On “Holding the Meeting in the Light”
Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
I am grateful to have been part of the eldering team at Yearly Meeting. The dedication of the eldering team impressed me greatly. They put enormous mental effort into “holding the meeting”; they felt an enormous responsibility for the quality of the meeting, and they were often exhausted at the end of a session. I say “they” because I feel that my understanding of the job was somewhat different.
In the first place, I think that every participant in our meetings for worship and business has a responsibility for the spiritual quality of the meeting. I don’t think we can expect a couple of people to take this responsibility. Elders should not feel a sense of failure if a meeting does not go well.
In the second place, I believe that no mental effort on my part could be capable of “holding the meeting in the Light”. Rather I pray that God will hold the meeting, and that I will be able to sense the divine presence.
There is something very abstract about the way in which elders feel obliged to act. They feel the need to stay mentally detached from the meeting, not to get involved. They feel forbidden to speak, or even to listen too closely. Their role is like that of a guardian angel hovering over the meeting, not a participant in the meeting.
I am not sure that this has always been the case. In my early days among Friends (I am going back more than 50 years!) our elders often ministered in my local meeting if they felt this was needed. They certainly listened carefully, and offered encouragement (or rarely discouragement!) to those who had ministered. I understood that the role of an elder was to help people on their spiritual journeys. I confess that this is much harder to do by Zoom.
Behind all these changes, I think there is a deeper issue. We have cast off our childish concepts of God, and have not found any replacement. Hence people do not so much talk of “holding in the Light”, but only of “holding the meeting”, as though it was to be held by their unaided mental effort. This is a heavy burden.
No-one has ever been able to get their mind around God of course. No one has ever comprehended the whole ocean of Light; we see only the odd spark. Some of the great passages of the Bible express this mystery. In the book of Exodus Moses asks for God’s name, and is told “I am who I am”. In the book of Revelations God says “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end”. But because it is very difficult to relate to Alpha and Omega, or even to an ocean of Light, people have used idols, icons, and saints as intermediaries. This may be harmless. The person praying in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary probably knows that God is nothing like the statue, but may feel closer to the divine in that place. But at other times people have convinced themselves that God really is like a capricious and demanding monarch, or like an angry judge. Over time these mental images have failed us, as our universe has grown and our understanding of the divine has not. As a result we are left with “That of God” without any God for That to be part of. We are trying to make our little spark of God do the work of the mind which gave forth the universe. It is too much for us.
It is good that the role of elders has become less that of a disciplinarian and more that of carer. But we must not ask our elders to be miracle workers.