Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Quaker Mask of Respectability

We've been away from meeting for worship for most all of the summer. There's always a reason. Sort of. We're either sick or we're tired or we're sick and tired.

It makes me sad to think about it. Why can't I get myself to meeting? What is wrong with me?

My feelings about meeting for worship are layered and intense. In the silence, I feel profound Presence and I also feel it in the words people speak into that silence. I almost never get through a meeting for worship without tears. Even apparently simple messages move me profoundly and the intensity of emotion surrounding me is palpable. Still, all of that is just a tease. When everyone stands up and shakes hands, the spell is broken and I'm surrounded by strangers who don't know my name and don't actually give a damn about me or my family. When they do talk to me (and usually they don't) their masks are back on and they are bland, respectable, officious, and busy. What do I expect? I am just the same. I fuss over my kids and when someone asks me a question, my mind races to find the appropriate formula so that I can supply a politely phrased and bland response that will not betray any unsightly emotion. "I am depressed and lonely. I feel isolated and have been in a panicked despair over my sense that life is a series of crushing, humiliating circumstances beyond my control followed by painful disease or injury resulting in personal annihilation," is not the kind of response anyone wants to hear. They want to hear, "I'm fine. How are you?"

Still, I have these expectations. For instance, I expect that people might say hello to me and smile at me as if they mean it and I expect that spiritual topics not be received with the same distaste as if I'd told them about my sexual habits. I get a very strong sense that "we don't talk about those things here." No one really says it but their body language and their apparent reluctance to share personal experiences of worship broadcasts that sentiment loud and clear.

To be fair, I wonder if I'd really be comfortable discussing spiritual matters with anyone offline where it is so much more critical to maintain the facade of respectability. "Hystery" doesn't have to worry about what anyone thinks of her so she is free to speak openly of her spiritual journey, of her doubts, and her deep fears. If I were to do that in the real world, it is unlikely that I could keep my job for long. Real world relationships, unless they are very intimate, do not bear that much weight and people with responsibilities don't talk about spiritual hunger. They don't expose spiritual wounds-- not without first bandaging them nicely in tidy strips of "rational objective discourse." I've been burned often enough online to know that I don't think I could handle similar rejection face to face.

I'm a closeted spiritual person in many ways and I'll bet you lots of other Friends are as well. Where I live and make my living, I cannot afford to show that I am a haunted soul. In the sane and secular halls of America, to be a Pagan is to be a liberal fruitcake and to be a Christian is to be a conservative wing-nut. I dare not expose the extent to which I am "touched", as we say here in the country. My rational self forbids it.

Maybe we are all wearing masks. I cannot be the only one who removes it in the deepening silence when I think that no one is watching. Why else would Quakers tremble and weep in meeting as I know they sometimes do? I watch the light pass over their faces and I feel the energy whirl in the heavy places between their words. They must also be "touched." Is that not the point? If you sit in a circle and open yourself to Spirit(s) what do you suppose will happen? The brain is a funny thing. My little seizures might explain it all but I doubt that. In no other place but in meeting does my body sweat and tremble with the efforts of the soul. No wonder we are all embarrassed at the end. What if we are all just insane? What of it? Perhaps if we don't say it out loud, we do not have to face that truth. What if the Divine is actually talking to us? What of it? Perhaps if we don't say it out loud, we do not have to face that Truth either.

How much of that prejudice and fear of being exposed do people bring into meeting with them? Where the Divine touches us most deeply is also the heart of us where we are most tender, exposed and vulnerable. How do we dare share that in public? How can we expect others to do so? Are there other closeted spiritual people in my meeting peering out at me under the respectable, nice masks they wear? At the rise of meeting, do they too hurriedly wipe tears from their faces before drawing a mask of respectability over their eyes to hide the naked fears and hopes that haunt them at night?

Oh yes. We wear our masks and we engage in the ritual dance, making a religion of our respectability. We call out the holy words of denial as if we were not really (oh, certainly not!) sitting together in the open each with a wounded soul turned toward the Light. We sing out the protective verses designed to settle us safely back into the mundane world, "How are you?,"-- " I'm fine, thanks. How are you?"

What would happen if we told the truth?


Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks, Hystery, for not wearing as opaque a mask, when sharing online. Your honesty and 'overwelling' emotion (even when on the negative side) opens up a sharing that is helpful and encouraging.

As for the lack of relationship after meeting,
Friends aren't a whole lot different from other religious groups. I don't know exactly why but religious people of various sorts do seem given to maskwearing and distancing and formality.

I've experienced very spiritual life-changing 'gathered meetings' for worship in a variety of different churches, but close relationships/fellowship less often. The difficulty/lack of fellowship, I think, stems from a variety of reasons and problems. (I won't write my tome here on those:-)

But isn't it wonderful that when we Center on God, we all become one to various degrees--and our separateness and superficiality and fear of intimacy is overcome?

In the Light of God,


Alice said...

Oh dear, Hystery. I am so sorry that you don't get to connect with other tender folk. I don't know why this seems to be such a common experience amongst us, feeling bereft of spiritual connection with other humans. Sometimes I wonder whether it's as George Fox said, so he might have a sense of all conditions? Maybe as well so that we don't become dependent on the human reflections of the eternal holy, but continue to turn only towards the true eternal holy?

Know that you are in my heart. I hope you can find the confidence and courage of your faith in this dark time. There is such a living power in the Quaker inspiration, to cut back always to the living truth of Christ. I have such a sense that if we can hold fast only to that which is holy and true, the eternal love and light will bring us safely through. xx

Prodigal Valentine said...

Interesting that you should blog about this Hystery. In SL MfW this Saturday past, I had a very clear indication that the meditation of the day (regardless of the centering thought provided, or of the one remark that was made) was about masks, the ones I, and the others around me, present. Also with an additional layer of masquerade, as we were "sitting" in MfW with unlikely-looking avatars! :-) Nice synchronicity to that.

Anonymous said...

Yes! A Resounding Yes!
This post speaks to my experience. How beautifully you express the moment of rise when the shaking of hands seems to signify the break with the mystical and the return to the mundane. For me, the time immediately following rise is very tender. It is difficult for me to shift so suddenly from that tender place and yet I feel I must if I want to socialize.
I have also struggled with the wearing of masks and the question it presents regarding integrity. What is in front of us/between us when we are among Friends? If we can't reveal our true spiritual selves in the meeting community, when can we?
Thank you, Hystery, for speaking this truth. Thank you! Blessed be!

Michael said...

Dear One,

You go to the core of what ails so many contemporary meetings—not just meetings of Quakers but those of every faith.

"Where the Divine touches us most deeply is also the heart of us where we are most tender, exposed and vulnerable. How do we dare share that in public? How can we expect others to do so?"

The issue is not so much respectability as it is that very vulnerability and the longing for safety, for refuge.

And the metaphor of the closet is just the right one to use.

I know that I fled the Christian world in my 20s because I absolutely had to come out of the gay closet if I was going to survive into adulthood. I felt far too vulnerable to come out within that world.

What I sought, therefore, was refuge among those who wouldn't dare to notice, let alone address my woundedness.

Those who would, instead, evidence tacit acceptance of the "un-closeted" persona I had assumed. Who would not question, would not mention my unanswered questions, my hurts and doubts...my unfinished business with God.

Stumbling into Quakerism was, for me, a matter of stumbling into a refuge of thoughtful caring people who would affirm me, but who would not question me or ask me to question myself.

And yet the questions are all there. The unfinished business, the argument with God, is still there.

When I go into waiting worship with Friends now, I long to put those questions out on the table. Yet the hurt and fear is so deep.

And what I experience around me are other Friends who are also fearful and vulnerable, and who also want the refuge of being nice and tolerant and unquestioning.

We are all so wounded.

Humanity is so wounded.

But the Quaker gift, the original Quaker gift, was the rediscovery that people could bear the weight of real world relationships with each other, if they recognized that the Divine presence itself would sustain them while they lay their wounds before each other.

"Christ himself has come to teach us" is not a theological statement, not a doctrinal assertion.

It is an affirmation in the language of 17th century English folk who had only Christian language to use, but who knew that what they were affirming was not a belief but a visceral, recurring, shared, sustained experience.

Something they experienced in the company of each other.

We modern Americans are so fearful of that.

We are perhaps the most fearful nation on the planet. More fearful of mortality, of vulnerability, of not knowing, than any other people who have ever lived.

And those of us who come to Quaker Meetings for refuge are no different. We have found a particular formula for arms-length kindness and tolerance toward each other, but it doesn't allow us to hurt in the open.

We don't trust each other that much. We have been born and bred not to. Isn't "rugged individualism" the national creed? That's not a joke, not a slogan. It is the fearful heart of our whole culture.

Flee the old world, where we cannot come out of our wounded closets, yet constrain the new world to arms-length kindness and tolerance.

Yet we are also so hungry for it to be different.

The first Quakers found out how, but we are so afraid to try it.

"Sitting together in the open each with a wounded soul turned toward the Light."

Bless├Ęd Be,
Michael Bright Crow

Hystery said...

I know that this problem exists in all denominations and in all faiths. I also know just how vicious a church can be, how deceitful, selfish, injured, stupid, and cruel. As a minister's child, I have few illusions that an actual faith community is ever truly as we would like to imagine it. I had special access to the ugliness from a very early age.

And yet I cannot deny that I yearn for those long ago days when my family was situated at the heart of the community and were the privileged witnesses of their pain and joys together. We sang this hymn so often and the words felt true and right. Oh, how I'd love to go back to those country churches where every casserole on the table was a green bean casserole just because the ladies of the church knew that was my favorite.

Blest be the tie that binds.
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.

Before our Father's throne
we pour our ardent prayers;
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one.
our comforts and our cares.

We share each other's woes,
our mutual burdens bear;
and often for each other flows
the sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
it gives us inward pain;
but we shall still be
joined in heart,
and hope to meet again.

(Text: John Fawcett, 1740-1817
Music: Johann G. Nageli, 1768-1836; arr. by Lowell Mason, 1792-1872)

parise said...

"I am depressed and lonely. I feel isolated and have been in a panicked despair over my sense that life is a series of crushing, humiliating circumstances beyond my control followed by painful disease or injury resulting in personal annihilation,"

i long to be able to say something like that to someone, other than my husband, when the time is the time to say it like that.

maybe it's not the masks. the masks are there to be polite. after all, who wants to dump on someone who doesn't want it or even worse yet, someone who can't handle it.

but maybe we do a disservice to one another when we don't give each other the opportunity to build those honesty muscles.

personally, if someone came up to me after meeting and said something like the above i bet we would both benefit.

i try to be honest. and your right, it's hard. people look at you funny. some people just avoid you completely. some people just use you because they know your on to something.

but being true so self, that's the point right. being true to self is being true to each other is being true to god. that's how we stay a gathered meeting after we leave one another. being honest, walking with integrity, it's how we stay in the light no matter where we are. actually no, it's how we remember we are always in the light, no matter where we are. no matter how much crap is in front of our eyes distorting our vision.

may the new moon bring you to your center.

may it be filled with joy.

Nate said...

I've been sitting with this post since I first read it. Others have attested to the truth of what you say, and I'm pretty sure we all recognize it. I am grateful for the conversations among bloggers for the "exposure" that is so often what is most precious sharing. I do remember when I first started back to church in a lively megachurch two things were done to help to some degree, shared food and drinks betwwen meetig and classes, which really corresponds to rise of Meeting in many ways, and secondly, all members were encouraged to participate in small group Bible studies. Possibly committee work has some of the same dynamic, or could.
Opening up face to face is just scary and will take intentional steps if I am ever to do it again.
Maybe someday.

Chris M. said...

Lovely post, Hystery, despite the pain. Telling the truth can be -- is -- beautiful, even when it's hard.

I also appreciated your comments, Michael. Yes, there's so much woundedness, and fear in the US.

This makes me appreciate San Francisco meeting all over again. I think you can be "out" in all sorts of ways at our meeting. Of course, we're a medium/large liberal meeting in a big, liberal city. (In fact, our meeting is so liberal we have lots of "out" Christians! :)

Yet I also know I could do more to open up with my Friends, too. I'll have to look for opportunities.

Kristy Shreve Powers said...

Again, I can only say thank you for this. Would you mind if I passed on the link to this post to my Friends meeting?

Hystery said...

It was difficult for me to acknowledge and respond to comments on this particular entry because I've been in survival mode with health and finances (the weeks at the end of summer and before the first pay period for adjuncts are lean ones).

But also it has been difficult to respond because although I am thankful for the wisdom, sharing, and gentleness in your responses to me, it has made me so sad to think of you all "out there" and I am still "right here."

But I must reach out to the people who are near me too. I must push past my fears that I am an annoyance and a burden and that people are just politely waiting for me to take my little cup of fruit punch and go bother some other person. --Or that when I say something in meeting and no one speaks to me afterward that it is a rejection. Just now Sesame Street is on and they are playing a song about making friends, "Stick out your hand and say hello!" They make it sound so easy.

Kristy, of course you can link to this blog.

Anonymous said...

It is beautiful to see how honest and heartful you write. Thank you.

I think that there is something powerful in pushing past our own fears of rejection.

It's like we can create distance without meaning to - we might think 'oh no one commented on my ministry in meeting' and feel no one cares. Whereas the other could be feeling like they want to respect and honour what we have said in a sacred space.

What I have noticed in my return to Quaker meeting after growing up and going to meeting as a young friend is that it takes time to develop bonds and relationships with Friends after meeting - I think because I now live in the UK (after growing up in North America) I am used to the 'British Way' - which tends to be standoffish untill there has been a certain amount of familiarity and chit chat over coffee!

Again, thank you so much for your wonderful blog!

*Sandra* said...

A couple of things, Hystery:

You're right that people don't want to hear everything that ails you. Not in a casual, passing-the-time-of-day setting, anyway. But that doesn't mean you have to pretend everything in the garden is rosy. I always try to at least convey a feel for how I am, such as, "Oh, I'm OK," or "I've been better, to tell you the truth" or hopefully, "Finer than the hair on a frog's back!"

Not wanting to trivialize your (or anyone else's) troubles, but it is true that for most of us, things could be a lot worse. I have a friend whose brother just died (a young man) and another whose husband just committed suicide. I have a friend who is blind but is always full of joy; that's quite humbling. My constant fatigue, money problems, and disdain for the daily grind, although somewhat troublesome to me, are in truth trivial.

My experience of meeting for worship has been different from yours. I have not yet been moved to speak, but I've been surprised at some of the things Friends *have* been moved to speak about. I was expecting something more profound. Someone explained it to me thus: If you bring it with you to meeting, then the Spirit did not move you *during* meeting.

On the other hand, people have been genuinely friendly. I am shy and my natural instinct is to hide. But Friends have come over to talk to me, have joined me at the table during second hour, have remembered my name. I have even made a friend!

I do hope things improve for you, Hystery. And know that I always enjoy your posts.

Blessings Aplenty,


Hystery said...


You're opening paragraph reminds me of my husband's common response for "How are you?" He always says,"Getting better, getting better."
I don't like to compare and weigh sorrows. It seems to me that although things can always be worse, they are generally bad enough for the person who suffers them. There are conditional and situational burdens and then there are sorrows born in personal and philosophical crisis beyond our companions' witness. When I was in my darkest hour and closest to death, no one could have predicted merely from my life circumstances how much pain I bore and yet the pain was very real, very deep, and very dangerous. We make meaning out of our circumstances and the meanings we make are only partially within our conscious control (says the daughter of the depth psychologist). There are some of us who are genetically predisposed toward depressive reaction. I do not mean to sound fatalistic because I still believe that conscious effort can often dramatically affect our attitudes, but I've struggled long enough within depression to know that for me, the ability to be cheerful is a fleeting gift I cherish whenever it comes to me but not one I count as a loyal companion.

My own experience of worship does not sound entirely different from yours. I also find that almost everything others say strikes me as trivial. My tears come from the spirit behind the words and this I cannot explain rationally. I typically respond very strongly to others' unspoken emotions. A room fills up with it as though it were a living thing. This is funny because I am known for being extraordinarily lacking in the powers of observation. In fact, it is a family joke that I never notice anything. Still, I'm usually "the canary in the well" when it comes to emotional disturbances. What I have observed is that people operate on two very different levels in a meeting for worship. People talk and socialize and this is all just surface fluff that is all but meaningless. In my meetings it is generally a kind of progressive, well-meaning chatter; it is whole lot of busy-ness and fluff to guard themselves from what I perceive as a rupture in the fabric of "sanity" they may encounter in the silence. When all is said and done, sitting in silence waiting for illumination is not sensible. It is not sane. It is not logical. For those of us trained in the western tradition, it is disruptive, dangerous and uncomfortable. However lovely it can be, otherwise people who engage in it must build up constructs to explain it. Our constructs reflect the major philosophical, psychological, and theological schools of thought in which we are educated but no answer have yet satisfied me and the mystery remains uncomfortable.

Michael said...

"When all is said and done, sitting in silence waiting for illumination is not sensible. It is not sane. It is not logical....

"Our constructs reflect the major philosophical, psychological, and theological schools of thought in which we are educated but no answer have yet satisfied me and the mystery remains uncomfortable."

Dear One,

What frightens many of us modern Quakers away from the depth of waiting worship is precisely that it is painful.

It is waiting for inner light to convict us, intimately and privately, to shine itself on whatever we use that keeps us from opening to healing--and yet to do this in the presence of each other.

Trust the private pain as a cleansing, and trust Spirit to bring you through it, regardless of what the others who are present do outwardly.

Inwardly, they are being washed by the same Spirit.

Trust the Spirit.

Blessed Be,
Michael Bright Crow

Anonymous said...

I saw a post you left on Cat's Blog and felt tears forming in my heart. I came from there to your blog and read:

"I'm surrounded by strangers who don't know my name and don't actually give a damn about me or my family."
"I expect that people might say hello to me and smile at me as if they mean it and I expect that spiritual topics not be received with the same distaste as if I'd told them about my sexual habits."

After reading this I am crying.

I am so sorry that you can't seem to find what you need or are looking for in your Quaker meeting. Please don't give up and know that the ways of the spirit are not always straight forward.

I have been blessed with a meeting that challanges and nourishes me and I feel the calling to see that,that happen to all who enter the Quaker realm. The only advice I can offer is perserverence(?)

In my prayers


*Sandra* said...

Are you OK, Hystery?

Hystery said...


I'm actually doing quite well, Sandra. My severe depression was many years ago now and though I will likely always be prone to bouts of it, I've become very adept at living with it and treating myself well. Actually, it is unlikely I would have suffered for as long as I did if I hadn't made the mistake of telling my doctor about it. Medical treatment is what almost killed me.

What is going on here is part of my process. I really analyze the snot out of my thoughts and emotions in an effort to live as consciously as I can to try to figure out what I should be doing with my life. I take the idea of "calling" very seriously. And I do think that sometimes when people write their feelings out explicitly, it can look very tender and raw to others. It is like wearing your skin inside out.

But I'm a basically happy person within the context of an enormous supportive family. Thank you, Sandra, and bless you for your loving nature.

forrest said...

Definitely felt that, myself. Not much to add, would rather have sent a private email asking How goest? & the like.

I've been straightened up abruptly myself lately, first got squshed and intensely pissed, had to let that settle a lot before I could take a longer look & see what I think the experience was telling me. And so I haven't felt up to taking my little sacrifice to the altar, haven't felt fit to write about Quaker anything, am having to resolve all that. But the intention seems to suffice, for now...

What I wanted to know... Stephen Gaskin. Specifically, the one I've been reading this last 1/2 month is _Caravan_. I can't agree with it all, but some of what he wrote had me square in the sights, and maybe I can use it to be a better monkey; or rather I've had to use it so. Is he among your inspirations? (My naked email address is in my profile should you want to take matters up that way!)

Hystery said...

Forrest, your comment honors my blog. I have missed your voice.

But since you've commented, I've been curious. I'd not heard of either Gaskin or Caravan before you mentioned them (so I went to quickly look them up). Do you see a connection? How so?

Anonymous said...

Hi,Hystery--This post says so eloquently that several of us have experienced in our Meeting. Subsequently, we are beginning a deepen our relationshps and have spiritual conversations. It has been quite lovely, and we have even been supported by some "weighty" quakers! We have been called renegades and of not having commitment to the Meeting. However, after much soul searching, we feel that we have been led in this way. If you are ever in the Midwest, come sit with us! Bright blessings and blessed be! caroline Cornmoon

Will T said...

The hunger you feel for spiritual connection is God talking to you. We all need spiritual connection. Many people are feeling it. But after meeting is not the best place to create it. Our meeting was founded because a number of us were tired of being in a large meeting where it was hard to connect and we wanted a more intimate spiritual community. We did that but the intimacy did not come from chatting over snacks after meeting. We had sessions after meeting to discuss our spiritual journeys, and we had men's and women's groups, and we visited while doing childcare. (When the meeting started, we all seemed to have toddlers.)

Does your meeting have any small groups that you could join to build those spiritual connections? If not, could you go to Ministry and Worship or its equivalent and say you would like to start a small group to explore spiritual intimacy. If that is too hard, perhaps say you would be interested in a Bible Study group, or a group to read Fox's Journal together, or whatever works for you.

Blessings to you on your journey.

Will T

Hystery said...


For sure you are right that chatting over tea after meeting is not the time to develop a more intimate spiritual community. In fact, I have never been thrilled with the "hospitality" portion of the day (although it is my children's favorite element. They judge a Meeting for worship by its after-meeting hospitality spread). I agree that bible study or other study group is much more conducive and I believe my meeting is beginning to develop adult educational opportunities. I'm happy about that.

It seems to me that there are, in fact, a couple of issues here. First, there is the issue of how we make newcomers feel welcome (hospitality) without seeming shallow, too formal, or bored. We also don't want to be overwhelming to visitors. I've been put off when someone is all up in my grill on my first visit. I have no good ideas about how to accomplish this balance. Social gracefulness is not one of my strengths. I've never been good at small talk since I tend to only want to talk about topics that are inappropriate with new friends. "Did Jesus have sex? How much of the Bible was drawn from Pagan sources? What if we used metaphors of female sexuality to understand the Divine? And aren't these cookies delightful?" Yeah. I pretty much suck at small talk.

The other issue is how to continue building community among attenders and members over time. Creating opportunities for spiritual and intellectual conversation is a great start. I personally also need to laugh with people before I feel comfortable sharing deeply with them. I am much more likely to trust a wise-ass than any other kind of person. Make me laugh and I'm your friend forever. :-)

haven said...

Dear Hystery --
The wealth of comments left here bespeaks the relevance of your post to us all.

I had a host of inner thoughts and longings as I read your post.

First to thank you, for your open sharing and for giving voice for many. This day, you opened my heart up when I was struggling with feeling a bit numb, so I am grateful to be able to respond here, and to be able to continue on in my own blog.

Then your post called me to ask, what else does your meeting do, that might offer you a safer, more intimate setting to share with Friends about yours and their spiritual journey?

It has been my experience that, even face to face, when I take the risk to bridge the gap between myself and other friends, in an appropriate setting, I have been surprised at the outpouring of gratitude that I dared to create that space for such sharing.

If your meeting does not have such a place, why not take the risk to create it? Our meeting has experimented with a number of things, from a Seeker's Group for those who want to share their journey, to an Art and Spirituality group, to a Circle of Trust sharing group, etc.

It took me a long time to move to the place of taking that initiative in my meeting to create that which did not exist but I felt called to see the need for.

At first I felt disappointed that my meeting did not offer such opportunities, but as time and my own prayer and meditation went on, I came to see that my longings were leadings, and that I had not been brought to this meeting by accident, but because I had a voice that they needed.

It is that way for each of us I think, but we need to have the courage to step into the path we are called to.

Blessings on your journey!

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