Guest Post: Amy Baker on What Really Happens at a Quaker Meeting for Worship?

My 300th post is a guest post by Amy Baker. This was published in the San Francisco Friends School newsletter, Circle Back, and is reprinted here with Amy's permission. Besides it being a good article, I'm tickled that she picked up my FAQQ meme! -- Chris Mohr

FAQQ: Frequently Asked Quaker Question:
What Really Happens at a Meeting for Worship?

By Amy Baker, San Francisco Monthly Meeting & Quaker Life Committee member

“What do you mean, there’s no priest?” my mother said, baffled, as I explained how the Meeting for Worship would proceed at my wedding. She had been unfailingly supportive as I adopted this faith, but for someone steeped in pre-Vatican II Catholic traditions, the concept of silent worship (unguided!) was a stretch.

There aren’t many places where we sit in silence, in our world. You might see an audience sitting in silence during a performance, and you might see a random collection of individuals sitting in silence in a library or a park, but how often do you experience a deliberate, collective silence? It’s hard to explain how different it is, and how powerful it can be, to sit in silence together with others.

The Quaker faith was founded on the principal that every person can have a direct relationship with God, without the intercession and interpretation of clergy. The Meeting for Worship is designed not just as a gathering of like minded worshipers, but as a place to meet with God in your mind. Each one of us can experience that “still, inner voice” that guides us, if only we set aside the time to reflect in silence. Even then, Meeting for Worship is different from solitary prayer. Friends seek connection to one another as they collectively discern the path forward.

I once heard ministry that described the silence like a painter’s canvas--even if the whole meeting is silent, it’s got boundaries and a certain richness to it. And when those present spontaneously stand and deliver a personal message, grounded in their own experience but related to some spiritual issue they have been working through in their mind, more color and depth is added to the canvas.

I have not found a service of worship where so much is left to the worshiper as it is in a Friends meeting. There are none of the usual cues, and it is up to the individual to tune in, quiet their mind, and direct their own spiritual experience. Some meetings I go through the entire time without ever clearing my mind of clutter I came in with. Other times I feel completely open, both to insights that percolate up and to messages I hear from fellow worshipers.

One aspect of Meeting for Worship I particularly like is its inclusiveness, in that it respects a wide diversity of religious backgrounds in a way that affirms the importance of all faiths. As foreign as it must have been for my mother to experience a Quaker Meeting, it didn’t detract from her own religion and I find that even the biggest religious skeptics I encounter can see the appeal in it.

If you have ever been curious to join a Meeting for Worship, as practiced by the San Francisco Monthly Meeting, please join other members of the SF Friends School community on Sunday, February 7th at 11am. Meeting for Worship lasts an hour, and afterward there will be a potluck meal to share, whether you bring a pot or not. The Meeting House is at 65 9th Street, between Mission & Market.

There is a short intro session at 10:40 if you want to learn more about the underpinnings of this form of worship, and there is supervision for children who choose not to stay in the Meeting after the first 15 minutes. There is also a caregiver in the nursery for babies and toddlers.

Collectively, we would love to see you there!
“I’ve been to meeting for worship at the SF Meeting House a couple of times over the years. It’s a great chance to learn more about Quakerism and to see if we adults can sit as quietly as our kids do during Meeting at school. The communally contemplative meeting room is a wonderful place to take time out from our ever hectic lives, think about what’s most important in our lives and hear inspired thoughts from others.”
-- SFFS Parent


Bill Samuel said...

In some respects, a Catholic more than persons from most other religious traditions should be able to appreciate Quaker worship. If the mass is performed as the priests are taught, there is a period of silence between elements of the service. In addition, Catholics frequently come to mass early and come to the place of worship at other times and sit or kneel in silence.

There is a long tradition of the use of silence within the Catholic tradition, most notably among monastics. This long predates Quakerism. Furthermore, the most prominent advocates of the use of silence today are Catholic.

kevin roberts said...

Not just silence, either, as a similarity between the Friends practice and that of the RC Church. During the Mass, the priest elevates the host and invokes the appearance of the Holy Spirit. God enters the room in a physical way (or maybe just gets noticed about that point in the service) in the same manner in which the HS enters the communion of worshipping Friends.

Howard Brinton commented on this years and years ago.