During clearness committees with people applying for membership to our meeting, we typically come to a point in the conversation when we ask the applicant, “What questions do you have for us about Quakers and the meeting?” At one such moment recently, the applicant hesitated, seemingly lost for words. Then she exclaimed, “I have one! What do you like least about being a Quaker?”
The question’s directness stunned me, but apparently not the others. After a surprisingly short pause for silent reflection, my fellow Friends responded. It was as if the question freed demons lurking just below the surface, hungry to get out. We agreed that we should restrict our comments to one per Friend.
Surprisingly too, when we did free these goblins, we greeted them with a laughter of recognition and relief. There they stood impishly before us. . .
“Difficult Friends. Not knowing what to do about them!”
“The interminable Quaker Process.”
“Our sense of ‘specialness,’ preciousness, and propriety.” (This was offered with an irrepressible, mischievous giggle that infected us all.)
“Jargon-y ‘Quaker-ese.’ The barrier it presents to others.”
These were just the top demons in our personal lists.We could have gone around our little circle several times. Our answers were satisfying in part because they revealed concerns that are “hidden in plain sight.” We all had specific individual encounters with these “demons,” but we haven’t dealt with them as general issues in our meeting. So, true to form, the clearness committee provided clearness for all its participants.
Each of the four “demons” raised deeper questions: What does it mean to be “difficult”? To what extent are we even capable of helping “difficult Friends”? How often do we find ourselves venturing “beyond our Light”?
And what about that “interminable” Quaker process? Isn’t it asking us to consider the very nature of time – time in hours, weeks, years, eternity?
Doesn’t our cherished “specialness” come with its opposite? Are we, collectively as Friends, victims of collective ego?
Our acceptance of Quaker-ese asks us to consider how others hear us. We speak of “Quaker worship,” but who or what do we worship? And the answer is . . . ?
Our shared laughter was at ourselves – for our ignorance both as Friends and as individuals.
Who among us hasn’t been “difficult” at times, or come perilously close? Who among us hasn’t felt that an “interminable” Quaker process was, in retrospect, cut short? Who among us hasn’t felt the hubris of Quaker “exceptionalism”? And who among us hasn’t lapsed into unfathomable Quaker jargon?
Finally, of course, there is a companion question to the one we considered: What do you like most about being a Quaker? That might be even more revealing. Where to begin? ~~~
Rick Seifert worships with Hillsdale Quakers in southwest Portland, OR. He is a member of Multnomah Friends Meeting (NPYM).