Over many years, and in many conversations about childhood, I’ve been pelted with questions about Quakerism. Although I fomally abandoned my ties with Quakerism in middle adulthood, no longer able to accept even its dogma-free tenets, its echoes stay with me.
Unlike the many lapsed Catholics I know, who feel scarred for life by their abandoned faith, I’m grateful for the worldview Quakerism granted me. Indeed, it still forms the basis of my own. And yet, I often have trouble answering the questions of curious friends.
Recently I stumbled on this ongoing series of short videos that, at first glance, seem to do a good job of introducing the history, beliefs, and practices of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers.
Here’s a snippet from an essay-in-progress, “A Quaker Childhood”.
I am twelve. I am sitting beside Cathy in Meeting for Worship, which is an hour of silent worship after First Day School. When I was small, I had to sit with Mom and Dad, but for the last couple of years I can sit wherever I want.
I don’t go to meeting every week, and I don’t have to stay the whole time. I know I can quietly get up and leave whenever I want to. Or I can read the book I have with me. The room is silent except for the muted sound of traffic on the street in front and the occasional throat-clearing of the adult worshippers. Mom and Dad are sitting in one of the facing benches at the front and Mom sometimes glances over at me. Some women come to meeting in slacks, and some come with their blouses sloppily tucked in their skirts. But Mom always get a little dressed up. Not too much, because people here aren’t fancy. Only one woman ever wears a hat — the same one who wears purple dresses. Today Mom’s wearing a light green dress with buttons up the front. Dad, of course, is wearing a suit. He always wears a suit.
I am busily counting the slats on the Meeting Room ceiling when Cathy pokes me in the side. You are not to whisper in Meeting, but she leans over and says, quiet as a breath in my ear, “I have to speak”.
We know, of course, that people speak in meeting when they feel moved to do so by the still small voice of God that is in every man. And woman. We have been led to believe that when God wants to speak through you, you will know it is God and the urge to share his wisdom will be irresistible. That’s when the early Quakers quaked. I do not believe God is speaking to Cathy. I am right beside her, and she seems quite her usual self. I shake my head at her: Don’t do it.
She starts to do a little quivery thing with her hands and feet. None of the bowed heads or pensive gazes into space seem to notice. I want to leave. I can already feel my face getting hot with embarrassment. I open my book and pretend to read.
Cathy stands up. She is a year older than me with long blond hair. She often looks dishevelled, like her mother. Just last week, on our way home from Meeting, Mom said “Not that it matters, of course, but I don’t know where Helen gets those clothes.”
Everybody is looking at Cathy now. Some people smile. She just stands there, vaguely angelic. I stare straight ahead.
“God is Love” she says in a loud voice. Then she sits down.
Some years later I watched the movie A Friendly Persuasion,in which a young Quaker boy in Meeting for Worship leaps to his feet and makes the same startling observation.
It was too late to ask Cathy where she saw the movie.