The Friends I’m talking about are The Religious Society of Friends, more often know as Quakers. I’d heard and read various things about Quakers over the years that had impressed and intrigued me. I’d always admired their commitment to pacifism, equal rights and social justice. More recently, I’d learned about how Quakers in the American South worked hard to abolish slavery at a time when other churches were using the bible to justify its continuation. Quakers are also one of the few religious organisations that have been campaigning actively for gay rights and equal marriage.
As I heard and read more about Quakers, the impression which developed was of a calm, thoughtful and sensible group of people. I believe a big part of this is due to them placing more emphasis on experience than religious dogma. Quakers have no creed or priests with higher spiritual authority who tell people what to think and believe. Instead, they advocate spiritual equality. Their focus seems to be more on encouraging people to trust their own conscience to guide them, rather than worrying about statements of belief. Living right over believing right.
“Quakerism is a group of insights, attitudes and practices which together form a way of life, rather than a dogma or creed. It rests on a conviction that by looking into their inmost hearts people can have a direct communion with their Creator. This experience cannot ultimately be described in words, but Quakers base their whole lives on it.”
The Quaker Way (1998)
It is sometimes argued that without religion to tell them how to behave, people would have no sense of morality. The early Quakers’ opposition to slavery, in spite of what was in the bible, is a prime example of people doing the right thing because they were able to look into their hearts and think for themselves. I think their support of equal marriage is another example of this.
I’m tempted now to write more about Quaker theology, particularly to discuss non-realist and semi-realist views of God. A subject I find fascinating. However, I think that’s something I can come back to in a future post because I’ve been babbling on and on in a very un-Quaker like way and I still haven’t mentioned the thing that Quakers are most famous for, the core of Quaker practice:
“The early Friends made the discovery that silence is one of the best preparations for communion with God and for the reception of inspiration and guidance. Silence itself of course has no magic. It may be just sheer emptiness, absence of words or music. It may be an occasion for slumber, or it may be a dead form. But it may be an intensified pause, a vitalised hush, a creative quiet, an actual moment of mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God.”
Quaker Faith & Practice (1937)
I love silence. I know many people would find it awkward or unnatural to simply sit in a room and be silent with others but I really recommend it. Our lives can be so busy and taking time simply to be, without any pressure to do and think about anything, is so underrated. W.H. Davies’ famous poem sums this up beautifully.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Of course you don’t need to go to a Quaker meeting to enjoy silence. But there is something special about setting aside a regular time to meet with others and be silent.
I’ve never really found sharing silence with others awkward. I’m more of an introvert by nature. Talking to people can sometimes seem like a minefield of possible awkwardness, but sharing silence is a breeze. Still, my first time at a meeting, not knowing how it all worked, a part of me was nervous about doing things wrong. I needn’t have worried. The people I met when I arrived lived up to my image of Quakers being calm, compassionate, open-minded and welcoming. Prior to going I had expected something similar to Buddhist meditation, but this was a much more relaxed affair. They’ve clearly anticipated that first-timers might be unsure what’s going on and have therefore produced a helpful leaflet: Your first time at a Quaker meeting. The man who gave me this leaflet told it was fine to read or re-read it in the meeting, he went on to say it was fine to read anything in the meeting if I wanted, telling me quite proudly that he had once seen someone there reading a book called The Case Against Religion. The Quakers I visited, like most Quakers in the UK, are liberal Quakers. Those who go might be Christians, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics…all have their own motivations for going and I guess all probably get something different out of it. That doesn’t make it a solitary experience though, as it says in the helpful leaflet:
“We do not worship in isolation: we try to hold ourselves aware of all those gathered with us, uniting in a common purpose, so that the waiting and listening become an act of sharing.”
I don’t know what was going on inside the other people in the meeting while I was there. Before I went I had no idea what what would go on inside me. I had no expectations and I’m glad of that. An hour is a good chunk of time to be silent. It felt quite luxurious really. I sat down and relaxed into the space, expecting nothing from myself or anywhere else, and enjoying that.
Nothing magical happened. I didn’t have a profound, life-changing spiritual experience. I heard the seagulls outside, I re-read the helpful leaflet, a variety of thoughts went through my head, I felt peaceful and calm. That’s all, and yet, that’s wonderful.
I’m sure it’s clear from what I’ve written that I think very highly of Quakers. It may seem odd then that I don’t feel a desire to become a Quaker, or to attend their meetings every week. I still don’t know where my spiritual home is, or if I even have one. But sometimes it’s nice to get out of your home for a while and visit somebody else’s. So, even though it won’t be every week, I hope my recent visit to a Quaker meeting will be the first of many.