For her New Year’s resolution, Erin will attend a different religious ceremony every month.
Within thirty seconds of walking through the doors of the meetinghouse of the Multnomah Religious Society of Friends, more well-known by their God-fearing name, the Quakers, I had been pegged as a newcomer, and welcomed warmly because of it. A smiling older woman handed me a pamphlet about the Friends, shook my hand, and handed me off to a smiling older gentleman, who wore an embroidered nametag that bore his name (Timothy) and a few cross-stitched flowers. Timothy led me upstairs to the meetinghouse’s library, showed me their extensive collection of Quaker-composed and Quaker-centered literature, and encouraged me to check out anything that interested me; then left to greet more people—after showing me the meeting room and informing me that the action started at 10:00 sharp. Holy shit, I thought, they’re not kidding about the “friends” part.
My decision to visit a Quaker meeting came after a draining first half of February that left me desiring a quiet, peaceful religious service, not loud or exuberant worship of God. I wanted to be somewhere quiet and pleasant, a place where the external setting and the general mood might have a calming effect on my internal state. I have great associations with Quakers as they’re portrayed in the media (gentle conscientious objectors, makers of excellent oatmeal), and, I figured, who couldn’t feel at peace at a religious service whose congregation is formally known as Friends? When my Internet research on Friends’ meetings in Portland led me to a Sunday meeting that boasted no clergy but a whole lot of internal reflection, I was sold. If this wasn’t going to lead me to inner peace, nothing would.
It is hard for me to imagine either a setting or a service that is less adorned, less ceremonial than a meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. This was the absolute antithesis of the Catholic ceremony I attended the month before. The meetinghouse itself was square, grey, and clapboard; the inside felt like the conference room in a Hilton. It felt more like I ought to be listening to a motivational speaker or attending a cheap wedding rather than waiting for the Light of God to descend upon me.
People wandered in and took their place on folding chairs arranged in a circle three rows deep in the middle of the room. The crowd was a mix of the elderly, the late-middle=aged, and a smattering of twenty- and thirtysomethings. Almost everyone looked serene, good-natured, and comfortable: looking at them, I could practically see their centuries-long lineage of pacifism and modest dress, and I just knew they were wholesome and self-assured people, ready to receive inspiration from God and unspoiled by things like Facebook and hangovers.
I, on the other hand, was quickly working myself into a full-blown panic attack. “Unprogrammed” meetings of the Quakers, like the one I was attending, have no pastors, no sermon, no formal direction of worship at all. Instead, people gather and meditate in “expectant silence” for an hour. I do not have a great track record with silent meditation. I once took a yoga class, during which I would fall asleep during the final ten minutes of Savasana every day, only to jerk awake while imagining myself falling off a cliff. And it is impossible for me to quiet my internal dialogue long enough to reach the empty, receptive mental state that is apparently crucial to successful meditation. I just knew I was going to totally screw up my attempt at Quaker worship.
So when 10:00 rolled around and the already-quiet meeting room fell totally silent, I was sweating profusely, my heart pounding and my pulse racing. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was going to have to write about my experience, and how could I possibly stay in the moment while I was already thinking about it in the past tense?
The minutes ticked on and I alternated between holding my head down, eyes tightly closed, thinking, “Stop thinking about stuff, Erin,” and looking at the others in the room, imagining how well they were probably meditating. After a while, I gave up and started imaging myself sitting on a riverbank in a pool of sunlight, hoping that this would help me access the less tangible Inner Light. My mind wasn’t cleared of conscious thought, but at least I wasn’t panicking anymore.
And then, someone spoke. A mischievous-looking old man stood up and said, “So I’ve been sitting here wondering: what did the disciples do for fun? There they were in the desert with this man, doing this exhausting preaching work. What was their release? They must have needed some fun to keep themselves from going crazy.” This comment jerked me out of a meditation about Harry Potter looking into the Pensieve, and I was a little peeved because I had felt like maybe I had been on the verge on some insight into how falling into someone else’s memories was related to accessing a universal Inner Light. Plus, I didn’t really care what Jesus’ disciples did for fun, and this man had no insight beyond the suggestion that they may have fished, a half-hearted joke that even he failed to laugh at.
So I ignored him. Unfortunately, my Harry Potter insight was long gone, and my next thoughts wandered into ruminations about men. Oh God, I interrupted myself. This is so sacrilegious. Can people tell I’m thinking about sex? How embarrassing. This cannot be acceptable silent meditation material. I tried to return to my riverbank, which was becoming my go-to mental imagine when I started to stray into self-referencing thoughts about the experience. The next vocal interruption was merciful. This time, the speaker was a woman who remembered skipping stones on her family’s pond as a young girl, and thought something similar might have been a good release for Jesus’ disciples. I was a little surprised that she was following in the vein of the first comment, but subsequent comments veered further from it. One man thought there was no need for banal “fun” if you had an open and receptive heart. The next young woman had a receptive heart that had led her to instinctually know about a roommate’s depression.
I didn’t try to follow along with the comments; for a while I kept wrestling with the concepts of meditation and Inner Light. But for a good portion of the hour, I don’t remember having any thoughts, which maybe means the meditation worked. In any event, at the end of the hour, I didn’t feel exactly enlightened, but I did feel much calmer than I had going in to the meeting, and a little more centered than I had been feeling in general.
The end of the silent meditation wasn’t the end of the meeting. As everyone came out of their silences, I was once again reminded of how communal this meeting was. New worshippers were invited to introduce themselves, and about half a dozen of us did. I gave my name and explained that I was “church-hopping” as part of a New Year’s project to explore religious options. I did not mention that I would be publishing my experience on the Internet. After a comment from an out-of-state visitor unfavorably comparing the meetinghouse to one in Boston, and the following laughter, a woman reported on modes of transportation used to get to the meeting, and urged everyone to find alternatives to single occupancy vehicles. Someone else reminded the attendees about an upcoming lecture on the Quakers in Nazi Germany. Then everyone stood up to socialize, and several people approached me, welcoming me to the meeting and urging me to come back, or perhaps attend a midweek potluck of young Friends. I was thrilled to talk to these friendly people, and loved the feeling of immediate acceptance.
My experience at the Friends’ meeting was not exactly what I associate with a “religious” experience. I didn’t feel like I got closer to some larger, supernatural force, but I did feel like I got closer to a warm and welcoming community, and that might have been better. As I left, I checked out a book of Quaker poetry from the Northwest, mostly as a promise to myself that I would go back to another meeting and experience the sense of community again. Just this morning, I got an email inviting me to a newcomer’s lunch on a Saturday in April, and I have every intention of going. Perhaps I haven’t yet found enlightenment, but I might have found a group of sincerely nice and socially conscious people, and that is a concrete success that I know I’ll appreciate in the future.