I have pursued God hungrily over the last year and my journey has taken me to several places. Inside both puritanical style New England churches to more contemporary settings. Within the very sanctuary of earth, river and sky where God's presence has never failed to impress itself upon me in its garment of love and peace. In conversations with and writings of other spiritual seekers, hoping to find a glimpse of eternal truth in their discoveries to help aid in illuminating my own path while I share in return what I can with them. Through the Scriptures I have poured, hungrily devouring the manna that God has provided each and every one of us. In prayer, with bent knee and open heart, I have opened myself completely up to God.
In the process I have opened up to new truths that I would never have considered in the past. I have begun to think of God and Christ in some completely new ways. I have also become more and more interested in how other people, across cultures, across religions, have found a connection with God, particularly through their means of meditation. I have been practicing contemplative prayer ( Christian meditation), as well as some other forms of meditation, for some time now and have yet to connect with others that seek God in that way. At least offline ;) That is why yesterday I found myself driving down route 66 in my home state of Connecticut, traversing across the river that divides the state, lined with trees starting to change color, headed on my way to a Quaker Meeting.
Quakerism caught my attention about a month ago when I came across some material presenting the basic tenants of Quakerism. Their meetings are held primarily in a contemplative silence, which intrigues me, since I practice contemplative prayer. One just doesn't find contemplative prayer, or meditation, in most church settings. To think of a whole service consisting of silence, with the exception of a moment or two, when members will spontaneously rise up and speak a word that has been impressed on them by God, was just something I felt I had to partake in and experience for myself. Perhaps, I would find others that could relate to my spiritual journey and be more open than those I've found in the past have been. Be more receptive to different ideas concerning God's nature and spiritual realities.
One thing that really struck me about Quakerism is there are no authorities, no one leader to the group that imposes his direction on the other members. Everyone is equal and respected when it comes to their conclusions and spiritual leanings. Quakerism has its roots in Christianity, however Christians and non-Christians alike can come to the meetings and learn from one another. I felt like perhaps this could be a setting where I would feel a bit less heretical than I feel sometimes in the fundamentalist evangelical settings I have mostly found myself in thus far.
It's always a little intimidating for me to enter an already established tightly-knit group in the pursuit of learning something. I don't let it stop me though! As I neared my destination, I eased my car in a parallel parking position and turned it off. I breathed in the fresh and dry New England air as I approached the entrance which was closed. The street itself was very quiet, no busy whir and hum of cars passing by, and nobody walking near the entrance or even down the sidewalks. My first inclination was to knock, but then I figured , it was a public meeting after all. At a church you just open the door, so...open the door I did...
And I saw a dog. The lazy eyes of a fairly large and old German Shepard met my gaze, taking it from the man that stood a few paces beyond ready to greet me. I greeted the dog first and he responded enthusiastically, thumping his tail on the area rug that adorned the hardwood floor underneath. I took a deep breath as people came out of the woodwork and we all began introducing ourselves. I quickly became at ease with my new surroundings as warmth and peace were in every pair of eyes I met.
The meeting itself was held in a room where sunlight poured in through windows that lined the walls. There was a circle of chairs and as everyone entered the room we all found our place in one of them. The dog was also invited in and before he settled himself down at his owner's feet he walked around the circle rather unabashedly looking for extra pets. There were seven other people there besides myself and I must say, I was probably the youngest by 15-20 years, and in some cases more than 40. Unfortunately, Quakerism doesn't seem to be appealing to newer generations. Perhaps this is because Eastern mysticism has become so popular and attractive in the West, gripping the attention of spiritual seekers at a quicker rate. I'm not sure.
They did mention that another Quaker Meeting, a few towns over had a larger number of participants and that that group was definitely a bit more lively during their meetings. More people would stand up and speak something out during the contemplative silence. This particular group of friends, was a more quiet type and preferred to share what they received during meditation in a conversation afterwards. I kind of like that approach because when one meditates, if someone speaks during that time, it can be distracting and take you totally off of your focus. In fact, it can take quite awhile to still one's mind and clear it of distractions, to have that disrupted can oftentimes force one to almost start all over again in a sense.
Well, there we were chatting one moment and then almost instantaneously, prompted by something that was beyond my awareness, everyone began to close their eyes and just start meditating. There was no clear announcment to the beginning of the meeting. It just simply began. Ok...well , when in Rome...you know how it goes ;) So, I too began meditating. I usually meditate for a half an hour. That is what is suggested by most experts, at least for the beginner. So, to meditate for the span of an hour, in pure silence, is definitely a challenge for someone like me, who is not yet an expert by any means.
I guess the biggest stumbling block I had during the service was that I hadn't really planned on what kind of meditation I would use during that time. Should I go about practicing my passage meditation, that I have been learning through the teachings of Eaknath Easwaran? Should I do breath meditation, or concentrate on one word or a simple phrase, like the Jesus Prayer? This helps focus the mind and rid it of distractions, helping one achieve a sense of stillness and eventually, with practice, union with God.
Well, at first I just was. I just wanted to feel one with my surroundings and simply be. My senses began picking up the birds in the trees, each voice, an individual strand, consisting of a sophisticated orchestra, the feeling of my clothes on my skin, the various sounds made as members shifted positions from time to time. I could feel vibrations in my body that are most likely there when I don't meditate, but often go overlooked because our mind is usually so overcome by both exterior and interior distractions. A peace started settling in and almost without conscious effort, inwardly, I began to recite the Jesus Prayer: Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Over and over again, until hardly a sound seemed to be noticed, until I felt myself going deeper and deeper within, entering the throne room of my heart. Seeking time and an experiential encounter with my Maker.
When the service ended, almost as abruptly as it had begun, the discussion that followed was encouraging. I just felt so connected with everyone there. It didn't matter how many years separated us in age, or our potential differences in the socio-economic brackets we find ourselves in, or our differences in education (most there had very advanced college degrees). What united us is our spiritual thirst and openness to experiencing God. There was no "one right way" being expressed by anyone there. Just a sharing of ideas and encounters. I am not one to feel comfortable in a group setting, oftentimes I find myself not even speaking once (believe it or not!) when I'm at a church group or prayer meeting. In this particular atmosphere, I felt very open, contributing equally with the others in a shared group discussion. I think some of this had to do with the fact that I didn't fear that what I would say would be criticized.
Would I go to another Quaker Meeting? Absolutely! There are a lot of other great facts about Quakerism I'd like to share with all of you. This particular post highlighted some of them but was primarily written to share my experience of attending my first Quaker Meeting. Keep an eye out for future posts that will discuss more about Quakerism :)
Any thoughts? I'm sure you have them! Please share in the comments section. Thank you!