is somehow possible for me to rob a bank honestly, open-mindedly, patiently, and lovingly I suppose I could do that. To rob a bank responsibly would include pleading guilty at my trial and accepting many years in prison.
But this should expose the gap between theory and reality.
Discussing theories of a spiritual life are of limited use. The book is called “faith and practice” not “faith and theory”.
One loose end to my intuition about God’s will being more concerned with How as opposed to What remains…
The more I practice the principles of How, I grow, a new me grows, and the How impacts the What. I start to make different decisions because of practicing those principles. (that sort of forms a loop there. A story for another time perhaps).
Both Fate and Free will can be true at the same time, because these words represent concepts which are incomplete in scope.
Perhaps Fate and Free will are not so much opposite sides of a coin, but rather opposite directions over a sphere which turn out to be complementary.
There is no place which is truly ‘West’, because that assumes a flat and limited surface, such as a paper map. When you travel far enough west you discover that you became East! So east and west are directions, not real places.
Likewise fate, determinism, destiny, some iron-clad version of God’s will, creeds, dogmas, doctrines are not quite what they seem.
And on the other hand, freedom, will, choice, independence, are not quite what I thought they were either. Example: I once thought I chose to smoke pot, and after some roller coaster ride it certainly felt like I had no more choice left but to surrender.
I did not quit using drugs. I surrendered. That means complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances for the rest of my life.
That does not sound like much of a choice, but as soon as I made this ‘non-choice’ of surrender, I became free to make many other choices.
Are you confused, suspicious, confounded, frustrated or infuriated yet?!
Good – you are right where you are supposed to be!
And welcome to my world.
Surrender. Stop. Be Quiet. Be still. Wait. Listen. Ponder. Admit. Let go.
All I have to do is leave my hands open, face up, to receive whatever may happen in front of me as a gift and more than I need and more than I wanted will just fall into place.
If my hands are open that means I can catch, but also let go.
I am not in control.
I never was.
And so, after a long and wonderful day, including a few revealing conversations around the potluck lunch and quick stop in at work to change media on cells, and change water bottles for our lab rats, I came home.
In my usual productive meandering mode I washed some dishes, put away some laundry, wrapped a couple gifts, then finally when I felt like it…
Stopped for meditation.
Most days I meditate in front of some candles in a fireplace in my apartment. It is just during this past year that I finally added this suggested practice from my 12 step fellowship and some amazing things can happen just by waiting silently for a few minutes every day.
At the very least I can allow myself to become aware of my feelings, identify them, perhaps learn something from them, then let them go.
After just a few moments of watching the candles flicker I remembered the Origami swans I had brought home in my coat pocket.
I rushed to get them out then looked around for where I might put them as a reminder, a mental bookmark.
After seeing every countertop, desk and table already in use, I turned to my meditation spot in front of the candles.
The child exclaimed: ‘that’s where they go!’
Now I see colorful folded paper swans arranged on the brickwork before the fireplace every day in my home away from home.
I know where I belong.
Peace and Love,
PS - I have since learned that the origami are in fact Cranes, not Swans. they were Peace Swans.
*1 Of St Thomas Aquinas: “The consciousness of the insufficiency of his works in view of the revelation which he believed to have received was often to him an oppressive burden.” Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia p.423
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