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Social-Distancing Worship

Published: May 29, 2020


At the Spring 1999 gathering of College Park Quarterly Meeting and 1999 gathering of Pacific Yearly Meeting, our Unity with Nature Committee hosted worship session with an "expanded" seating arrangement. Our purpose was to allow more room for non-human worshippers to join us in our worship. At Quarterly, we were under fruit trees at Ben Lomond Quaker Center and were joined in the circle by a variety of insects. At Yearly, we met on a hillside at Mt. Madonna at 7 AM; a pair of robins was nesting in a loquat tree just outside the circle and conducted their connubial business as if we weren't there.

Recently, I realized that my 1999 article about that experience has become especially relevant today, as we face the prospect of returning to in-person meeting for worship while maintaining six-foot distances between us. (You can see the original version of the article below at: on https://quaker.org/legacy/quakernature/Expandedworship.html)


Expanded Quaker Worship

The Quaker practice of silent worship is an intensely human experience. The intent of Quaker worship is to allow a quiet time for the mystical experience to occur, while gathered together so that we may aid each other in learning to become quiet. We endeavor to set aside our everyday preoccupation with our own lives, and to listen for a Voice that speaks to us, or to another in the Meeting. We strive to translate the Voice into rational, intelligible words, so that those listening will not misunderstand when we rise to speak the Voice's message to them. We discipline ourselves to avoid the excesses of singing, dancing, shaking, and speaking in tongues that some who heard the Voice have used to express it.

We have, for sound reasons, eliminated distracting altars and windows, incense and banners, from our practice of worship. In so purifying our environment, we have also excluded God's animals and plants. As far as possible, we try to control the air and light that flow through our place of worship. We deny by these practices the possibility that non-human Creation is able to worship with us.

One might suppose from the form of Quaker worship that God's message is directed only to those human beings gathered in silence, and is conveyed only in human words. Yet, have we any certain knowledge that this supposition is true?

In any human gathering, there are always unseen, nonhuman guests: spiders in the rafters, flies on the windowsill, crickets in the hearth and various tiny creatures riding in and on our bodies. If a non-human creature should happen to catch our eye, we make every effort to ignore it as a distraction. But if God's gaze happens to fall upon our Meeting, God's eye sees them as well as us.

We propose to alter the context of our Meeting for worship so as to allow our ignored and necessarily non-verbal companions an opportunity to participate.

We will do this by moving apart to allow physical space between the human worshippers so that other beings can join the circle. In a typical Meeting for worship, people often sit with the distance of a chair between them and the next person. We will simply expand this distance as far as we can while still feeling that we are a gathering and not isolated individuals.

We will gather out-of-doors, where the creeping and flying creatures, the passing breeze, the falling leaf, the sound of bees' wings, the sun shining through floating pollen and dandelion seeds, are not excluded.

When you come into the place appointed for worship, find a seat at least far enough from the next human that your hands cannot quite touch theirs. Bring a chair if you will be more comfortable in that familiar position. Settle into waiting silence as you usually would. If you feel called to offer verbal ministry, do not feel any more inhibited than usual (although you may have to speak much louder).

The special discipline you are asked to practice is to listen with more than your ears. Listen for the Voice that speaks not only in words. If any of God's creatures joins or passes though our gathering, remember that this creature has only its whole being with which to speak: allow it to speak to you. Give it the same silence before and after its ministry as you would any human speaker. Remind yourself that its ministry is complete as given to us; it needs no repetition or translation into human speech.

Being so accustomed to words, we should not be surprised to find ourselves internally creating a pattern of words that mirrors the unspoken ministry of bird or insect, blades of grass or trails of ants. Our human pride and skill is to be able to fix into repeatable words that which is perceived but evanescent. Let yourself write such inner stories about what you perceive, then let the story flow on and return to the unspoken.

What we might hope to accomplish is this: However inspired our verbal ministry, it can encompass only a small part of the communication flowing between God and Creation. By listening to whatever we can hear of this speech beyond speech, we ourselves can begin to participate in the conversation.


from Eric Sabelman, Palo Alto Meeting (5/26/2020)