Journey to the Heart of Worship

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Many Quaker meetings prepare cards or brochures to introduce newcomers to Quaker worship and the meeting. One of my favorites is a tri-fold brochure from Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, California, which describes meeting for worship in straightforward terms:

Meeting for Worship . . . begins when the first worshipers settle into silence at the appointed place and time. Friends assemble without a prearranged program or paid minister. . .

From time to time, the silence is broken when someone feels led to speak. . . No one comes to meeting with prepared text or prepared to give spoken ministry; messages should come from personally experienced truth or revelation during worship. . . Each message is surrounded by silence.

Anyone is welcome to speak, provided the message comes from the prompting of the Spirit during the course of meeting for worship. . . Together we seek to center and renew our sense of purpose and direction. The quality of each person’s participation affects the entire meeting.”

These instructions and others like them have carried me for many years in Quaker worship. I love their clarity, simplicity, and openness. However, I have begun to wonder if they reflect the way early Quakers would have described what they were doing in worship. In part, I think the answer must be yes. Yet, after studying the work of Rex Ambler, I have come to think that these instructions overlook another dimension common to Quaker worship.

In his books Experiment with Light and The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery, Ambler searches George Fox’s Journal and other early Quaker writings to rediscover the early process of Quaker worship, which he summarizes in this way:

BE STILL. . .

1) Mind the Light (pay attention to what’s going on inside you, particularly where there’s something that makes you feel uncomfortable).

2) Open your heart to the truth (don’t run away from anything that’s difficult or that you don’t want to face, but keep a little distance from it: ‘be still and cool in thy mind’).

3) Wait in the Light (be patient, let the Light show you what is really going on, ask questions if what is being offered to you isn’t clear or you want to know more, and wait for the answer to come, don’t try to explain).

4) Submit (accept and welcome the information or images, and the insights, dreams, and perceptions that may come later, and allow them to show the truth).

Isaac Pennington summarizes the process similarly: “Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart and let that grow in thee and be in thee and move in thee and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life which is its portion.”

Yet another similar summary is given as the first advice in Britain Faith and Practice: “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God, whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”

All these advices carry common threads: the need for stillness and silence; a focus on the heart; the presence of darkness or hidden, mysterious things, like the image of a seed, a breaking through into a new way of living and acting. They all portray a process that begins in a quieting silence, then a sinking down or noticing what is uncomfortable (in Ambler’s words) or noticing something found in the heart, a darkness or a seed; then a waiting for silent, still growth; and finally, an acknowledgement of a leading before one acts or is brought to new life. I want to focus on two aspects of this process, not because they are more important than the others, but because I haven’t read or heard them discussed much among Friends.

The first is the centrality of the heart in the process. I think the early Quakers discovered that a purified heart is an organ of spiritual discernment, where both Light and darkness can be held without contradiction.

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I’m not sure how one purifies one’s heart, although attending meeting for worship surely must help, but I am pretty sure it involves trusting the heart when the Light show us our darkness, trusting that we will be shown what we need to see, trusting its deep love to bring us to new life.

The second aspect I’m interested in is that of sinking down into the darkness we find when we pay attention and open our hearts to the truth. I’m sure the early Quakers understood this darkness as sin, as missing the mark, as the missteps we all are guilty of. I’m fairly sure they also understood it somewhat similarly to “the shadow,” a familiar feature in Jungian psychology – those parts of ourselves that we would rather not see or acknowledge.

I also wonder, especially given early Friends’ frequent use of the word “seed,” whether they also saw darkness as the deep, ever-present mystery out of which the universe is constantly being created. As Genesis 1:2 has it, “. . . and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Another meaning or metaphor for darkness is connected to the living waters that Jesus shares in the New Testament, the image of the well from whose dark depths we receive the water that sustains us and knowledge of the most deeply important things in life. Peter Kingsley speaks succinctly to this aspect of darkness: “We already have everything we need to know, deep in the darkness inside ourselves.

As we foray together in heartful worship, in wondering silence, into places that are deep and dark, we encounter the Light, which searches that darkness. The Light may at times be dim, but it can help us to find threads that lead us to new life, to new and deeper understandings of who we are individually and communally, and of what truly needs to be done.

Worship happens when love is present, which gives us the courage to face those dark places within, to await the dawn, and to act with heart.~~~

John Kretzmann is retiring on June 1, 2018, from a career as a civil engineer, having most recently worked to safeguard and reclaim abandoned mine lands. He is a member of Santa Fe Monthly Meeting (IMYM).