Monday, 13 May 2013

Quaker Meeting, Quaker Ministry

This is a slightly different post to the sort of thing I normally write. Feel free to stop reading right now, because it's not about writing or my life as a writer, and only tangentially about words. But it was such an odd and extraordinary thing for me that I wanted to try and write about it - even knowing that I'm almost certainly going to fail to convey what I mean.

I've been going to Quaker Meeting for several (3? 4?) years now. For anyone who doesn't know much about Quakerism (or, more properly, the Religious Society of Friends), I should say that Quaker Meetings, or at any rate the sort of British unprogrammed Quaker Meeting I go to, take place almost entirely in silence. You sit there for an hour or so, and wait in case the spirit moves you to stand up and speak. Which it rarely does - at least in our Meeting. In our Meeting, the spirit definitely bloweth where it listeth, and we spend the majority of our Meetings in silence. I think most of the Quakers I've spoken to have ministered a few times in their religious lives, if ever.

The thing is, you see, that you don't - no one does - ever just decide to speak. A lot of people, I think, imagine a Quaker Meeting to be a sort of religiously-themed free-for-all. It isn't. Nor is it a discussion. Nor is it even a place for people to give considered, economically-phrased mini-sermons. You don't get up because you think you have something valuable to contribute, or because someone else's ministry could be improved upon, or because there's something that you've been thinking about all week. You get up because you have to. That's it.

Now. As I say, I've been going to Meeting for years now, and I've read things here and there about Meeting, and Quakers generally, and ministry*. I'd read about the impulse to stand up and minister. (One of my favourite stories is about two Friends sitting next to each other in a Meeting. There's a silence and one of them fidgets and shuffles about in his chair for a long time. Then, finally, the other one gets up and ministers. When he sits down he leans across to the other Friend and says, 'Next time, say it yourself.') I'd sat in several Meetings and thought, hmmm, I can think of something I could say at this juncture... but I won't. I was used to that.

But on Sunday something else happened to me.

It was... odd. Extraordinary. I keep coming back to those words.

There'd been a couple of ministries already - which, as I say, is quite rare for us - and one of the things that had come up was a bit from the Advices and Queries** which says, 'Attend to what love requires of you.' I sat there and thought about it, and about how it was particularly resonant for me at the moment. I thought in words, which isn't always the case. I thought of a metaphor for how I felt. I thought, hmm, that's an interesting thought. I could say that. But I won't.

Then... This is the hard bit to explain.

My heart started pounding. I started to find it hard to breathe. It was as though I was terrified. I have never felt such extreme physical stress without any kind of outside stimulus. I suppose I was quite scared, because it was like having some kind of attack, and I thought I might faint or black out or my heart would actually stop because it was beating so hard and so fast. I moved a bit in my chair and tried to take deep breaths, but I couldn't. I tried to say to myself that I could calm down a bit and then decide whether I should minister or not. I tried to tell myself that there was no urgency and I should deal with what was happening to me physically before I thought about ministering. I really didn't want to stand up. But nothing I did was any good and I somehow knew that I would either have to stand up or run out of the room, and even if I did that I wasn't sure that it would be any good.

So I stood up. And I said something fairly lucid, not exactly profound, something that didn't encapsulate exactly what I meant but was sort of in the right area... and then I sat down and had to struggle not to burst into tears. Not because of what I'd said or the experience of saying it, but because of the intensity of what had made me say it.

I suppose this is hard to write about because it isn't the words, the ministry itself, that stays with me - although I think that ministry was for me as much as for anyone, as though it was a way to make myself listen and take seriously something that would otherwise have been a passing thought. No, it was the absolutely irrational, unpredictable, mysterious physical phenomenon. It felt as though I'd been in the grip of - of what? I don't know. Something Else. I wasn't afraid of standing up in Meeting to speak (I'm an actor, I do school visits, blah blah, that really doesn't bother me). I wasn't worried about what people would think. I didn't have any of those trivial, comprehensible, personal fears.*** It was something entirely other. I'm not sure I want to say that it came from outside myself. Maybe it did, maybe not. I'm not sure if that matters.  

I have never felt physically compelled to do something. It was not about desire, or obligation, or decision, it was... physical necessity. It was frightening. Really.

But later, when I was walking home, and thinking about what had happened, that it occurred to me: there was no way I could say to myself, well, you idiot, why didn't you just stay sitting down? Because I couldn't have done. I literally had no choice.**** (Apart from leaving the room. As I say.)

And for someone like me, who thinks and rethinks and analyses and edits, who always wants to go back and say it better or differently... or indeed for everyone... that's a blessing. I said the right thing. I did the right thing.

I must have done, because I couldn't have done anything else.

* Incidentally I should point out that one of the joys of Quakerism is that there is no central authority who decides what is or isn't true. Which means pretty much all the generalisations I make here are debatable. Sorry.

** The closest Friends get to a statement of belief. (You have to love a religious movement where the closest we/they get to formal commandments is advising and querying.)

*** Later I did. Of course. (See the next paragraph for details.) I don't want to imply that I'm above all that. Nothing could be further from the case. It was just - in that moment...

**** Before you think I am using the word "literally" to prop up an exaggeration, I would like to say that I am doing my damnedest to write the exact truth as I experienced it. As you can imagine, it's difficult for me. But the whole point is that I'm trying not to exaggerate at all.