Charles Stevenson, South Australia and Northern Territory Regional Meeting
“Can’t you sit in silence at home? Why go to your Meeting to do the same?” This question was posed quite recently to me. I flashed back an unconsidered reply. “Well. It is an occasion when we can all sit as equals: no put-downs, no misunderstandings. Nobody’s going to let me down.” I knew that this was a superficial reply. I should have said that there is a hidden, ineffable communion of togetherness in the gathered silence of a Meeting for Worship. Isaac Penington had a far better reply. He wrote of “An heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another, in so much as a great strength, freshness, and vigour of life flows into all.”
As time rushes me ever onwards – towards becoming a nonagenarian, I find that I no longer have the stamina to serve on committees or to take up positions. The one constant that I do keep, however, is the Meeting for Worship. I still find an extra spring in my step as I get ready on a Sunday morning in anticipation of an hour of silence. I have long pondered why this is so with me. I can only say that I like the silence. I find it an occasion when I can sink into a more authentic self than the rush of everyday living allows, where perhaps I see things from a better perspective. I know that great architecture, stained glass windows, rituals in cultic robes with special intonations of the voice inspire many of my church friends; but for me they are virtual. I am one of the minority in society who prefers a silent Meeting because my own meditations are at least mine, free to wander wherever my teeming mind is led. I can search for something beyond words, something beyond the self.
I will never forget the impact of the silence of the first Meeting I ever attended, in Melbourne. It gave me an inner joy, and confidence that displaced my teenage insecurity. Besides it savoured of true worship, not the musical programme that masqueraded as worship that I had been brought up to. The Psalmist expressed for me the experience of meeting for worship in words that cannot be bettered: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10).
I have attended Meetings for Worship in various parts of the world. Sometimes there has been moving ministry. At other times one wonders what that particular contribution had to do with anything spiritual! Has the homily on an ethical issue got a place in Meeting for Worship? Some ministry deadens spirituality. It is like a fog which blankets the magnificent mountain from view. I remember a crowded Meeting for Worship in Birmingham when an obsessive man “off the street”, as was apologetically whispered later, spoke after every piece of ministry about dust and tiny specks of paper on the floor. It grated until … someone transfigured it “And then we have the chorus about the rubbish on the floor. So very relevant to life: always there is the human flaw with us …” That transformed the Meeting. Sometimes it can be a simple, even an uneducated utterance, if sincere, that the Meeting can build up upon and transform into an uplifting hour.
There is a story about William Penn speaking in Meeting on entering the Meeting House before he sat down! I used to wonder about that sometimes at Brentford and Isleworth Meeting which I attended for a time, excited to know that this had once been the celebrated Penn’s meeting too. How dare I, I decided, criticise the very man who wrote so many valuable insights into a Meeting for Worship! Yet! There is a period of settling down into a gathered Meeting, admirably expressed by Penn himself: the need to get beyond “the noises and hurries of the mind.” So in those first few minutes the mind gurgles up its thoughts, chatter, and trivialities. At length one settles into a profound inner stillness. This experience is impressively described as “the gathered Meeting.” It begins, at best, a creative encounter with that which is beyond, the unseen world of the Spirit.
It is out of this gathered Meeting that true ministry will arise, often on a subject that others have been contemplating too. This can be carried forward, soaring beyond debate or correction, into a new heights, somewhere beyond. There are conventions that have evolved over years of experience: not to speak too soon after the previous speaker so that the message has time to sink in, to speak audibly, to avoid rambling to get to the succinct point, not to speak at the end of the Meeting when it has been admirably concluded by someone else. Meeting is not the place for politics and burning social issues, theological discussion, although if these can be spiritualised as an adjunct to ministry then this can be helpful. But such is difficult, yet “true art lies in concealing art”. Ministry is never going to be perfect, or complete, but that is not the issue. What matters is that it comes out of the deep exercise of the gathered Meeting.
Sometimes, of course, I come to Meeting when my mind is utterly numb. I find myself counting the window panes (there were 148 in the former Toorak Meeting room). That is when I long for some-one’s ministry to quicken my mind. At other times the hour is fertile with creative thought. The true hour will reach a place beyond, into “the cloud of unknowing”, so that whether I consider myself Hindu, Muslim, Quaker, theist or non-theist, humanist or atheist no longer matters. Oneness is achieved in “those things which are eternal.” Dare I say one comes away singing within the heart from a true Meeting for Worship, feeling that renewed spirit of which the Psalmist wrote.
Thank you, Charles. I have always loved that verse from Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. As a newbie to Quaker life, I marvel at the depth of experience you speak of which resonates with my contemplative turn – once I found the language to understand something of my innermost being. I look forward to further learning as Way opens.