Shortly after we moved to St. Louis, my Quaker friends from Jacksonville sent me a copy of Faith and Practice, the Quaker guidebook. It includes short, usually one-paragraph stories from Quakers beginning with George Fox in the mid-1600s and continuing through today. Quakers believe that we all learn things that can be useful to others, and this is their way of collecting that wisdom into one place. I’m going to share my favorite piece from it in a bit.
But first, let me just say that the Jacksonville Society of Friends was a wonderful group, perhaps because it was so choice. Usually there were only six to ten persons in attendance. They met in the library of a private boarding school on a pretty wooded campus. The first time I attended, I drove onto the campus and was almost immediately faced with a choice of unpromising roads, none marked. An elderly gentleman in a golf cart was nearby, apparently serving as a gatekeeper. I asked him which way I should go to attend the Quaker Meeting.
“Follow me,” he said, and his golf cart lurched forward onto a straight and narrow way. We wound confusingly and very, very slowly past several charming vintage buildings and quite a lot of in-process new construction, dirt piles, and orange perimeter fencing. The road was unpaved—or possibly it just appeared to be unpaved due to all the construction-related earth-moving. I followed the golf cart for what seemed like several miles, ending in a tiny parking area in front of a small library. My guide waved a hand and lurched forward again, heading in a circle, I presumed, that would lead back to the front gate.
The library was a single large room. All of us worked together to shift tables and clear an area where a variety of stationary and rolling chairs could form a circle. This circle, snugly tucked into the center of the room among the displaced library tables and desks with computer monitors, had a view of double glass doors that opened onto a back deck and a thickly wooded area.
The Jacksonville Friends Meeting practiced an unprogrammed type of worship, no minister required. Quakers believe that all Friends have the Light of God within, so they often gather in silence to listen meditatively for God’s voice. If anyone feels called to share the Light, that one may do so. I admit there were times when the silent meditation seemed to stretch on forever, and I became concerned that instead of the Light of God, the sound of my stomach growling would break the peace. It might not have been audible; nearly every week one or several of the computers would jolt awake with a high-pitched hum. Perhaps they meant to introduce a little quiet singing into the Meeting.
One week, when the silence ended and we greeted each other as if suddenly arising from a refreshing nap (as indeed I was), one of the Friends said, “I wanted so much to say something, but I knew it was not from God. It’s just that I opened my eyes for a second, and saw a big raccoon on the deck. He stood up on his hind legs, pressed his front paws against the glass, and looked right in at us. I wonder what he thought.”
I wish I had opened my eyes at the right time so that I could have enjoyed the sight of the raccoon peeking in on a Quaker Meeting. But there you are; whenever there is something happening, my eyes are sure to be tightly shut.
Here is my favorite passage from Faith and Practice, in a chapter titled “Experience.” It was written by Elizabeth Yates in 1976:
(5 a.m.) Something is happening around me: the dark is less dark, the silence is less deep. Even the air is changing. It is damper, sweeter. Morning is at hand. Light will soon come flowing over the edge of the world, bringing with it the day. What a gift! Whether wrapped in streamers of color or folded in tissues of mist, it will be mine to use in ways that I can foresee and in those that are unexpected. The day will make its own revelation, bring its own challenge; my part will be to respond with joy and gladness.