Wednesday, May 10, 2006
How I became a Quaker ... now a totally trivial, made-for-blog mini-series!
It's almost vacation time for our family, almost time to go to the Magic Kingdom. No, gentle reader (as Dorothy Parker affectionately called her fans), I do not mean Disney World. There is nothing magical about a place where every building, every shelf, every telephone pole is branded with the insignia of the mouse ears. At least, not to me. I visited there twice with my family and never felt so claustrophobic in all my life. It was years before The Truman Show came out, but when I saw that movie, I identified instantly with the hero, captive in a make-believe world where his life is scripted from birth. My idea of a vacation is going somewhere real.
What's real, you ask? The painted desert, mesas whose multicolored strata reveal their age, the night sky so unpolluted by artificial lights that you can actually see the mythical shapes and characters the Ancients saw in the constellations...adobe churches and bleeding crucifixes...arroyos and canyons...in other words, New Mexico ... in other words, Ghost Ranch.
I went there on vacation with the family about 6 years ago. Barely recovered from a serious bout of depression, my previous fervent religious practice and beliefs reduced to the dessicated state of a
tumbleweed blowing across the desert, my belief in God at its most tenuous.
Walking the length and breadth of the ranch for more than a week --far from the highway, without TV or even a radio-- I heard something I never remembered hearing before: silence.
What was the silence like? I can only compare it to the heightened, distinctive taste of each morsel of food after you've been ill and haven't eaten for a long time... white bread, orange juice, a bowl of chicken soup... you relish every bite, sip, and slurp. It's like that out in the desert when a bird squawks or the kids yell to one another as they play tag. Everyday sounds become startling, standing stand out as they do in sharp relief against the background of quiet stillness.
The first year we vacationed at Ghost Ranch, I wasn't sure God even existed. The second year, I sort of felt the Presence...by the third year, I recognized the voice of the Divine in the silence and discovered inner tranquility. Back home, I felt severely tranquility-deprived. During my fourth year out there I decided that upon my return home, I was going to look for a place of worship where I would find the same inner peace.
During my stay at Ghost Ranch that year, I had met a very dynamic young woman who was a United Church of Christ minister. She was a wife, a mother, a jogger, and really ...well, real. (Needless to say, the clergy of the church I had grown up in and in which I had been very active had long since ceased to seem real to me.) I thought that I'd like to belong to a church that had ministers who were involved in all the everyday stuff that I was. So I looked on the Internet for UCC churches in my area and identified one close by to try on a Sunday morning....
Then I remembered that just a bit farther down the road was a Friends meeting...and I remembered being curious now and then about what a Quaker worship service was like. (People had told me it was boring.) And so I dropped in on the Quakers that Sunday morning in August. I guess I must have read something ahead of time about just going in and sitting quietly... and I did...and it just seemed so natural. The simplicity of the interior had an instant calming effect on my spirit. No one preached or recited pre-fab prayers. A young woman gave some vocal ministry, and that seemed natural too. No one sang either, and I've been a music minister all my life. But for the moment I didn't miss it. (More about singing later.) Just quiet...and best of all, the assurance of God's presence.
Discovery #1: Divine presence in the inner tranquility
to be continued...
Logo of the Sheffield Quakers. Used with permission.
Rock formation from website of the National Park Service