We have one Friend in our Quaker meeting who often comes to worship in a highly-colored and carefully put-together outfit, including an ornate Sunday hat. This is unusual for an unprogrammed meeting.
But one recent Sunday, I saw differently. That delicate teal-blue hat carried me back to the pre-Quaker days of my childhood, some sixty years ago, and I saw in this Friend’s hat and dress real aids to worship.
We call our Sunday gatherings “meetings for worship,” which leads me to wonder sometimes what “worship” really means, how it feels, how it differs from contemplation. Suddenly, looking at that hat, I remembered how it felt when I was eleven years old, how it felt to prepare for worship at the local Congregational Church, two blocks away. I realized that I understood more about heart-felt worship as a child than I do today.
The church was a holy place, and I walked with deep intention up the short hill, pushing back the temptation to hop up, like a kid, to balance along the stone wall that lined the sidewalk most of the way. I wanted to be my grown-up best for God.
Our Protestant church had high ceilings, colored glass in the windows, fresh flowers that perfumed the air, and organ music that resonated in your bones. Even as a child, you sang from the heart, along with everyone. I knew our church was called “the house of God.” The readings from the Bible were sonorous, and the feeling of awe engendered in me was an intrinsic aspect of worship.
Worship was not just gratitude. Worship was also openness, faith, expectation, and hope. Gladness. Worship was not something that emerged from thinking; it was something that you felt. Do I ever feel it now?
Now on Sunday, I wear ordinary clothes to an ordinary place, where I have already been several times the week before, doing community business. I sing hymns with a few Friends during the hour before worship, but alas, I never sing in fervent and joyful unity with my whole faith community. Those features that served as aids to an awed and humble state of worship when I was a child – the colored glass windows with the sun shining through, the candles, the organ music, the flowers – are not present.
I know all the reasons that we Quakers have turned away from the emotionality of decorated steeple houses, stained glass windows, and special clothes for wearing only on Sunday. Haven’t I given up old childish ways?
Perhaps. But I am mature enough now to treasure the child within myself. Maybe those joyful and fervent responses of the God-enamored child would serve me well nowadays. Maybe I should try some Sunday morning to go to Quaker worship with childlike eagerness. Maybe, like our imaginative and self-determined Friend, I should dress up for God and wear a fancy hat. ~~~
Elizabeth Boardman is the author of several books, most recently Barbara and Elizabeth, Late Life Lovers. She is a member of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA (PYM).