Sunday, December 30, 2007


Today in meeting I had the curious experience of being led to speak. This is the second time this has happened to me and therefore the the second time I have spoken in meeting. People speak infrequently at our meetings and it is not at all uncommon for us to have meetings without a single message. It is nice to know that one is not compelled by Friends to contribute anything in particular. It is good to just sit and wait and let the silence fill the hour. I tell myself that I will not break that silence unless I am called to do so and that my standard for defining "a call" will be very high. While I quite enjoy contributing to conversations, debates, speeches, etc., I do not relish the idea of breaking that hour of waiting worship. It bothers me to think that my stomach might growl or that I might cough or shift in my seat too loudly. The idea that by blurting out some random thoughts or that by expounding on some pet topic I might interrupt that silence prevents me from saying a thing.

I have wondered what motivates Friends to speak. I have read that the messages come to them and that they do not plan them in advance. These are messages that are supposed to come from a divine source. I have my doubts. How can this be so? It seems more likely that these are messages that come from deeply held opinions and well-researched thoughts. That's fine too as far as I'm concerned, but I want to test the idea that one can channel messages from a deeper Source. For this reason, I've made it a point to keep my mouth shut no matter how clever or pretty a thing forms in my head. Although there are several times when I can add a message that would fit in beautifully with the other messages, I make it a point to NOT speak in meeting.

As I was sitting there this morning, I was thinking about our query regarding how we felt about the use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. I was thinking that I didn't much care. I mean, I abstain from all as a general rule. My position tends to be that while I abstain, I don't like to judge others' use. I am aware of the damages caused by drug abuse and concerned in a kind of lukewarm way about those issues but I don't spend much time thinking about them. I have an opinion on everything, lol, but that isn't one about which I'm passionate.

One woman spoke. She told us about how she works with people who suffer greatly due to alcoholism. They lose their jobs. They lose custody of their children. Their lives are blasted apart by it. She reminded us how often the alcoholism is really symptomatic of much deeper problems. So I sat there and thought about why people drink and I thought about how I don't drink because I like to be in control of my life and the image of myself that I show others. I want others to see that I am in control of myself.

The idea of control and the relinquishment of it started to move in my head and words began to shape themselves around these ideas. In the end, I found myself with a message which basically was that the world is hard and people are struggling to hold onto it. Sometimes they just want to let go for a little while. They want to sink into something...into fun, into oblivion, into sensation, into something that makes them forget how hard life is even for just a little while.

I then thought to myself that I would certainly not share that because it is obvious and not particularly spiritual. A good portion of myself was glad that today's query was not the kind of subject that would likely lead to anything particularly spiritual that I might feel moved to share.

Then the words began to move around in my head again as if by some outside editor...I don't know quite how to describe this but the words were moving themselves. The words "The world is hard..." struck me deeply. I'd always judged drinkers harshly. Intellectually I was kind but in my heart I've always been disgusted by those who do not control themselves in public. But "the world is hard." I know this. I know this. It is exhausting and exquisitely painful sometimes...No. Most of the time. I do not drink but I fall apart into rages and I sink into depressions. I withdraw. I sleep. I run away. I yell and rant and judge and cry. I let go into something that feels more powerful than I am but which only leaves me feeling empty and used up. That's true and it would make a fine message but I was not going to speak.

In any case, even as I was sitting there saying how nice it was not to have to speak, the words settled hard and sat there. Then my heart began to pound. My palms began to sweat. I was having trouble breathing properly. "The world is hard..." I knew I needed to start there but I didn't know what would come after. Although I am the kind of person who likes to plan out at least a framework of everything I say before I say it, I knew I had to start speaking into that profound silence. I had to interrupt the thoughts of the others sitting with me. In that silence, I have found someone opening a cough drop as a jarring noise that shifts me unpleasantly out of contemplation. God, I did not want to speak into that silence. I had to sacrifice my comfort and perhaps appear to be foolish, irritating, irrelevant. No. I do not want to do this!

But my heart pounded so loudly I felt for sure the men on either side of me in the circle could hear it. The tears were starting to escape my eyes and my breathing was becoming labored. This was ridiculous. So feeling that if I didn't speak, I might just pass out or throw up or bolt from the room, I spoke and the speaking felt like falling through a membrane, like going limp on the edge of a cliff, like letting go of my grasp of control.

"The world is hard," I began and then I kept talking. I know it had something to do with how we have to keep holding on even when we know that we will lose all that we have and how sometimes, it feels good when one is exhausted and hopeless to let go. Alcohol promises that for just a little while, there will be a release, a numbness, a surrender that eases the exhaustion of holding on, to surviving, to fearing and scrambling in a hard world. But this is artificial. It leaves us empty and no better and even worse than we were before. What we need is to let go to Something that washes us in beauty and nobility. We need to drown in that compassion, sink into divinity and emerge with a little more courage so we can face holding on again in a hard world. Because we have to hold on. We have work to do.

I'm sure there was more but I just don't know what. I was surprised by it. Surrender to what? What am I saying here? I'm a non theist for goodness sake! What am I saying and what is happening here?

Then my heart slowed down and my head stopped whirring and I returned to silence. On our way home I told my husband that I would almost rather not return to meeting than to have that happen again. Both times have been so unpleasant, so disturbing and to share them embarrasses me. I do so because I feel that to pretend they don't happen is dishonest and I need to tell people so they can what? Affirm me? Send me to a doctor? Explain it? I don't know. Maybe I'm delusional. The feeling knocks me off my base. I never expected when I sat down with Quakers that I too would quake.


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

I wasn't there, "in the life", so I can't be certain. But it certainly sounds like you did it right--that the message was a leading of Spirit (whatever that means! I know I too have a lot of trouble even with the word God), but I've come to trust that whatever-it-is to know its business, and to know when to push me to my feet, and when not to.

That's what it feels like for me, by the way--like I'm a balloon, getting filled up bigger and bigger with air and warmth, until the restlessness of my body wanting to rise pushes me to my feet.

I have sometimes risen too soon, or when the message was too much mine or for me and not for the meeting. That feels awful. And I have forced myself to remain seated when I should have risen, and that feels awful, too! But these days, I know what to expect when I've given a message: I sit down again feeling lighter, good, but also very, very weak. Sometimes I feel like my knees won't hold me up. My meeting has recently gone with a procedure where people try to leave the meeting room quietly at rise of meeting, so that those who wish to can remain behind for a little more worship or for worship-sharing. I've often been relieved not to have to get out of my seat and go drink coffee with the rest of the meeting on days when I've spoken--or on days when, without speaking, I've felt my worship go unexpectedly deep. (Watch for those times, too--Spirit can move every bit as forcefully within you without your having a message to share in words as it seems to have done today.)

I've been reassured by a number of things, when it comes to my own trembling at the power of those experiences. One thing has been the supportive Eldering I've received from Friends I respect. (I remember particularly, at New England Yearly Meeting this summer, one Friend I knew only by reputation, who approached me after I spoke in a small-group worship, and said, "I believe thee was favored, Friend." It was so good to have that spoken aloud--somehow, especially in the older language--I could have cried.)

Another thing that has meant a lot to me is reading the words of other Friends who also cry, sweat, or tremble in their experience of Spirit. There's a part of me that is terrified of being taken for a drama queen. I try to come off as very cool and logical in daily life, but, in reality, a television for a long distance phone company can get me misty-eyed, much less the presence of God. I'm so damn grateful for every Friend on the web who has mentioned in passing, matter-of-factly, the ways their body reacts to a strong sense of Spirit. It really makes me feel less like a mutant freak! *grin*

Finally, I've got the good fortune to have become a Friend after years as a Wiccan High Priestess. I vividly remember how I would experience deep, deep physical cold after . It's not an unusual reaction in that context, either, in other words. And, though there are some real differences between the two practices--and I must say, I strongly prefer the Quaker practice of vocal ministry--I recognize some of the landmarks, which is helpful.

Perhaps the most helpful thing of all is to know that this experience is one that is shared with a community. You aren't the sole conduit of Spirit in your meeting; you could sit in your meeting for another twenty years without ever rising to your feet again, and it would be fine. You will never need to carry this alone! Quaker meetings, far more than Pagan covens, circles, and groves, are about corporate--communal--experiences of Spirit. We help one another to hear the voice of God, to be faithful to it, and to live up to the Light we are given. It is just so, so cool.

If you haven't done so yet, seek out someone you respect and trust, an Elder (in years or not, but in Spirit) of your meeting. Share your experience with them. Take their hand.

(To me, after 20 years a Pagan leader and teacher, this is one of the greatest gifts Quakers have given me--hands to hold, belonging to people who have seen farther than I. I'm so grateful to have Elders worthy of that name...)

Blessed be, friend.

HysteryWitch said...

Cat, thank you for this comment. It really is comforting in so many ways. I'm not comfortable with physical reactions and to sit there gasping and sweating is the last thing I want to happen. I've always pretended that I'm incapable of sweating! lol But with these two events, my palms became cold and not just damp- Wet! Yuck. Of course we stand and hold hands after meeting. Of course. How embarassing.

What is particularly good to hear is that this may never happen to me again and it would still be ok. Knowing that brings clarity for me and prompts me toward deeper listening to the other messages.

It will take time for me to reconcile myself to this. "Think with your head, not with your gut," was the rule my father gave me and that which defies rationalism makes me extraordinarily uncomfortable. On the other hand, I told my father about the experience and pointed out to him that it is precisely because I would resist such an emotive and physical motivation to speak that I must take it seriously. That which arises unexpectedly and outside my rational expectations deserves greater focus and deeper contemplation. Because I do not wish to believe such things happen at all, I take it much more seriously when I find that they do!

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