Cathy Davies, New South Wales Regional Meeting
When I first started attending Wahroonga Meeting – many, many years ago – there were a number of teachers and other exceptionally educated Friends amongst the large group. They were extremely confident, used to speaking in front of others, able to work out their arguments clearly and with interesting viewpoints. Over the many years since then I can still remember some of what they had to say. What a delight to be able to remember some clear, well-articulated messages.
But had those messages actually been channelled from God? I don’t know, but who am I to doubt them? We are asked to check ourselves before speaking. There is no doubt that some of the speakers in Meetings at this time were probably very troubled by their day-to-day existence and spoke about it. Our charity for them always seemed to help them by listening to what they had to say, and perhaps afterwards to speak over coffee with them, letting them know they had been heard.
Sometimes the speaker spoke about Quaker or ecumenical things. I guess some amongst us found this irritating, whilst others allowed the words to flow over us. I remember Jocelyn Woodhouse saying, with tears in her eyes, “That is the first time since I left my dear English Meeting that I have heard someone speak in Meeting about an ecumenical gathering.” Surely not? How do we know what we say will not influence someone or be important to them? We never know when it is going to be the only thing that will comfort someone.
We are asked to be a conduit of God’s word. I have asked people from where their words came. A quite surprising number would say that they really can’t remember what they said; it just came. But for someone else listening in the Meeting those words were vital. Were they God’s word spoken through someone for the listener?
On one memorable occasion a well-known overseas visitor came to Wahroonga Meeting. At the end he stood and said, “I had come with a prepared message to give you all. Three times I was preparing to rise and speak and each time someone else in this Meeting stood and gave my message for me. One after another people seemed to know what I was about to say. In the end there was no need for me to speak at all. My message has been given to you by others.”
A wonderfully gifted speaker, Rae Litting has constantly managed to fill her spoken ministry with humour so that the Meeting House would rock with laughter. Often Ministry would take on a theme. For a considerable time “kindness” was the main topic, so that week after week, apparently spontaneously, this would come up. Another subject that came up often was “generosity”. Or the Friend who spoke about “happiness”, and even now, thirty plus years later, I still debate with myself whether being happy is a duty! Now, if like me, you believe that this idiosyncratic situation is God-led, then why? Was there someone in the Meeting who needed reinforcing, who needed “their hand held” and to be reassured God was there beside them?
Was there no occasion when things went wrong and the meeting was bogged down with tedious speech? Of course there was. I remember when someone droned on for many minutes about some boring point of Biblical law. After twenty minutes when everyone was almost snoring one of the elders broke in with that well-known phrase, “Friend, thou hast spoken enough”. Zap!! Everyone in the Meeting woke up with a start and shuffle, shuffle, everyone sat up straight. Meeting began again into the silence.
Is noise also a form of communication? One very elderly gentleman who was profoundly deaf would wear a plastic raincoat that crackled with every movement. Throughout Meeting he would unwrap toffees and suck them noisily. What about the people who really did fall asleep in Meeting and snored loudly? Oh dear! Or the babies and children who would coo or sing to themselves. (Wasn’t there a famous Quaker who as a child asked her sister in Meeting if she liked her new red boots?) Or the little boy who insisted on going around the Meeting room shaking hands with everyone when he was ready to leave the room.
I remember Valerie Joy actually speaking about speaking. She stood up, sat down again quickly, stood up again, then sat down. Up, down, up down. Her face reddened and I’m sure, if like me on similar occasions, her pulse was racing and her legs trembling. There is no doubt that when one has to speak it is a very daunting activity. It really isn’t a “presentation” to the Meeting, although the poems quoted, the prayers uttered can be so delightful. After all, the “daffodil” Ministry which is often looked down on, (you know, “On the way to Meeting I saw a field of daffodils”) is really a prayer of thankfulness for a magnificent world.
But gradually as the years and Friends passed Wahroonga Meeting became more and more quiet. The days of going home with a discussion in my head about something someone had said had gone. No one spoke. No one seemed to act as a channel to God’s word any more. Whilst I am sure I am wrong with this, I felt strongly that it was frowned upon to speak, and this was voiced to me in this way on several occasions. After the Meeting concluded Friends now were asked to speak on any spiritual matter that had arisen for them in the Meeting. Is this the same as God speaking through them?
I miss the spoken ministry, the channel into minds far clearer and more God-centred than mine. I miss not being able to turn away from my own mundane concerns to think about others’, articulated by them. I miss the love that seemed to stretch out from people who I wouldn’t normally communicate with, and the various roads to God they opened up with their spoken ministry.
I don’t like being completely quiet. Like many people I feel I “am not worthy”, and I can easily persuade myself that I should never speak in Meeting. We need, I believe, to encourage people to speak if they feel God wishes to speak through them, not to silence them. This is the love of God speaking to us and through us.
Grace Noble, a dear elderly lady of Wahroonga Meeting, would quote to the Meeting at least once a year, the Douglas Stewart poem Brindabella. This was my introduction to Australian poetry, even before reading Banjo Patterson.
Once on a silver and green day, rich to remember,
When thick over sky and gully rolled winter’s grey wave
And one lost magpie was straying on Brindabella
I heard the mountain talking in a tall green cave
Between the pillars of the trees and the moss below:
It made no sound but talked to itself in snow.
All the white words were falling through the timber
Down from the old grey thought to the flesh of rock
and some were of silence and patience, and spring after winter,
tidings for leaves to catch and roots to soak,
And most were of being the earth and floating in space
Alone with its weather through all the time there is.
Then it was, struck with wonder at this soliloquy,
The magpie lifting its beak by the frozen fern
Sent out one ray of a carol, softened and silvery,
Strange through the trees as sunlight’s pale return,
Then he lifted his black head and listened, hunched from the cold,
Watching that white whisper fill his green world.