Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Do Quakers hide behind a wall of silence?

As I mentioned in a previous blog, there was a Quaker poetry-sharing session at my Meeting in which I read a poem about the death of my beloved wife of blessed memory. When I burst into tears, recalling this terrible loss, I was stunned when there was an dead silence from Friends. No one spoke a word, or expressed any interest or sympathy.  I read the poem a second time, and there was still no response. It was as if I was in an empty room. I was profoundly hurt and shaken.

After wards,  I began to question my Quaker faith and practice. Are we Quakers creating walls of silence separating ourselves from our feelings and each other? Do we hide behind a facade of spirituality? Are we just pretending or are we for real about being friends? What is preventing us from acting like human beings?

Last night I went to  my men's group at All Saints Episcopal Church. I have been meeting with this group of men each Monday night for several years. It's  been an incredibly life-giving experience to be among men who have the courage to be honest and vulnerable about their feelings. We share deeply about our personal struggles, our relationship issues, our sex lives, our spiritual yearnings. When a man shares something especially painful and personal, we thank him for being honest. 

During my share time, I read the same poem that I read to the Quakers and the response was utterly different. My "brothers on the journey" were empathetic, caring, and deeply Spirit-led.  Some even wept with me. I felt their love and it touched me deeper than words can tell. I told them, "Thank you for being human!" 

A couple of men shared their insights about the poem, and how it had affected them. They didn't feel "awkward." They asked me questions. They showed interest. We talked about how sacred our feelings are--a gift from God. Recognizing the sacredness of our feelings is my spiritual "growing edge."

Because I was so vulnerable, other men in the group felt free to share their hearts, and even their tears. It was a blessed night. 

Because of our honesty, I feel that this group of men have demonstrated a kind of love and spirituality I don't experience in my Quaker meeting. In our Meeting, the silence is often heavy and a little intimidating because people become annoyed if anyone has the temerity to stand up and speak. They go to ministry and counsel and complain that so-and-so's message is too long, or too political, or isn't sufficiently spiritual. As a result, people are reluctant to share. We learn to hold back our feelings since it isn't safe to express them.

Perhaps this is why people in my Meeting were reluctant to open up and be real during the poetry session. Holding back is part of our Meeting's culture. We have learned to hide behind a wall of silence.

Granted, we did open up a bit during an adult study in which we talked about vocal ministry. That was an important breakthrough. During that session, I felt as if a window had opened and a little light had streamed into our Meetinghouse. Praise God! 

So I have been asking myself, and God, Is this really the way it has to be with Friends? Is our Quaker practice fatally flawed?

Then I remembered that Friends in other Meetings and in other situations have found ways to let the Light into our lives, even the dark and vulnerable parts of their lives. In La Jolla Meeting, there was a painful conflict over a member who allegedly behaved inappropriately towards women in the Meeting, and the men and women were so freaked out they formed support groups to explore their feelings. The women's support group disbanded after the women had processed their feelings. But the men's group has continued and it functions in much the same way as the men's group at All Saints Church. So it is possible for Quaker men to be real and honest and vulnerable with each other. I wish that we had  such a group at my Meeting. We really need it!

I also recall that when I first became involved with Friends at Princeton Meeting thirty years ago, my mentor Herrymon Maurer led a weekly "surrender group" based on the AA Twelve Step Program. This is what I wrote about my first experience with Quakers, an experience not unlike what I am now experiencing with the Episcopalians:
The "Surrender Group" was started in the early 1970s a few years after Herrymon joined AA and turned his life around. Its format was simple: AA’s Twelve Steps were re-cast, in deference to Quaker practice, as "Ten Queries." Each week participants would focus on a single query: "Are you willing to make Truth the center of your life?" or "Are you willing to give up compulsions and devices?" The questions were simple, but the responses were often deep and challenging. Participants were encouraged to share from their personal experience, and to help others to understand how we could in fact change our lives. I had never experienced anything quite like it before, or since. 
What made the "Surrender Group" dynamic was the presence of recovering alcoholics deeply committed to spiritual transformation, and the presence of Herrymon, whose wisdom and humor pervaded the gathering. 
"I don’t think I’d be here today if not for Herrymon and the Surrender Group," says Harriet, one of the group’s original members. "When I first went to the group, I was 29 years old and had just found out that my husband was manic-depressive. Herrymon helped me get through this crisis spiritually as well as psychologically." (See http://quakertheology.org/issue6-3-Maurer01.htm)

Clearly, Friends are capable of being honest and real about their feelings if they are given the right format in which to do so, Perhaps the problem isn't with Quakerism, but with our insistence on using "Quaker dialogue" for every kind of encounter. "Quaker dialogue" works well as a way to curb the tendency to be aggressive and argumentative. It helps promote compassionate and deep listening.  But like every form, it has its limitations. It can be used to stifle feelings and to discourage people from expressing empathy. That's why I am beginning to question this form.

During the world Quaker conference in Peru, I was asked to facilitate a "home group," a small worship-sharing group for Friends from different branches of Quakerism. My co-leader was a lively and deeply spiritual young woman in her thirties from New York. She was very creative and together we came up with innovative ways to help the group connect emotionally and spiritually. We used art, dance, and even finger puppets!  We also had times of traditional worship and "Quaker dialogue" with queries. We weren't locked into one form and our goal was not to follow the form but to be open to the Spirit. 

The results were amazing, and some said our home group was one of the best at the gathering. The high point for me was the day we decided to use dance as our modality. The query for the day: "What do you feel is God's yearning for Creation?" Instead of having a heady theological discussion, we asked Friends to express themselves through dance. How would you act out your response to this question using your body instead of words? 

Having never done this before, I had no idea how this would turn out and was a little nervous. But my co-leader and I both felt this is what Spirit was calling us to invite Friends to do. 

As we gathered in a circle in silence, I closed my eyes and felt led to reach towards my chest and symbolically take out my heart and plant it in the ground. After I got down on my knees, "buried" my heart, I looked up and saw something that brought tears to my eyes as well as a profound sense of the Divine Presence. While I was on my knees, Friends had formed a circle, locking arms and moving in unison. What an expression of Unity!

I joined the circle and then Friends gradually moved out of the circle one by one and began to dance alone and in small groups and then rejoined the circle. It was as if we were being divinely choreographed!

I can't begin to put into words the power and the magic of this experience. I just knew that God was expressing Her deepest yearning through us. 

So I know that Friends don't have to hide behind walls of silence. We can be free and let the Light shine and through us. By being free and honest ourselves, we help to free others to express their feelings and to honor the source of Light and Love and true freedom.

Loving God, please help us  to create windows, not walls, when we come together, so we can see and feel the Light within each other and emanating from You. Help us to honor each other feelings as gifts and not feel awkward. Help us appreciate our humanness, our brokenness. For Your Son  Jesus was not afraid to be vulnerable when he said, "This is my body, broken for you..."  He hung on the cross, naked, humiliated, but willing to reach out his loving arms and accept everyone with love. So let us be broken and tender with each other, accept each other as we are, and experience Your amazing love and healing.


  1. "Perhaps the problem isn't with Quakerism, but with our insistence on using "Quaker dialogue" for every kind of encounter. "

    So let's invent some new forms of small group conversation and see what happens.

    There is in any group one person who is most able to express deep feelings, and in your Meeting you are it.

  2. You wrote, "Holding back is part of our Meeting's culture."

    In my experience, I think that the form of silence has become too controlling in some Friends meeting.

    For instance, when my wife and I were members of California Yearly Meeting (FUM), the Ministry and Council limited unprogrammed worship to 15 minutes because they feared that members might say something "pentecostal"! Rather ironic, given George Fox's and other early Friends' enthusiasm.

    Later when I was a member of Pacific Yearly Meeting, and my family was going through tragic heartbreak, and I shared, so deeply in need of support and empathy, no one responded to my brief sharing:-( I was devastated.

    Then, once, when I responded to another person's deep sharing, I was censured as being out of "order."

    Many years ago, what attracted me Friends unprogrammed worship was that the form seemed to open up the possibility of real spontaneity and deep sharing, instead of formal ritual.

    On the other hand, I have a wonderful moment to share. When times were tough, and I shared, very briefly, our struggles, one member in worship began to sing spontaneously in the stillness, spiritual words of deep comfort and joy:-)

    Hope you receive more deep sharing in this time of remembered grief.

  3. Thank you LA Quaker, a friend posted your blog on Quaker Renewal UK facebook group. It has encouraged me hugely....it brought tears to my eyes. I give you a warm hug from across the Atlantic pond, a friend from Warwick meeting, England, Ruth Gaston

  4. Dear Ruth, I am glad my blog touched you and gave you encouragement. I believe that Spirit is truly at work, helping us to connect with each other and our Creator/Sustainer through our emotions. I have had conversations with Friends in my Meeting who also feel emotionally disconnected and I think we may be on the verge of finding ways to deepen our friendships as well as relationship with the Divine. As Fox used to say, the Light that reveals our pain and shortcomings is also the one that heals us. Please hold us in your prayers and I am sending loving thoughts your way, trusting that "all things work together for good for those who love the Truth and are led according to God's purpose."

  5. I would really like to meet quakers who want to move in silence, to use movement as an act of devotion. For me it is the most natural and the deepest form of prayer.
    Once a year I do a 6 hour "act of devotion" 22nd May, number 9 coming up soon.When during the first one I sat down and moved, I realised how much I waned to move in MfW. I can sometimes move my hands and feel in my body during MfW. I work with others once a month with a form called Authentic Movement, which is used as therapy, for creativity and for contemplation. It is about listening and not thinking/visualising the movement first.
    I have not found it easy to speak in my Meeting and during a year of deep bereavement there wasn't much support, but I don't know what I would have wanted.

    I have only ever ministered once in 10 years - on easter sunday this year after a friend who had been a Friend for awhile had died. Silence is my ministry I think, but I hope it is not a wall.

    Recently I used a Meeting for Clearness to help refind my spiritual path - a lot more words from me than usual and of course questions for the people I asked to join me.

    Yes: may there be windows - or even doors that gently open.