I think it was in Peter Ouspensky’s writing that I came across the concept. He argued that having a foundation in an activity that requires patience and long training is essential for anyone hoping to grow in spirituality.
Simply put, practicing an art, a sport, a craft, a trade, or the like provides the stamina for personal religious enhancement. He called it the magnetic center.
It’s not a passive pleasure but rather active, with deferred gratification in terms of results. It requires doing something for its own nature rather than some final event or production, even though such things might provide inspiration. What’s important is the means itself rather than the end.
These other activities aren’t a substitute for spiritual progress, which can come about by undertaking any number of tested traditions, but it does offer a solid starting point.
Maybe there are exceptions, but I still find it an interesting insight.
The Covid-19 shutdowns are reminding many of us how much of religious practice involves community interaction.
Yes, personal practice is also essential – we could easily build a list of ten examples – but it blossoms and bears fruit in our interactions.
Here are ten ways those are being impacted by coronavirus.
Communal worship. It’s a coming together in celebrating and compassion. For now, we’re coping with a substitute, one without the touches of shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. We’re not even in the same room.
Streaming our services. Across congregations, we’re finding this to be a mixed bag. It’s definitely not the same as being together in person, but members who live at a distance or recovering from illness or suffering chronic debilitating conditions are welcoming the opportunity to be better connected again. Attendance for morning vespers or the like is also up.
Pastoral visits. Hospitals, especially. Pastors, priests, ministers, rabbis, and other leaders deeply miss being able to comfort those in pain or be with those who are dying, especially.
Funerals and memorial services. On hold, when family and friends could feel the support the most.
Weddings. Baptisms, too?
Choirs. It’s more than just making harmony together, though you do come to feel a special kinship with your fellow singers.
Committees. OK, we are continuing via Zoom, maybe more than ever. But it’s more awkward, and I miss sharing the snacks.
Study groups. This can be done online, but it’s less personally revealing and interactive.
Church suppers and soup kitchens. There’s a reason that Jesus and the disciples are always eating in the New Testament. As one rabbi I know explains, it’s because they were Jewish. Let’s honor our connections through food, when we can.
Festivals and other fundraisers. These require advance planning and working together. Again, food’s often involved and sometimes ethnic identities, too. My favorite ones feature dancing, and that leads to joining hands.
I do want to mention a renewed appreciation for the medieval tradition of anchorites, women who lived in isolation in the church tower itself and prayed unceasingly for the members’ well-being. These days, their writings seem especially meaningful.
OK, there’s no bingo on my list. What else am I missing?
The top level of governance in the Society of Friends is the yearly meeting, so-named because it gathers once a year in decision-making sessions. The constituent local congregations, in contrast, are termed monthly meetings, since they gather in business sessions once a month. (Yes, it’s confusing, since we sit together in worship at least once a week as well.) Everyone active at the local level is welcome to participate in the annual sessions.
Rather than having a single overarching yearly meeting, ours exist independently, originally on a regional basis. Something like the various strands of Eastern Orthodox, for that matter, with the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox the best known of many.
Among Quakers, New England Yearly Meeting is the world’s oldest, founded in 1661, and was held in Newport, Rhode Island, until 1903. Since then we’ve gathered for a week each August on college campuses or other residential sites around the six-state region. In my time here, that’s been Hampshire in Massachusetts, Bowdoin in Maine, and Castleton in Vermont, and I’ve heard tales of the years the event was held in a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
It’s a solemn and joyous occasion, one that many participants – and many families – schedule their work vacation time around. It’s something like a huge class reunion, too, where you reconnect with many people you hold dear. And living in a college dorm, as most of us do, it’s not uncommon to find that random pairings among those of us who go solo turn into regular roommates, year after year.
So I’m still stunned by the announcement a few weeks ago that we will not be meeting in person this summer, due to the coronavirus. Yes, we will be attempting something online, but it won’t be the same.
Just as jarring is the more recent cancellation of summer sessions at Friends Camp in Maine. For many of our kids, it’s a highlight of their year, and friendships they form there sustain them through high school and college. As one of our neighbors says, a camper who became a counselor, the news is a bummer.
To put the U.S. coronavirus crisis in perspective, consider that its toll has surpassed the 58,220 deaths of American servicemen in the Vietnam war. And to think, it would have been much worse if we hadn’t hunkered down, even as the virus continues to multiply.
Yes, I know it’s premature to expect our social lives to be returning to “normal” anytime soon, but let’s keep the hope alive.
Here are ten things I’ll say we’re missing.
Worship. Gathering together, not just solo meditation. Followed by hugs and handshakes. Even weddings and funerals are on hold. Don’t overlook regional board meetings, annual sessions, community suppers, or big festivals, either.
Live public events. Let’s start with concerts, theater, dancing and dance, sports of all sorts, both as players and fans. Add festivals, graduations, political rallies, public lectures, governmental meetings. The things that bring us together as a community.
Swimming and the gym. For me, this includes the daily banter with fellow swimmers I’ve come to know and the lifeguards, too. It’s like workout partners and trainers at the gym, so I’ve heard. Long walks just aren’t the same.
Eating out and meeting for a drink. Let’s throw in catching up with a friend over a cup of cappuccino or stopping off somewhere while off on that stroll. A phone call is a poor substitute.
Shopping. Yes, we can still go to the grocery (kind of), but many other places are closed. As for yard sales, where we find some of our best stuff without them? I’ll put banking in person here, as in being able to walk into the lobby.
Beaches, parks, playgrounds. I couldn’t even harvest seaweed for garden mulch this year. Seriously.
Health care and grooming. How much can we put on hold? OK, I don’t need a barber these days, but my cardiologist would like some blood work at the lab and our rabbits need their nails trimmed, which has been happening at the high school’s animal sciences center, or was.
Travel and transport. As I posted about not going to Boston recently or noting friends stuck without cars (and we can’t really offer them rides, either). Add to that airlines, not that I was planning on flying. But we really would like to get away from the house for a weekend breather.
Libraries and museums. Special sanctuaries.
Community care. Things like the soup kitchen and fundraisers. And places with public restrooms when I’m out on those long walks.
Schools I’ll set aside as a whole special category.
Coming to join the Society of Friends, or Quakers, puts me in a unique religious circle.
Here are ten examples.
Nobody bosses me around. Well, not if the mutual discipleship we know as eldering is conducted in a loving and good order. In the old days, though, it was often quite restricting.
Deep roots. We have a rich history, originating in the mid-1600s social and political upheavals in Britain, and a distinctive lifestyle to draw on for inspiration. Yes, lifestyle. While most Friends have dropped the distinctive Plain clothing and speech, we do hew to simplicity, honesty, integrity, equality, and non-violence in our daily lives. There are good reasons many modern Quakers drive a Prius.
Mystical renewal. The core of Quaker worship is open worship, which is part of even pastoral Friends’ services, admittedly in a shortened form. In the traditional “silent” worship, it can be an hour of profound group meditation and rejuvenated awareness of the Holy Spirit.
The timeless aesthetic. I hate to admit there were times in Quaker history where the restrictions would have been unbearable for me. But I am drawn to the witness that arose in it as demonstrated in the architecture of our old meetinghouses or the accounts of tender family life or the amazing prose of the ministry.
Room to keep growing. Quaker faith is multifaceted. Spiritually, one can move about from Bible study to prayer to silent reflection to “mutual irradiation” with other faith traditions and back. Socially, there are many ways to serve within the congregation – in fact, volunteer service is crucial to the existence of the Meeting and the wider world of Friends. On top of that, our faith draws us to public witness, especially in matters of peace, equality, environmental action, and the like.
We have only three degrees of separation – not seven. You’d be surprised how quickly you can find answers through Meeting connections.
It’s my core community. Here are my kindred spirits, the people I respect and treasure.
I have friends nearly everywhere. When I go to a new place, I quickly connect through Quaker Meeting – even if I’m just visiting. In fact, Friends in Cuba and Kenya open my eyes to Third World awareness.
My family history and lost identity. When I joined Friends, I had no idea my father’s side had been Quaker from the outbreak of the movement right up to the 20th century. Reclaiming that identity gives me an internal perspective.
Social justice issues. There’s no way I can address all of the world’s ills, but it is comforting to know that Friends are tackling key issues and deserve my support.
OK, that’s the flip retort, but it’s true. The King James Version of the Bible sounds truly remote and incomprehensible to most Americans, and I suspect that’s part of the appeal, the way Latin used to be for Roman Catholics.
I’ve tried to teach our teens in Meeting how to use the “thee” and “thou” that are so much a part of traditional Quaker expression, but find the kids are completely baffled. The 17th century language is the core of the KJV, too. Take note.
But as those fluent with Hebrew remark, the KJV is also full of mistranslations, some of them deeply ingrained in our English language and thinking.
We can blame one of the characters in my upcoming book The Secret Side of Jaya for that translation problem, since the KJV (more officially known as the Authorized Version) drew heavily from his English renderings. That’s something that could lead to an arcane debate we’ll not get into today.
As for me, I’d prefer cracking the nut open, using as many different translations as possible, making the events all the more astonishing.
You’re welcome to check out what I’ve been examining in my reading of the Bible straight through at my blog As Light Is Sown.
But first, in recognition of today’s celebration, Happy Easter.