Meeting for Worship – Adam Grennan

Discussion memoir contributed by Adam Grennan to an Outreach meeting at Monkstown Meeting House, Dublin on October 1 2008, as a contribuion to the ‘What do You Think?’ series.

Early Days
‘9/11′ is a date that no one will easily forget. What happened that day in 2001, seven years ago, is etched in the minds of people all over the world who through the pervasiveness of television saw the moment when the planes hit, over and over again. The tragic loss of life, countless heart-rending stories and the sheer barbaric nature of the act challenged the faith – not just of those directly involved – but of us all who believe we share a common God. So when, by coincidence, exactly one year later on the 11th of September 2002 I was accepted into the Religious Society of Friends the two events became forever entwined in my personal search for true meaning. Apart from the obvious distinction of good and evil there is another difference. The events of that day in 2001 catapulted the world into a new order over night. In contrast I had no Damascene like conversion. Mine is a journey which began many years ago in a place which will be familiar to countless Irish people.

My upbringing was typical of the time. I was baptised and raised in the Catholic church. The priest, standing at the baptismal font, refused to administer the sacrament until my father accepted that Adam was not a saints name and either change it or have it tempered by something more appropriate. So I became Adam Benedict in honour of the Saint who happened to be commemorated on that day. Years later my mother told me that I owed my Christian name – not to the story of creation – but to a crush she had on Adam Faith, a well known pop star in the fifties. To this day I wonder what the priest might have said had he known.

My formative years attending Catholic schools was not an unhappy one. I have many fond memories of both primary and secondary. I never experienced anything other than kindness from the De La Salle brothers. I do remember odd things about going to mass. Like my father disturbing the serenity by perpetually having to clear his throat – a symptom no doubt of an earlier encounter with TB. I remember too the enormous cross hanging above the central altar with Christ on both sides. I don’t recall any sermons but in those days there wasn’t much of a focus on involving children. My older siblings drifted away one by one. Oh they said they were attending mass but I knew otherwise. When it came to my turn to break away I rather naively went and told my father that I had attended my last sermon. I can still feel his anger and sense his outrage.

In ’79 riding on the wave of the Popes’ visit I returned to the Catholic faith but it didn’t last long. Although I married in the church I honestly say now that at that time I didn’t feel committed to the faith. I don’t intend to analyse that further, nor do I believe that the road I’m on is the only one. All I can say is that it seems to be right for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My first encounter with the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers as we are also known, came in the form of a book, written by an American Friend, Robert Lawrence Smith. In the introduction he wrote: “Quakerism is a pragmatic faith that depends on inner experience, on habits of mind and feeling that comes from living rather than from reading yet, an incalculable part of what we know comes from familiarity with the lives of those who have come before us”. Quoting from Deuteronomy he reminded us that: “we all warm ourselves by fires we did not build and drink from wells we did not dig”.

Having stirred my curiosity, through the modern convenience of the Internet I found this Meeting House no more than two miles from where I lived. Crossing the threshold the following Sunday I began an experience which Patricia and I are attempting to describe to you this evening. Believe me this isn’t an easy task. The difficulty in trying to describe a Meeting for Worship is that very little happens, very little, that is, in terms of outward appearance. Yet, Meeting for Worship is the very heart of Quaker experience. It’s the place we seek spiritual renewal, a place where we can grow in community, the well-spring of our ministry and testimony and the basis of discernment in Meetings for Business.

To understand the historical origins of the Meeting for Worship it is first necessary to recall something of the life of George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends. He was born in 1624 at Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire. His father was a weaver and a church warden. His mother was well educated and came from a long list of martyrs. Young George was encouraged to understand his religious beliefs and to question what others believed. In doing so he witnessed much hypocrisy within the early established church. At the age of nineteen, he left home and began visiting and questioning those who were considered to be religious people but he found few answers to his spiritual searching. In 1647 during a period of deep despair and depression, George Fox records in his journal, that he heard a voice which said: ‘There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy’. This was only one of several ‘Openings’ that Fox had but it represented a turning point. From this moment on he knew that he could have a direct relationship with God. Fox now also came into contact with other groups who felt that here was the truth that they had been seeking. It was from these groups that Fox and other ‘Children of Light’ or ‘Friends in Truth’ as they called themselves at that time, took their Meeting for Worship.

In Quaker by Convincement, Geoffrey Hubbard’s seminal work on convinced Friends – that’s people such as Patricia and I who are not birthright Quakers but converts – he wrote that Robert Barclay, a contemporary of George Fox, said ‘…though there be not a word spoken, yet it is the true spiritual worship performed.’ The worship was so intense, the spiritual exercise so profound, that some shook and quivered under stress and earned for the Children of Light or Friends in Truth the nickname of the ‘Quakers’.

The Outward Appearance
Meeting for Worship, or just Meeting for short, can take place at any time in any place. All that is required is a room, some chairs and the promise of not being disturbed. Meetings in Ireland are typically held at 1030 or 1100 on Sunday mornings. Most Meetings, such as this one, have their own Meeting House but some, usually small Meetings – such as that in Galway – gather together in private houses. All Meetings are open to everyone who wishes to attend.

The room itself has chairs or benches organised in a square or circle two or three rows deep. There is a table in the centre, on which there is usually a vase of flowers. The decoration is calm and tranquil so there is nothing to distract the gathering.

As the time arrives people drift in and sit down. Friends usually sit in the same place week after week. The modern business practice of ‘Hot Desking’ hasn’t yet reached Friends Meeting Houses. As people sit the Meeting begins in total silence. Inevitably this silence is broken by one or two latecomers but within 5 to 10 minutes the Meeting has ‘centered down’. The Psalmist invites us to: “Be still and know I am God”. It’s in those first few moments, as the cares and worries of the day are let drop that Friends begin to experience the essence of a Meeting for Worship.

In some Meetings – like this one in Monkstown – a Friend will then stand and read a short passage from the Bible. The speaker and bible reading are prearranged. Friends mandate very little, so the person who is scheduled to speak, may decide not to read this passage and substitute it with another reading. They may also choose to supplement it with a second reading of spiritual content which has meaning to them and may come from any source. Entirely their choice.

Now beyond that initial set reading there is no program. The Meeting may continue in total silence or within a few minutes someone may stand and speak for a short time and then sit down again. That’s not premeditated in any way. The silence returns. Some minutes later another person might stand and speak, and so on it goes. The number of people who speak or Minister in Meeting can vary considerably.

The signal that the Meeting has ended is when two of the Elders – those whose main responsibility is to nurture the spiritual life of the meeting – simply shake hands, prompting other Friends and Attenders to do likewise. The Meeting is closed. The clerk reads any notices, visitors are welcomed and all comers retire to another room for a cup of tea or coffee and a welcome chat.

Children are equally important as adults in Meeting for Worship and, of course, are very welcome to attend. However, it is generally accepted that most young children wouldn’t sit through an hour long Meeting without becoming a bit restless and that there is also a need to provide some guidance and help towards understanding. So after the first 15 minutes has passed, one or two Friends will take the children out to another room to run Junior Meeting or, Sunday School until Meeting for Worship has ended.

What I have just described to you is the usual format of an unprogrammed Meeting for Worship in Ireland and for the most part in other countries too. However, some Meetings in America and Africa are quite different. These are programmed Meetings, which are often led by a pastor, include some hymns, bible readings and a sermon or talk. There also may or may not be a period of silent worship. We are part of a world Quaker community where diversity adds to the richness of our collective experience.

The Meetings, where the business affairs of Friends is done, are conducted as a continuance of the Meeting for Worship. They are often started with a short period of silence and are based on our belief in the presence of God and seeking divine guidance in all decisions made.

Now I’m conscious that the description you’ve just heard may sound sterile but this is just the outward appearance of what is happening. To fully understand the Meeting for Worship we must go deeper and understand something of the light that guides the Meeting.

In her book, Living the way, Quaker spirituality and community, Ursula Jane O’Shea states: Many early Friends were seeking at the time they heard George Fox preach. In Quaker terms they were not converted by his words but by the testimony of their own inward guide, who affirmed what they heard and led them to join the movement and transform their lives…

In Meeting we gather and wait patiently in silence, knowing that we are in the presence of God, and by our stillness making ourselves open to him so that we can know his will. Thus in spoken ministry we act as a channel for the guidance of God within us. Vocal ministry comes through us not from us. It is not an intellectual exercise.

When I joined Friends I had almost 20 years work experience in the IT industry behind me much of which included public speaking to groups of all sizes. Yet, this was poor preparation for what happened the first time I heard that ‘inner voice’ and was prompted to speak at Meeting. I was agitated and my heart was pounding so much I felt it must be disturbing Friends seated nearby and obvious to all. My paltry attempts to resist were brushed aside. At that moment I could no more suppress the feeling to rise than I could stop breathing. As I sat back down some minutes later I felt the gentle squeeze of a small hand in mine. The owner was Moira Gillespie, an elderly Quaker who was to become one of my dearest friends during my first years at Meeting. Moira to me embodied the essence of what it means to be a Quaker. Quite simply, she was love personified.

The contributions to a Meeting can sometimes develop from one Friend to another but there is no room for a debate, answering or contradicting one another. Of course, not everything that is spoken of deepens the spiritual value of the meeting. We are human after all. However, it can also be quite surprising when, from time to time, a Friends ministry speaks directly to another’s unspoken thoughts. On more than one occasion, someone has come to me after Meeting to tell me how what I had said reflected their own thoughts exactly or even helped them in some way. As Quakers we believe: ‘that there is that of God in everyone’ and are moved by the one divine spirit.

Marrianne McMullen, an English Friend, put it beautifully when she said: “Ministry is what is on one’s soul, and it can be in direct contradiction to what is on one’s mind. It’s what the inner light gently pushes you toward or suddenly dumps in your lap”.

Much of what I am about to say here in this final section I derive from Geoffrey Hubbard’s book Quakers by Convincement not just because his description is so eloquent but because it so closely resembles my own experience. He begins by taking the view of the agnostic whom he assumes is looking to understand the nature of man. In doing so our curious friend recognizes his own intellect. Although he can describe the structure of the brain or the physical attributes of the body there is something missing because this alone will not describe either you or me. We are something more.

At this stage let me stop for a moment and relate a personal memory. About 30 years ago, one Saturday evening, while I was still a college student in Dublin, I went to a house party somewhere in the midlands. I can’t be any more precise than that because it was quite normal then to tag along to any and every old bash. As students we were poor so the lure of free food and the odd drink or two was too good to pass up. Nor do I have any idea of either who or what we were celebrating. All I remember is that the house was rocking. Bodies lay strewn in every nook and cranny. As I wandered from room to room, looking for someone familiar I pulled up sharp. Through the melee I could see a face I recognized but not one I was expecting. For a fleeting moment I imagined that I was looking into a mirror for the image in front of me as closely resembled my own as could be humanly possible. What was even more bizarre was that this stranger shared my surname. Many people that night remarked how similar we were but no one was confused between us. Despite the eerie resemblance he was still himself and I was still me. There was something more.

From the moment one becomes aware of this ‘something more’ there is an urgent curiosity to discover more about it. It has something to do with individuality, with being me and not you. Hubbard argues, that if we continue to persist, with this examination, we pass through stage after stage of identifying and rejecting parts of our self which is not the essential self that we seek. The more we know about ourselves the less significant that knowledge seems.

Thankfully, we are offered an antidote to this condition. It is to be quiet, not just physically but mentally. If instead of using the mind, instead of thinking, instead of referring everything to the standards of the intellect, we suspend this continuous argument in our head and become still, then we have a whole new awareness. We are aware of a sense of unity with the whole of creation, aware of the every sense of being which has so far escaped us. Simply put, we have discovered the spirit which is in us.

The nature of the divine spirit is not in the working of the mind but in the motivation which direct the mind. It is personal in that each of us is a channel for it and can be aware of its power; and yet it is universal, in that the divine spirit in you is the same as the divine spirit in me.

You may be sitting there thinking that I haven’t proved anything. No one can prove this to anyone else, but you can prove it to yourself. We are asked to: “Be still and know I am God”. One way of attempting this is by joining in the silence of Quaker worship. There, all about you are engaged in the same effort, and God grows and strengthens in all.

One last story. Earlier I mentioned an old friend, Moira Gillespie. Moira was an artist and it showed. Her house was tastefully decorated by many beautiful paintings and sculptures and surrounded by a magnificent garden. Although when we first met, her speech was already beginning to fail she had an active mind and a vibrant personality. I spent many fine evenings in her company discussing our shared love of poetry and science. In a large bay window hung a prism through which the light often streamed throwing its spectrum of colours onto a nearby wall. That image I carry with me everywhere. To me it represents that no matter how diverse we are there is that divine spirit in each of us and as Quakers of old said: we can truly walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone.

Adam Grennan, October 2, 2008.