These reflections from facilitators and participants may inspire you to think about Meeting for Learning as an option in the coming years. Meeting for Learning is a year-long process under the care of Yearly Meeting’s Quaker Learning Australia Committee. It began in 1995, modelled loosely after an American program, and has been a successful and welcome source of enrichment for Australian Friends, who have made it our own. It seems enriching for those who are new or well-seasoned. The year begins and ends with a week-long retreat in September. These alternate in theme between “Self” and “Community” but the two are constantly in conversation. During the year, participants are supported in their journey by a local committee, whom they name. Participants also take up one or more “projects”, which can be as simple as continuing an existing activity in a more mindful way, being open to a leading, or contributing some new service to the local Meeting. Others have written shorter or longer works, or completed extensive art projects, but one answers to no one but the Still Small Voice on this.
Meeting for Learning is hosted by different Regional Meetings on a two-year rotation, and is spending this, its second retreat/year in Queensland (registration is full). It will move to Victoria for the next two years. This “on-the-road” model gives Friends a chance to participate without incurring large travel costs. Some financial support can be accessed. All Friends, particularly those within reach of Victoria, may want to reflect and plan for next year. There is a maximum of twelve attendees. Initial inquiries for 2016 should be sent to Fiona Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org
The facilitators of Meeting for Learning are generous volunteers who guide the progress of the week, provide individual spiritual nurture, and make themselves available for support by phone or email throughout the year. The four at present are Fiona Gardner, Catherine Heywood, Jenny Spinks and Sue Wilson.
Reflections of Facilitators
Sue Wilson: The Courage to Facilitate
In the year 2000 the facilitation team invited me to join them as a sort of trainee facilitator. I was delighted – and terrified. I was also completely certain that this was a direction for me to take. I’d never known before that a leading could take a person through such terror and self-doubt.
Helping to facilitate at that retreat week required me to use skills that I was already developing through my work, and which I longed to develop further. Yet it also took me back to feelings I hadn’t experienced since my youth – fear and complete inadequacy. Who was I to lead f/Friends, when every single participant had such gifts of their own?
Over the years I’ve gathered confidence in our Quakerly processes and I’ve learnt how to claim my particular gifts. At the 2014 retreat I had trouble sleeping one night. I was simply agog at what we were all doing together. The emotional and spiritual trust, courage and openness among the twelve participants is always very moving. I revel in what we all bring to the week.
One powerful part of the retreat is the small listening groups that we hold each afternoon. As Douglas Steere said, “To listen another soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being can perform for another.” This has certainly proved true for me, whether I’ve been deeply listened to by others or I’ve been the one offering attentive listening. When encouraged, we humans express extraordinary yearnings towards connection, meaning, and wholeness.
My own spiritual life is indescribably richer for the experience of Meeting for Learning, first as a participant and now as a facilitator. What a privilege to encounter Spirit in myself and in over 100 f/Friends who have participated in Meeting for Learning.
Fiona Gardner: Steady Inspiration through the Years
As Sue has said, it’s always a wonderful experience to be a facilitator at Meeting for Learning. Having been involved since the retreats started, I find it inspiring to see how we have continued to evolve, simplify, tenderly refine and develop the process and content while of course the essential and eternal aspect remains the same: seeking the spirit together. Each year the participants give us feedback about what is working for them and what they think needs to change. What people say is always taken seriously and explored with our own feedback as facilitators. Our decision to move to different Meetings as requested came from asking for feedback from past participants and from Meetings.
We acknowledge at the beginning of each week that we as facilitators are providing the content and holding the process, but that what the retreat and the Meeting for Learning year means for each person is wholly a movement of the spirit. What that means for each person is hugely different: for some a sense of inner clarity or affirming of what they know, perhaps the capacity to be rather than do, for others a new awareness or leading, or it might be for some an opening or allowing uncertainty so that something can develop. A sense of community forms within each week and fosters that spirit among all of us. I haven’t ever been to a retreat week where I haven’t felt moved, inspired, challenged often in quite unexpected ways.
People quite often ask me will I continue with being a facilitator for Meeting for Learning, with an implicit question about why do I? It’s a complicated question with many layers. Most obvious is that I continue to find it such an inspiring experience. What we do has changed and adapted over the years, but what never changes is the same sense of being part of a small group of people who form a community of seekers that fosters the spirit among us.
There is always for me something that I learn about, am inspired by or confronted by, something I need to be aware of or learn from, that helps me clarify or develop a leading of my own, sometimes slowly over a number of years. I can think back to earlier retreats when I remember being in a small group exploring a question for myself and see how that question has developed in to a leading, perhaps now completed or still prompting me.
Part of what is appealing is being with a very varied group of people who are affirming the centrality of the spiritual in their lives, being prepared to spend the year focusing on this in the midst of what are often very busy lives. This continues to challenge me too to remember the spiritual and live it out in all that I do, partly in my very secular workplace. Related to this is living out in the retreat weeks, particularly the value and strength of our Quaker ways, coming together for Meeting for Worship each morning, but also at other points of the day returning to the silence. These too I then feel inspired to affirm and deepen in all aspects of my life.
Reflections from participants:
Katherine Purnell: The Meeting for Learning Heritage in Australia – 20 years on
When something new is proposed among Friends I usually have a questioning interest and a wish to be involved. So when there was talk about School of the Spirit/Meeting for Learning starting here I was intrigued. I knew that Valerie Joy had participated in it in the States and I was keen to find out how it, or a version of it, would go in Australia.
I couldn’t make much sense of the pamphlet and applied in trust that “all would be revealed” in the best possible way. The first retreat in a freezing convent in Croydon, Victoria was well attended. There were some hiccoughs during the week and many of us didn’t know exactly how it was all fitting together. But the measured pace and careful sessions made for a centred program, where head, heart and soul stuff was well balanced. Full group instructive sessions on Quaker historic writings, Meeting processes, and Desert Fathers were interposed with triads of Friends sharing personal and spiritual growth. There were worshipful and meditative hours, writing, reading and drawing, walking alone and just being, sharing quietly with each other and with our group facilitators.
By the end of the week we were beginning to form some ideas about what our projects might be back in our home Meeting, and think about who we would ask to support us in discerning our progress in these and our overall spiritual life.
When we returned after a year, the group had become smaller, through natural attrition and some discomfort at this new way of “doing” Quakerism. But those who stayed became a strong group and welcomed the three new members who arrived after hearing informative stories from those who had gone before. Intriguing, though, that so few men have participated over the years.
For me there was a sense of achievement and focus – the impact of the testimonies in my daily living had become clearer, I was better informed and practiced in Quaker Ways and I had a sense of place in my Meeting. I had been to Woodbrooke for three months 9 years before but this local experience was more relevant to me and very exciting as a process of spiritual nurture for my Australian Friends. So I have been a strong advocate of the Meeting for Learning program ever since, and have encouraged many to think about planning to be involved in a year of discovery and extension.
Pamela Leach: Discovering Friends in Australia
As a seasoned Friend from Canada but new to Australia, I felt Meeting for Learning might provide an opportunity to settle into the Society of Friends here. So I became one of the more recent participants four years ago. I was eager to learn how Australian Friends lived out and shared their spiritual lives. My two retreats were rich in this regard, and while nothing is ever fully representative, they gave me insight into the journeys of many Friends. Unlike Katherine’s experience, Meeting for Learning had long since “found its heart” here in Australia, and the week had a comfortable structure and intentionality throughout.
The careful, tender listening and sharing so central to Meeting for Learning was probably for me the golden nugget at the core of the experience. The expression “listening into being” certainly applies. Returning to my Meeting (Hobart), I shyly invited four Friends to participate in my support group, thinking some will travel and miss some meetings. Three were Meeting for Learning veterans, but this is not necessary. Amazingly, they all agreed and all attended each meeting, which occurred monthly. Furthermore, they expressed great appreciation of the experience. So Friends may want to keep this in mind as a way of participating indirectly in Meeting for Learning.
From these gatherings as from the week-long retreats, I was given the gift of becoming more comfortable in my own skin, and able to let the drive for transformation fall away to a considerable degree. I enhanced my daily, hourly awareness of the spiritual all around me. In the end my two projects were both activities in the Local Meeting: care of the Junior Young Friends and the initiation of a Creative Group which offered a vibrant experience during its year of operation. Both did help to weave me into the life of Australian Friends, and the retreats gave me new acquaintances from around Australia. I can heartily recommend the experience. Whatever one puts in, one receives back with an exponentially enriched spiritual lining.