[adapted from a talk given at my Quaker meeting, May 2012]
I first came to Quakers because of a crisis. In 2005, a friend fell victim to a serious crime, and in the aftermath her life fell apart. Those of us around her tried to help pick up the pieces, but we were powerless and our efforts were completely inadequate. Life felt that it could not be the same again. Later in the same year, two close friends died, one suddenly, and one after an illness. They were both 24.
These events made showed me unearned suffering that I had not seen in a comfortable, middle-class childhood, and a sheltered education. Mostly, I realised, this kind of suffering didn’t happen to people I knew. But the realisation that in fact it happened, and happened all the time, felt impossible to carry – a challenge my view of the world could not sustain. It felt impossible to carry on living without finding a way to address the questions that these events threw up. I felt that I could cope, but after breaking down in tears at work, unexpectedly and without obvious reason, I realised that I needed somewhere to work through my feelings.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, I started to go and see a counsellor. I also attended different religious groups. Some of these were helpful, and they provided time to reflect, but in most cases I felt I was being offered answers to questions I hadn’t asked. When I wandered into a Quaker meeting and had my first taste of a gathered silence, it was the first time that I listened to myself, to the things that I was saying, quietly, to myself about my feelings. I didn’t talk about why I was there, and no one asked me. When, after a couple of weeks, a Friend did ask what had brought me to the meeting, I explained. This Friend offered me neither explanation nor answer, but said that I was welcome and that I must have a lot of questions. And so I kept coming back. Why I was a Quaker was that it helped me listen to my own feelings.
Over time, the rawness of those events lessened, and I found myself more at peace with them. Why be a Quaker now? I didn’t find answers easily. I had tried various Quaker meetings. I didn’t stay in one place for long enough to really feel integrated, but I caught some powerful glimpses of the kinds of community that others benefitted from belonging to.
I had been appointed to be the Treasurer of one meeting not long after joining it, and I both gained from and was frustrated by the experience of serving the meeting. I gained skills and experience I wouldn’t otherwise have had, but there was more how than why to my Quakerism. It wasn’t integrated with my routine; my partner was not a Quaker, my workplace did not feel in harmony with my faith, and to some extent I felt myself to be a stranger in both parts of my life. I hadn’t found the force and vitality that sustained me to start with, and I didn’t know where the saving force I’d experienced before had gone. I was a Quaker, but I didn’t really know why, and the how didn’t feel quite right either.
It took another crisis to shake me out of this feeling. I had broken up with my partner, and I left my old life for a new career and a new country. I hoped that working for a Quaker organisation would deepen my engagement with my faith. But it was a difficult working environment, and the opposite happened. This time, I was a ‘professional Quaker’, going to meetings and trying to put across Quaker values, but without feeling that I knew how to practice them. The workplace and the Quaker meeting that shared its building was a small community and felt like a basket with too many eggs in it. I knew that silence had helped me answer some of the questions I had about the changes in my life, but again it was not integrated with my life.
It has only been since coming back to the UK last autumn that the ‘how’ and ‘why’ aligned. I came back to a meeting that I had attended fleetingly near the beginning of my time in Quakerism. For the first time, it was possible to attend regularly and make meeting an integral part of my routine, and for the first time, I also found that that was what I consistently wanted to do. The other ‘hows’ – reading and Woodbrooke, for example – didn’t stop being expressions of my Quakerism, but they became lesser parts of a whole that was sustained by the spiritual nourishment of a regular gathered silence.
Why I feel like a Quaker now is that I have a community that I want to belong to. This is more than a choice. It is a feeling that nothing else would quite fit. The meeting as I experience it now is a lot like a family. There are a variety of people there, not all of whom I know well, and not all of whom I necessarily find easy to be with, but like a family they are my community and they are there. As I get to know them, I find surprises, vitality, interest, perspective, and wisdom, as well as a community with certain practices – the Business Method, silent worship, the testimonies – which we don’t get right all the time, and which we might not always interpret in the same ways, but to which we are committed. There is a way of working that I feel is practised with integrity. Like a family (again) it is the setting in which I now feel I can develop and learn, and practise the values I want to carry out with me into the rest of my life. It’s a community in which I feel safe, where I can fall, be confused, get things wrong, but knowing that I can trust the people and the processes involved
I never found conclusive answers to the question that led me to Quakerism in the first place: how can one live in a world where people suffer and die for no reason? I don’t think there ever were any answers. The feelings of hopelessness that these questions engendered became less raw but the questions themselves are still disabling, from time to time.
What has happened, though, is that in finding a place where I could look at those questions in silence and without fear, I discovered a way of life that felt richer, and which set everything else in a different perspective. Both ‘how’ and ‘why’ have transformed themselves, so that they are not external things, but have become part of me.