Saturday, April 12, 2008

Do Liberal Quakers Quake?

Introduction to an old post revisited:

After several months, I am revisiting this blog entry that describes the first time I felt compelled to speak in meeting. Following this event, I have spoken several other times. Each time was accompanied by these feelings of...well...quaking.

I am universalist with a tendency toward being head-centered and non-theistic. I have heard and read from some that liberal Friends are more head-centered, less spiritually focused and more interested in social justice issues than in spiritual process. Personally, I don't buy that. Now, I'm not saying that I haven't encountered issues and complications among my new friends the Friends. I see with them many of the same challenges faced by my other friends the Unitarian Universalists. We liberals are not perfect people and I think many of us can identify our own eccentricities and weaknesses (anyone up for navel gazing?) But to say that all this intellectual, social justice, peace marching stuff really stands in for true spirituality is really simplifying it. It is uncharitable and ignores our diversity as communities and as individuals.

When I entered the Friends' company, I didn't know the rules and assumptions about FGC or FUM Friends. I didn't know how one was supposed to experience anything. I just sat in the meeting and waited. I knew some of the history but had no particular expectation in meeting. Strike that. I did have the strong expectation that nothing would happen at all. In fact, as I was in a strong non-theist mode at the time, you can imagine my surprise when, in the midst of my not-believing, I received a message to share with the meeting. I find it curious that my reaction to silence should be so physical. Actually, perhaps this physical reaction in a person who lives a bit too much in her head is not really surprising, but it is curious.

I wondered if more liberal Friends from similar intellectual backgrounds could speak of similar experiences. I was hungry to talk about it after it happened to me but also hesitant. Perhaps I'd lost my marbles. My reaction was basically, "What the hell was that all about?!!" I was deeply relieved when other liberal Friends told me they experienced similar feelings and sensations.

Do Liberal Quakers quake? As it turns out, the answer is Yes! Sometimes we do. One can be deeply spiritual without being religious. One's entire body and soul can be engaged in the process. A Neo-Pagan feminist with intellectual preferences for nontheism can quake. Will wonders never cease?

And now the post---

As a general rule, I am a loquacious person and comfortable with public speaking. Still, since I began attending our small monthly meeting this summer, I have felt no desire to speak. I have come to the meetings and studied Quakerism because I am attracted to its principles and discipline...a discipline that closely resembles that which I already practice. However, I have found limited use for the silent waiting. Waiting for what? That's a hard question for someone like me to answer in my current condition- a condition resulting from a period of unprecedented spiritual aridity. In fact, I have been content to usher the children out for First Day school so that I wouldn't have to sit there in that long silence thinking, for the most part, about how pointless it all was given my tendency toward non-theism. For what, exactly, was I listening? Truthfully, I heard very little except others shifting in their seats, (Why did he think nylon was a good fabric to wear to meeting?). I'd sit uncomfortably crossing and uncrossing my ankles and listening in horror as my stomach growled noisily. I could even hear the sound of my own eyes blinking (ch-snick, ch-snick), but I never heard God or any approximation thereof.

But this week, I sat and listened to myself think about the pointlessness of sitting with my eyes closed and wondering how long it had already been and when my stomach would begin its relentless rumblings. Increasingly bored with the back of my eyelids, I looked around the room we occupy. It is a large room with several slender Gothic windows set into walls of white painted brick. The panes of glass are frosted but some of the window panels were pushed open and through them I could feel the breeze and see the still-green maple leaves outside dancing. As I looked at the even rows of white bricks and the repeated pattern of slender windows on the wall, my mind wandered aimlessly around thoughts of symmetry. I recalled the time my artist uncle muttered with disgust, "In the absence of anything better: symmetry." My admiration for my uncle notwithstanding, I am an admirer of symmetry, of plainness, of simplicity, of order and discipline. I suppose, Vulcan-like (excuse the Star Trek reference), I crave order because my most inner nature is violently emotional.

And as I sat there watching the sun and wind dance on the little patch of leaves I could see through one pane of glass, I thought that outside was a "riot of life" and it came to me that the order of our meeting place was made more beautiful by the light and life outside which, in the end, would always be more real than anything we well-intentioned, well-ordered folk could construct. And so it is also true of me. My desire toward plain dress and voluntary simplicity in lifestyle, my academic and spiritual disciplines, my faith and practice are all symmetrical windows and white painted bricks. They are real and solid and even, I hope, useful and beautiful things. They define me, contain me, sustain me, and strengthen me. But the light...the light that illumines me.... comes from a wild place.

So I knew I needed to say that. I didn't particularly want to say it. It scared me to have to say that. We had gone weeks without a word spoken and I am merely a newcomer. I felt I had no right to say anything. If they were content with the silence, these seasoned Friends, then who was I to open my mouth to talk about bricks and breezes? I started to feel shaky. My heart pounded. What was all this about? Was this nerves? I speak publicly for a living for goodness sake!

Then another woman spoke a message about honoring our personalities as well as our bodies. I glanced down at my hands and was surprised to find them drenched in sweat. The words kept repeating themselves in my head and my heart kept pounding and I felt this curious sensation. I felt as though I had been strummed and that a part of me was vibrating with energy. I wanted so much to speak and release this terrible energy. I even parted my lips to do so but pulled myself back again and again.

Then, and I can't quite understand how it finally came to pass, I spoke. My palms dried and my heart ceased its pounding. And that was that. Out of my grumpy, non-theistic silent inner rant arose a truth about wildness that I had to share. It didn't even make much sense (and I so love all that is sensible!) Perhaps I have been clinging too tenaciously to my ability to analyze my own spirituality. I have been troubled by the inconsistencies of my theo/thealogical convictions. I was moved to speak, I say in passive voice. By whom? By whom indeed! Despite my discipline, the light that illumines me comes from a wild place.


Lone Star Ma said...

i really love to read your insights. That quaking wildness resonates so deeply!

HysteryWitch said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, Lone star Ma. I never know if what I write makes any sense. It is good to hear that sometimes it does!

cath said...

I try not to overanalyze what prompts my leadings to speak in Meeting--it ties my in knots and gets in the way of the message. Although I happen to have a slightly more defined sense of where such a prompting might come from, I know that I'm still not sure.

So I try to just let it be and let whatever seems to be meant for others through me, come as it will.

Sometimes the thought is profound but really meant for just me. sometimes it's not so profound, but I know (don't ask me how) that it's meant for more than just my ears.


HysteryWitch said...

Thanks, Cath for your comment. Yes, it has struck me as interesting that when I feel moved to speak, it generally is not with a message that feels all the important to me. So many thoughts that pass through me head strike me as of deep importance yet I do not feel the need to share them. I offer this to myself as evidence that I am not merely ego-driven to speak in meeting. If that were the case, I'd find a way to be more clever and beautiful in my message. I'd at least talk about something that matters to me. I don't really even remember my messages because, as it turns out, I didn't much care about them. They weren't for me apparently.

I find the entire thing rather curious. Such things do not occur in the liberal Protestant churches of my childhood. One is not called to speak nor is there any thing such as quaking. Certainly there is no sweating and shaking in church! And we do not cry unless someone is getting married or has died.

Such a thing as spirit-led response was something best left to charismatic and fundamentalist churches. We did not believe in such things and it would somehow shame us to admit deep feeling at all. Liberal Protestantism, in my experience, is not a mystical tradition.

Certainly my academic training and my family's move toward atheism in my youth did not hint to me that such a thing could really happen to anyone who was not either deluded or lying. Even now as this happens to me I cannot help but wonder at the chemical cause of this phenomonon. Is this perhaps, an outgrowth of postpartum depression? Could my past few years in academic training and teaching have resulted in this manifestation of a subconscious desire for...? Nah. It feels like God to me. I'm going with it.

But even as I come to terms with the fact that I may very well be a theist (good grief!), I must still trip around my intellect and my very Protestant past. So I still react with a kind of "I'll be darned!" energy whenever I experience this kind of thing because everything in my past and my training tells me that such a thing is not real and cannot happen. It is like seeing a ghost or a space ship. I was willing to entertain the idea that others experience such things. (It is not polite to deny another's experience) but honestly, you could have knocked me over with a feather when it happened to me. And more amazing still is that people who strike me as the most ordinary, educated, centered, non-deluded people in the world accept my narrative of spirit led tears and shaking as perfectly normal. Hmmm. I just don't know what to make of it. It suits me so well and gives me such hope...Perhaps in a couple years, it will no longer strike me as curious...but I hope not.

Lone Star Ma said...

I'm still not sure how theistic I am. The Light is real, but mysterious...I don't feel much need to define it...just to try to be faithful to it in all of its manifestations.

Thorny Quaker said...

I appreciate this post. I like authenticity, especially the courageous type.

Its humbling that our beliefs don't have much effect on truth, but I guess the point is not to get things right but to follow the light when its urges overcome us.

I liked much of what you said in the original post. I appreciate the sense of the message being not all that important to you. Pretty refreshing to hear.

Thanks for the instructive words.

HysteryWitch said...

Thank you for your comments. I'm not sure "courageous" is an appropriate term for me though. I don't have a clue as to what is normative for Friends. I may look back on these posts and find myself embarassed by insensitivies.

It just seems to me that when something is as important as the convincement process is to me, it should be digested very, very slowly. I hope to expose my own bias and weakness.

To pretend that I'm going into this with joy would be a falsehood. I go into this with white knuckles and fear. Some have told me I should relax and enjoy the ride. They obviously don't know that I'm the kind of passenger who gasps loudly, grips the door and even screams out loud as I drive my foot into the floorboard wishing to God that they put the brakes on the passenger's side.

Tania said...

Thank you for this. That's what it's like for me, too, though I'm not nontheist. But I quake, also, and I sweat and my heart pounds and I wonder if maybe it's just nerves (I don't speak for a living, but I did enough performing in high school to know heart pounding, hands sweating, shaking is not what I experience before a performance)... and then when I feel like I'm going to burst, I stand up... and after, I become calm.

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