Sunday, 11 December 2011

Quaker Meeting, St Mary's Community Centre, Daniel Defoe Road, 4.12.11

my names Joel (hand out)
this is my first time
at a Quaker meeting
No, its jus
Ohh sorry!
It’s very hard to transmit absence
Personally I blame Gareth, not because I blame him for most things but because he was my Quaker chaperone. Gareth is a great friend and has Quaker ancestry. In recent ventures to Quaker meetings he has continued a family ritual that stretches several generations, symbolically and spiritually bonding with his ancestors. To my knowledge this was my family’s first Quaker service and my ignorant entrance was hopefully forgiven in keeping with the Christian spirit. Despite my presumed forgiveness my noisy introduction did haunt my one hour silent service. In particular Jonathan, the Quaker elder’s mystic explanation “It’s very hard to transmit absence” kept echoing in my mind. To people as ignorant as me let me explain the structure of a Quaker service.
Quakerism is a Christian movement which stresses the religious doctrine of priesthood for all believers.  My non theist translation is that they believe we all have a personal relationship with God and have the ability to preach the Good Lord’s Word. In comparison to the other churches they deconstruct the classic hierarchal Church system for a more democratic forum called Quaker Meetings. Quakerism dates back to late 1700s and was established by the Religious Society of Friends in England but quickly spread across the rest of the world, most famously in North America, East Africa and India. Naturally the international spread of Quakerism led to fragmented forms of worship and practices. However, often worship can be split into two distinct practices, the programmed and the unprogrammed. The majority of Quakers (predominantly outside the UK) practice programmed worship. Programmed worship consists of prearranged hymns, Bible readings, guest sermons and planned silences. The minority of Quakers (predominantly from the UK) practice unprogrammed worship. Unprogrammed worship is based in silence. The silence begins when first the person sits in the meeting and ends when one person from the group (more often an elder) shakes the hand of the person to their side leading to everyone finishing the meeting with a handshake. Such a fine and proper way to bookend the worship, you can tell the movement started in England. In silence one is supposed to communally connect with God and free their mind of all other distractions. However the group mysticism is intended to be practiced within the everyday. Quakers are most famous for their pacifism, opposition to alcohol and political activism. In comparison to other Christian groups who deliberately avoid politics unless politics infringes upon their faith it is vital for a Quaker to understand God in a modern world and not just wait for the afterlife. However the Stoke Newington Quakers of St Mary’s community centre on Daniel Defoe road camouflaged their evangelism within the silence making for my most quintessentially English service so far.

From my opening brief and awkward conversation to the long shared silence that followed, a particular type of Englishness hung in the air. A type of Englishness that belongs to the middle classes, comedy sketches, afternoon tea, the south, BBC period dramas and Gardener’s World . The only other words spoken before the meeting descended into communal quiet was when Jonathan politely hushed a fellow friend (all Quaker’s refer to each other as friend) who was making tea in the nearby kitchen warning in a stage whisper “meeting comes before tea.” The mannered telling off in the calmest voice was so brilliantly formal it could only be spoken by an Englishman.
As the group gradually entered the silence I began to see the unspoken acceptance of each other within the confines of a formal setting as a national treasure. Unlike other loud and theatrical evangelical groups or the more established dogma of Catholic and Anglican churches Quakers seemed to realise that the best way for everyone to get along was to abandon the majority of ceremony and obey a few simple rules so the individual can form a personal understanding of God within the silence. Everybody was so polite and respectful of each other’s silences that no one told the woman who continued to drift in and out of consciousness to actually wake up. Some unwritten rule seemed to be unspoken within the group which allowed the woman to snore her way through the majority of the hour undisturbed. It would just not have been the done thing to wake her and who could say she was not having a spiritual moment within her slumber. After the meeting and several cups of tea and biscuits with my new best friends I felt entirely at home. The group were your typical liberal middle class Guardian reading, Radio 4 listening, east Londoners who preferred thoughtful contemplation to impassioned prayer. At the beginning of my journey this group would have filled me with self-loathing but now with only three Sundays left of the year I felt a sense of comfort in the familiarity. No longer isolated from my non theist perspective, the Quaker meeting provided me with the opportunity to digest my relationship with God in silence, I only wish I remembered what I’d thought.
Before I could communally share the voice of God or the light (common Quaker explanation for spirit) I had to shed my surroundings. I had to not only let go of the physical world of St Mary’s small and drafty hall but also mentally clear out my thoughts to find an inner period of calm in which God/light can enter. Physical clearance proved troublesome and mental clearance almost impossible. First, the physical distractions became mental as I listed the clutter in an attempt to discard them but instead my list accentuated their existence. Oddly the absence of hymns, prayers, sermons and testimonies seemed to root me in the physical world as my list built to a rhythmic pattern in my head. The absent beat went something like this
A 30 second blast of heat that is heard more than felt and 2minutes cold to keep me awake, vase of flowers on a table with bunch of books, sound of traffic in the distance and hum of mowing from outside, why is the chair next to me smaller than the rest, another woman enters no one looks her in the eye, is the tea lady asleep?
 And another 30 second blast of heat that is heard more than felt and another 2minutes cold to keep me awake, are those flowers dying or is it for show, Bible, Quaker Bible, Qu’ran, Quaker Bible, next week could I bring my own literature? Sound of traffic is even further in the distance and the mowing has stopped, maybe the small chair is for a small child, I’d hate for a child to be better behaved than me, thinking how I do, another woman enters room, remember not to look her in the eye, I think the tea lady’s now snoring so definitely asleep.
 Again a 30 second blast of heat longer than the one before which continues to be heard more than felt and now 4 long minutes of cold to keep me awake, the flowers are definitely real so why has no one watered them? Are they are a spiritual statement I am not getting? Next week Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Hughes and Auden will lay on that table, I still can hear traffic or is it in my head maybe I am struggling because the mower is back and closer than before, the chair is not for a child or a colouring in book would be on the table, the small chair must be for someone who is not here, who is not expected to appear, at least not physically, God most likely, another man enters, we have another man entering the room, it’s no longer just me, Gareth or the older guy, no this guy is the older guy, that other guy will have to be renamed the other guy, don’t meet his eye that would be double standards, this is not the place for double standards, well she is clearly snoring and no one is going to say anything, especially me.
 Maybe this 30 second blast of heat will be quicker, maybe it will make me hotter rather than hurt my ears, the cold cannot be quick, the time quadruples under such low temperature, as four minutes stretches into 8, hot and fast offset by cold and slow, the flowers need to be changed, how can you make a statement through the symbol of something dying, should I pick up the Bible? Might get my mind back on track, it’s too late now, it would just send a clear sign I am not thinking about him, as for the Qu’ran that would just be dismissed as a desperate attempt to make a loud first impression, I would read Steinbeck, can you read atheist literature at a Quaker meeting, not just traffic but the sound of parking, parking will help me chill out, with the mower finished I am bound to drift off and hear the voice of God, I am sitting next to his chair so if he does arrive I will  have the best seat in the house regardless, however we are full now, so anyone arriving late is going to have to sit down in that incredibly small chair and look like an adult with special needs kept back at primary school, but no one is entering the room, the room is definitely spiritually full yet it only contains six women and four men but anyone adding to the collective might tip me over the edge, I mean how are you meant to forget more than ten people? Everybody needs to sit still so I can forget them and concentrate on our collective, conscious prayer, I am so glad no one can hear my thoughts, I would really ruin everyone’s experience, maybe they can sense it, no I look calm and collected, might even pass for spiritual, I feel confident I am going to look them in the eye and then  when they look into my eye they are going to see nothing because my mind is elsewhere, my mind is traveling on a different spiritual plain, yes I can just leave without moving, just don’t fall asleep like the tea woman, her snoring has really held you back, it would be inconsiderate to fall asleep not that anyone would wake me, maybe I am asleep, no I can feel the cold, need  to consider consciousness, remember your absent and present at the same time, absent and present.
 So the repetition of my thoughts built a rhythm to reach a euphoric point of silence in which I don’t remember what I was thinking but I was pretty happy. The nearest epiphany I reached was pondering my silent and strange happiness. So I decided to contextualise my experience in broad terms. First, I concluded that a society which is a literature culture writes down what makes one happy in the hope that others might understand, but the limitation of words leads to dogma and misunderstanding. In our visual culture we communicate through images so our concept of happiness is more a feeling, a recording of a moment, making our idea of happiness more fleeting and less theoretically obtainable but at least less dogmatic and dangerous. So my silent happiness, happiness at the absence of everything was an isolated sense of euphoria. A happiness which cannot be recorded with words. A happiness they can’t captured from a photograph. A happiness that many call God. A happiness that I personally find impossible to explain.

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