Note: New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) invited the author to write an essay from a nontheist perspective, for a special issue of the NYYM newsletter on Meeting for Worship.
Meeting for worship is a potent crucible for breaking the spell of time, the ego, the identity, our daily drama, the alluring vale of tears that our world often appears to be, and all other forms of earthly bondage. We are then released into presence. For a time, we can be still, be fully present, be alive, quite simply, be. One of my mentors, Werner Erhard, observed that humans are so obsessed with activity, we ought to be called human doings. In meeting for worship we can encounter being.
I have been going to unprogrammed meeting since I was a small child. I vividly remember mental games I played as a child so as not to expire from boredom. As an adult, I thrive on the rarified stillness of mind and body for that all-too-brief hour.
Many years ago, I began to notice how quarrelsome and difficult my family and I became while preparing to go to meeting. That was when I realized what a dangerous encounter meeting is. We are, after all, consciously wading into an hour of squarely facing spirit, life, the source. Most of our lives are spent in a multitude of diversions from the simple fact of being; it is a radical act, on First Day morning, to engage deliberately in a time of stilling the endless chatter of our minds and the ceaseless activity of our bodies. To open ourselves to who knows what?
When I truly center in meeting and simply be, with no agenda whatsoever, I am vulnerable to possibility and transformation. By possibility I mean an opening, however expected or unforeseen, however large or small. In the moment of being, I may receive an opening that shows I have harmed my husband and I need to apologize. So much for my plan to give him the cold shoulder for insulting me! By transformation, I mean an irrevocable leap to a new place. Once, during Yearly Meeting sessions, I had a momentary glimpse of the perfection of our world. I was, of course, familiar with the teaching that all is well. Now I knew.
Openings and transformation are the death of the ego and illusion. This is why meeting for worship is dangerous. No wonder we arrive late for meeting, and sit in the back rows. Sitting in the front and center seats suggests we may get called on, and we fear we may not like the question or the assignment. More than that, we fear we may find out how good and powerful we are.
Most of the time, I don’t manage to achieve much danger in meeting. I struggle for control of my thought process. I focus for a while on something I consider spiritual, like forgiving my husband (it really was his fault, you see), or understanding the conflict in the Middle East, or appreciating the unspeakable beauty of the trees outside the window. Occasionally I relax deeply; peace and stillness are enough, and a radical act in themselves. Sometimes my thoughts venture into brand new terrain; my mind is still active, but has opened enough to let in fresh insight. I try not to judge my experience, and to recognize there are many levels on the way to being. Some days I may only make it to the next level, once in a while I may zoom almost to the penthouse.
I seek in particular the gathered meeting. I try to sense the spirit of the group. Or I identify concerns that might inhibit my unity with the meeting, and see if I can let them go. If there is vocal ministry, especially from more than one person, and especially when it revolves around different themes, I try to trace the underlying truth or message giving rise to the varied ministry. This is particularly challenging when I myself have felt a message arising, and the ministry of others seems to be going in a different direction. In that case, I try to discover how the message that has come to me might need to be altered to flow with or deepen the others. Once, in an otherwise silent meeting, a bird called loudly outside. I immediately felt the entire meeting gather in amusement and joy. Another time I felt us gather when the smell of soup cooking on the wood stove suddenly permeated the meeting room.
The beauty is that meeting for worship does not have to be confined to First Day morning at the Quaker Meetinghouse. Once I was crossing the immense lobby of Grand Central Station at rush hour. Surrounded by bustling commuters, I suddenly felt we were one being, despite differences in appearance, motives, goals, histories.
How do I test my promptings to minister, without a belief in divine inspiration? Usually I sit with eyes closed, while I consider, is this message a reaction, or a creation? Does it have to do only with me, or with others? Does the message suggest others change their ways, or does it challenge or address me as well as my community? How does the message resonate with previous ministry? Can I share this message with love? Can I not share this message? Sometimes other tests occur to me. If the message seems to be strong, and I think I am called to give it, I open my eyes and look around the room. I take in the other worshipers, and ask again, are these the people to whom you need to give this ministry?
I often begin quaking as I proceed. (My heart is beating harder just writing these sentences.) I test this too. Is it my ego having stage fright? While I have once or twice been mesmerized by the trembling into outrunning my guide, I generally trust quaking. It seems to accompany clear moments of pure presence. Modern physicists are telling us that all matter is constantly in motion; spiritual leaders and old hippies tell us about the vibrations of the cosmos. Perhaps quaking is an outward sign that we have achieved the frequency of life. Just think, rather than Quakers, we might have been called Vibrators. (Whoa, how did that get past the tests?! Did I mention it’s risky opening to spirit?)