The other Sunday I was sitting in Meeting; there were some spoken contributions and after about the third, it felt like a discussion group. I was considering standing and saying this and reminding Friends that this was a Meeting for Worship.
And then I stopped myself, because that term has always been a bit of a problem to me.
The question arises: who or what do we worship? Or what is it exactly we are doing there for an hour or so, mostly in silence?
The problem with words
I was brought up in German Yearly Meeting and in German the word for Meeting for Worship is ‘Andacht’. This is also true for some other European languages (see Sue Glover Frykmann’s post on the subject).
So is there a real difference between these two terms? Well, yes, there is.
Andacht can be translated into English in many different ways; in a German etymological analysis, it suggests that it can be a ‘religious deepening or immersion’ or a prayer service. It has the word ‘Denken’ (thinking) at its root and implies ‘paying attention’, commitment, and dedication.
Worship, in contrast, require an object. In the online etymology dictionary, you find that as early as 1300, the word suggests: “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being”, as indicated in Wikipedia: honour shown to an object.
And therein lies the problem for me. If I don’t have a concept of a personal God (which I don’t) then who or what is the object that I pay reverence to in Meeting for Worship?
In a setting where I think of this as ‘Andacht’ that question doesn’t arise.
Is thinking allowed?
The other issue is the question of ‘thinking’. The word Andacht as mentioned above, implies that it does have something to do with thinking; a contemplative kind of thinking, granted, but somehow the brain is allowed to be involved.
In Meeting for Worship, this doesn’t necessarily come into the definition. Indeed, I have said myself, on occasion, and have heard it said, that I worry every time someone starts spoken ministry with the words: ‘I’ve been thinking…’
So I began asking myself why thinking isn’t somehow part of the picture. Some of us will say with utter conviction (me among them) that ‘God has no hands but ours’ but what about brains? Surely, our brains – complex and amazing as they are – are part of our make-up and part of the gifts we bring to this life. And so, why should we leave them at the door of the Meeting House?
A school friend (from my Quaker School days) who converted to Mormonism after being brought up in an eighth generation Quaker family said to me when I asked him why he had converted: It’s simple: the Quakers have all the questions, the Mormons have all the answers.
Ever since, I have felt that it is important sometimes to come up with some answers, even if that has to be with the proviso that these are my answers and not answers which would be necessarily embraced by all Quakers (as all Quakers embracing any specific answer is almost inconceivable).
So here is my attempt at an answer to the question: what is it that I do in Meeting for Worship (and I tend to prefer to call it ‘Quaker Meeting’).
Because I don’t have a concept of a personal God, there is no question that I feel that in Quaker Meeting I would be showing reverence to an object. But because of the concept of ‘that of God in everyone’ I do have an idea that there is something out there and in us that connects us. You might imagine it maybe like the air we breathe; I’m inclined to add sunshine, but that would make the concept a little rose-tinted, because sunshine is nice. So let’s leave it with the air.
And so this image came to me: when we dry our laundry outside, in the wind and, yes, the sunshine, it does it good. It makes it fresher. It refreshes it in a way that a tumble drier or even a rack in the back bedroom can’t do.
So maybe, engaging in the process of Quaker Meeting is like being refreshed by the wind and the weather and the air we all breath; being aware of the fact that this is something that we have in common; that this is something that we can’t buy more of, or be deprived of by those with more power and more money.
It is an experience of essential, existential equality.
But it’s also about allowing the damp, the cobwebs, the staleness, the old, well-worn stuff to be blown about a bit and rearranged.
Does thinking come into it?
Well, actually, no. Because if we think we are driving the process; and if we want to experience the being blown about a bit, then we need to stop trying to drive the process. But what can happen – at least to me – is that at some point the process triggers something that leads to thought. And that’s ok.