Sunday, July 1, 2007

Thin places...where God happens

Been reading Friends for 350 Years by Howard Brinton (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 2000). The work is essentially Brinton's Friends for 300 Years, originally published in 1965, with notes and a historical update by Margaret Hope Bacon and reissued in 2002. I plunged into this very readable book to review the history of the Society of Friends and to get more background on our testimonies. This, because I recently discovered a French-language website, Quakers, communauté virtuelle francophone, and have been adding or supplementing blog entries at the invitation of its author, Piotr.

This passage, in which Brinton reviews the elements of Catholicism that were eliminated by each successive "Puritan" wave, really caught my attention:

The first Puritans subtracted the Pope, the Mass, images and five of the seven sacraments, thus creating the Church of England. Presbyterianism...subtracted the rule of bishops and substituted the authority of presbyters or elders. For this they found sound precedent in the New Testament. Then came the more radical Independents or Congregationalists, who subtracted the centralized form of church government which had not existed in New Testament times and substituted a decentralized and more democratic procedure. The Baptists...subtracted infant baptism and made church membership dependent on conversion and the gift of the Spirit as described in the New Testament. Finally arose the Quakers. They subtracted all ritual, all programmed arrangement in worship and the professional ministry, allowing for no outward expression except the prophetic voice which had been heard in the New Testament Church at the beginning....(p. 13)
Brinton then quotes passages from the journal of early Quaker John Gratton (1641-1712) who, "went through all the stages in moving from the Catholic right and proceeding through Presbyterianism, Independency, the Baptist or Anabaptist sect and finally finding rest in Quakerism." (p. 14) He concludes that Gratton and others found what they were seeking in Quakerism because
For them Quakerism added something new, whereas Puritanism had resulted largely from a process of subtraction... (p.17)...The Protestants rejected the authority of the Church. Instead they set up the authority of the Bible as the source of religious truth. Over and gone, they believed were the days of the prophets and apostles, when God spoke directly to each man. Religious worship consisted of hearing what God had said long ago and of expositions of the inspired written word. The Protestant preacher exhorted the congregation to have faith in the truth of the Bible and to obey its commands. The service was essentially pedagogical, a kind of sacred school where a lecture was delivered on God's plan of salvation for men. Assurance was given that if the plan were accepted through faith, salvation would follow.

The Quakers had a different conception. The Spirit of God which gave forth the Scriptures was still at work, as they believed, in the human heart. It was more important to hear what He was saying directly to them than what He once said centuries ago. Worship consisted in waiting upon the Lord to hear His voice and to feel His power. (pp. 20-21)
Brinton puts into words what I've been unable to articulate even to myself. Back in my 20's I had a friend who belonged to a local Presbyerian church. Feeling unsatisfied with Catholicism, I went with her to a few "small group" discussions and enjoyed them. But when I attended the Sunday service, I basically experienced the Mass with this or that left out. Same impression when I attended a Lutherian service, and then a Methodist. I think that's what kept me going back to Catholicism: the worship services of the Protestant denominations seemed to be the Mass with lacunae. They were OK as assemblies where prayer and praise were ascending to God, but none of them made me look forward to getting up on Sunday morning and attending again. No disrespect intended. As they say, we all interpret this world through our own personal filters.

Then one day I walked into a Quaker meeting and that was it. Someone rose and gave vocal ministry that was so genuine and touched me so deeply, ministry that could not have occurred within a Catholic Mass. That sort of vocal ministry and the spiritual power and refreshment I felt in my own heart were what kept drawing me back. When I did not attend meeting for worship, my longing for it just became stronger with each passing day.

Brinton hits the nail on the head. At Protestant worship I came away with a feeling of having missed something. At meeting for worship, however, I found something...and that something finally satisfied my longing.

Many times I've reflected on how irrational it all is. I could be worshiping in a church with beautiful stained glass windows, statues, stirring music and singing, and the mystical Eucharist...
but noooooo...instead I'm drawn to a 19th century one-room schoolhouse with no interior unadornments (except for the sunshine reflected off its white walls), silence (except for stomachs occasionally growling and the sounds of nature penetrating from outside)...and nothing "happening."

God happens.

In speaking with Catholic friends about my spiritual journey, some have told me that, they too often feel dissatisfied with many aspects of the church, but that they could never leave because of the Eucharist. I understand this perfectly. The celebration of the Eurcharist constitutes --I think-- what some religious writers call a "thin place," a space and time where we are able to come in contact with the Divine. Maybe even the Eurcharist got too ritualized --and less permeable-- for me, I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, I too would have expected to miss the Eucharist, but I don't. I do not have any sense of loss. I feel spiritually fulfilled in the "thin place" of Quaker worship. (Again, no disrespect intended toward Catholicism, the spiritual nourishment of over a billion persons around the world.)

Here's what "happened" when my heart entered that thin place this morning:

We read in Isaiah 40:13:

Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?
Actually, I think this verse would pack more of a punch today if it were translated something:
Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or who has been his advisor?

We spend millions upon millions of dollars to elect the best and wisest officials (supposedly), and yet they still must rely on advisors. And think of how unworthy some of those advisors have been...

Today it occurred to me that each of us at meeting for worship gets a little piece of God's mind (spin that however you like) and that if we continue on in expectant silence, we'll hear next if there is some action God would like us to take in response to that bit of knowledge.

And that is about as close to certainty as any knowledge we'll ever have.

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