Thursday, March 26, 2009

Adult Religious Education presentation on "Four Doors to Meeting for Worship"

[There is now a printable version of this post available; click here.]

Or, "'Four Doors to Meeting for Worship' from a Quaker Witch's Perspective." At
University Friends Meeting here in Seattle, our March Adult Religious Education Program (ARE) was focused on William Taber's Pendle Hill pamphlet "Four Doors to Meeting for Worship." The first two Sundays were devoted to the pamphlet itself; the next three, to presentations by folks in our Meeting community sharing from their experiences and perspectives -- "an actual Bible-carrying Christian," someone who'd "found meaning in an Earth-based spirituality," and a former Catholic. The committee asked me, specifically, to speak on the First Day closest to Spring Equinox. I've taken my notes for my talk and tried to convert them into a blog post. A note: during my talk, the weather alternated between sun and light rain. - sm

The ARE committee asked me specifically to speak on the First Day closest to Spring Equinox. This is a treat for two reasons. One, they knew when Spring Equinox is, and they knew that it would be important to me. Two, Spring Equinox is when I first started attending Meeting for Worship regularly, twelve years ago in Philadelphia. So this is a double treat.

I first read Bill Taber's "Four Doors to Meeting for Worship" back in about 2002, when the Meeting I was part of was taking a Sabbath year. I re-read it twice last week, and I found myself getting really grumpy. What Taber is talking about is basic ritual structure (and I'll go more into that in a minute). And we like to pretend we don't have ritual.

As unprogrammed Friends, we say we don't have ritual. Sometimes, we're pretty self-righteous about it (I know I have been). But that's not true. It may be less structured than in other traditions, but it's there. When we deny that we have ritual, we are not being completely honest, and that's not in keeping with the testimony of integrity. When we're self-righteous about it, it makes it harder for us to build bridges between different religious groups, including within Quakerism itself. So my challenge to us as Friends is to speak more honestly about this.

Before I go on, let me define "magic." I'm going to borrow from Dion Fortune and from Starhawk, and use the common definitions of magic as a change in consciousness, a change in consciousness in accordance with will, or creating change in accordance with will. Bill Taber talks quite a bit about changing consciousness.

I also wanted to touch on something else. Last week's speaker talked about this, and many Christian traditions talk about this also: the notion that Jesus, as human, makes God, the whole of which humans cannot comprehend, accessible. One of the ways in which I as a Witch have direct access to the Goddess, direct, tangible, experience of the Goddess, is through the Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit. Through my breath, through the Sun (really, it's there), through the water I drink and the water all around us here in the Puget Sound area, through my food and the earth that grows my food, through the mountains all around us here, through the people around me, through animals and trees. Asking me if I "believe in" the Goddess is like asking me, "Do you believe in rain?" (Especially in Puget Sound in the winter...)

Many Christians talk about nature and the Earth being sacred as creations of God, but don't treat it as an embodiment of the Divine. My challenge to us is to treat nature as Divine in and of itself, and see how that changes our actions.

So what do I mean by "basic ritual structure"?

Taber's "Door Before" is preparation; the "Door Inward" is transition; the "Door Within" is a change of consciousness, or magic; the "Door Beyond" is a transition back to ordinary time and consciousness, and a taking forward of the magic, of the transformation and change, that has occurred during Meeting for Worship, to our daily lives.

So, let me walk through those four doors and talk about them from my perspective.

The Door Before

What helps me feel my connection to the Divine in my everyday life?

  • Worship before meals, alone or with someone. This is a common practice in our family, having a moment of silent worship before we eat, and it's something I find I carry over to when I eat alone, as well.
  • Community - when I connect deeply with someone.
  • Walks in the Arb and on Marsh Island. We live two blocks from the Arboretum, and just south of the Montlake Cut and Marsh Island. Those are wonderful places to go for walks. Trees, water, birds...
  • Dancing. There are several forms of dance I'm involved in, and they're very important to me, as is the music in those dance forms.
  • Music - deliberately listening to specific pieces of music, specific songs, specific mixes (we call them playlists now on iTunes).
  • Crocheting - I have a very active crochet ministry, and most of you have seen me crocheting away during Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business. Particularly when I'm making something for someone in need -- a new baby, a friend in the hospital -- crocheting is a good reminder of my connection with the Divine.
  • Snuggling the cats.
  • Snuggling my beloved.
  • Chopping wood.
  • Worship - moments of worship during the week.
  • Lighting a candle; keeping it lit around the house.
  • Listening to the birds outside my window early in the morning; watching them come to the feeder throughout the day.
  • Taking a moment to close my eyes, breathe, and feel my connection to the Earth and to the elements necessary for sustaining life - the Air, the Fire, the Water, the Earth, the Spirit that is all of them.
Bill Taber talks quite a bit about moments during travel or commuting, and something that occurs to me now is something that happens on the bus. The buses I take the most often cross the Montlake Bridge, and you can see both the Cascade Mountains and the Olympic Mountains on either side of the Bridge when it's clear enough. I often find myself taking a moment to look for them whenever a bus I'm on crosses that Bridge. In fact, there seems to be something of a secret society of people who do this; recently, another person and I caught each other's eyes and shared a smile as we both turned to look at the mountains on both sides of the bus. I've since kept an eye out for other people who do this.

The Door Inward

Taber calls this "entering and centering" into the Meeting for Worship, and he details what he calls "rituals" (in quotes) that individual Friends might use.

What helps me "enter and center" into Meeting for Worship?

  • Closing my eyes and paying attention to my breathing and to how my body feels. Am I breathing comfortably? Is my breath short, constrained? What parts of my body are tense? Am I sitting in a position that I can maintain for much of an hour? (Not that I ever sit in the same position for an hour.) Am I in physical pain? What parts of my body are holding tension?
  • Holding rocks or shells in my hands. (At this point, I took two rocks out of my pockets, held them up, and asked how many people had rocks in their pockets. Two hands came up at first, then, shyly, several more.) Holding objects from nature, usually rocks, sometimes shells, or feathers, or other things, helps me ground and center. (I'll come back to that in a moment.)
  • Looking around at the different people who have come into the Meeting for Worship, and holding them, and the Meeting for Worship, in the Light. This is a common Friends' practice.
  • Grounding and centering. This is a common practice in certain Pagan traditions, and involves establishing, or reminding ourselves of, our energy connection to the Earth, and the elements, as well as our connections with each other. Sometimes a particular meditation is helpful; the one I use the most often is the Tree of Life.
  • Songs and music. I often have songs or snippets of music running through my head during Meeting for Worship. Often they help me ground and center, help me transition, help me prepare for that shift in consciousness that Taber talks about and that is essential to magic.

The Door Within

This is the change of consciousness, the shift, the magic.

It's usually a subtle shift; occasionally, it's a sudden one. I couldn't say when, time-wise in an hour's Meeting for Worship, it usually happens -- twenty past? half past? twenty til? -- and I wouldn't be surprised if it happens at different times during different Meetings for Worship. Sometimes, it doesn't happen.

I often have music or songs floating through my head, some of them insistently, during this part of worship. Sometimes a specific song will come to me quite suddenly once my consciousness has shifted, and it's often a message about, or a part of, the spiritual work that's taking place -- the magic and transformation.

The magical or spiritual work of Meeting for Worship is to be open to direct connection with the Divine, to the awareness of that connection, to the change that brings, and to be in spiritual communion with each other, as well.

Taber distinguishes between "gathered worship" and "covered worship." I'm not sure I completely understand the difference, but I'd like to share some experiences I've had with each.

I've experienced gathered worship in Meetinghouses. I've experienced it often in worship at Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. I've experienced it outside.

One place I consistently experienced gathered worship is a once-a-year outdoor Meeting for Worship in my old Meeting. Once every summer, we would have worship and a picnic at our burial ground, in a circle (well, an oval) of oaks. (Which made it uncomfortable to go barefoot.) People would bring lawn chairs, cushions, mats or blankets, and we would worship outside. It was consistently one of my favorite experiences of Meeting for Worship.

We actually really wanted to have our wedding there, but we decided not to -- May in southeastern Pennsylvania is chancy in terms of rain, and we knew there would be people at our wedding who were hard of hearing and Deaf. So instead we had it in the Meeting room. And that turned out to be really important, as did using traditional Quaker wedding promises. Being in that room, where we went for Worship each week, and where so many other couples in the Meeting had had their weddings, turned out to be an important connection to our community and important in supporting our marriage. And when a couple uses traditional Quaker wedding promises, you will often see other couples' lips moving in a reaffirmation of their own promises and in connection with the newly-married couple. Quaker wedding promises connect us to all of those who have gone before, and also to all of those yet-to-become married couples who will come after us.

I had a profound experience of what might be called covered worship -- although for me, as a Witch, things like this come from below, not above; so it felt more like being held than covered -- in a completely silent Meeting for Worship in a field in the Midwest. There were only two of us, there was no vocal ministry whatsoever, and yet there was no doubt for either of us that it was a deep and profound Meeting for Worship, that we were held, together, by that Spirit. We spent the following hour in animated conversation, but it had been a completely silent Meeting for Worship, aside from the sounds of the outdoors.

I find it is sometimes hard to resist the temptation to "do work" in Meeting for Worship. You know, today I will worship on "X," and at the end of Meeting I will be clear about what to do next, I will have discerned how I am led. Well, it just about never works. But it's still hard to resist, especially if I have a lot going on in my spiritual life.

Meeting for Worship is usually a much better experience if I'm simply able to be open and fully present. If I am able to be in "expectant waiting" without preconceptions. That's when the magic happens.

The Door Beyond

Transition to ordinary consciousness; taking forward transformation and change

At the end of Meeting, we have to return to ordinary consciousness, ordinary time and space. Sometimes that transition is jarring. Although I know Taber and other Friends have trouble with them, I find introductions and announcements sometimes help that. At least, if announcements don't go on too long.

Shaking hands, the traditional signal of the end of Meeting for Worship, helps ground us in our bodies and in our connections with each other. In Witchcraft and many other forms of Paganism, we pat down our bodies [I demonstrated this], and we eat and drink at the end of ritual as a way to be fully present in our bodies in ordinary time and space. Here, we have coffee, tea, and snacks in the social hall.

Also, what transformation and change am I talking forward with me? What concrete manifestation of magic -- or, as Taber would say, of the work of the Inward Christ -- do I take forward with me into my week? We may know right away -- I need to do this, I need to talk to this person, I need to make this phone call, I need to take time to do this, I need to make this change in my life. Sometimes we may not know, not until later in the week, not until after many Meetings for Worship. Sometimes what we take forward is simply a greater awareness of our connection with the Divine, or a sense of community.

Going back, something you'll sometimes see people do is touch the ground. [I demonstrated this, then asked the group:] After a really deep Meeting for Worship, how many people feel buzzy, or light-headed, or off in the clouds? (Hands raised.) Touching the ground, or even formally grounding and centering again, through breathing or a Tree of Life, can help release that excess energy back into the Earth, where we can always reach it.

So, that's basically how I would say I walk through Taber's Four Doors.

Questions and discussion

Here are a few of the things that came up during questions and discussion; I know I'm not capturing them all.

One Friend asked about how I came to Quakerism, so I shared a brief version of that story. Another Friend asked about a example of concrete magic; I talked about the magic at the heart of the usual Roses, Too! Tradition Brigid ritual, around powerlessness and power-from-within, with the concrete magic of lighting many, many candles, and talked about how that can then be taken forward into daily life. Friends shared experiences of conversations about ritual and worship within Quakerism; conflicts in a local community garden over the symbolism of a sculpture and about fertility; and more.

We could have talked much longer, but our hour was up.

[I also handed out a resource sheet, an invitation to the Roses, Too! Tradition Spring Equinox/Eostara potluck at our house that afternoon, and some lyrics to songs that are likely to get stuck in my head during Meeting for Worship.]

It was a really positive experience for me.


Cat C-B said...

Stasa, this is wonderful! I've got to make sure Peter reads this one, too. And I find myself wanting to have it available in a printed version--so much more congenial to re-reading and to re-thinking than an online post.

Thanks so much for sharing this; I'm going to be coming back to it, I know. (I also enjoy the Four Doors pamphlet, and I may wind up printing this post out and tucking it inside my copy.

staśa said...

Thank you! I am honored.

There's a bit I need to add, which wasn't in my notes, but came to me while speaking...

staśa said...

The bit about looking for the mountains from the bus has now been added. :)

RantWoman said...

RantWoman has a funny story about worship and the bus. There are lots of times for lots of reasons when worship is needed and profoundly helpful on the bus, but once long ago, RantWoman has a story of worship turning into a bus ride.

Meeting had some kind of a workshop and toward the end of a workshop, there was some kind of assignment about one Friend doing something in silence and other Friends joining in as they discerned what the first person was trying to do.

One Friend started her turn by simply sitting in her chair calmly facing forward. RantWoman is not sure who first interpreted this as riding the bus, but several people caught on quickly and began rolling like the wheels, stretching an arm as if to signal getting and a whole bunch of other bus riding motions. Only when the exercise broke and Friends were invited to speak did we realize the first Friend was intending to demonstrate Meeting for Worship.

staśa said...

That is too funny. I wonder what that does say about our worship sometimes... Usually, I am quite happy to be along for the ride!

Sheila Jane said...

I was particulariy touched by your article. Most meaningful is "definitions of magic as a change in consciousness". The parts that followed are almost over my head. As I read and skimmed the article, I was surprised at how much is also practiced today in my religion. I am a liberal Episcopalian, Christian. Unlike yesteryear, we are now taught to respect and honor all religions and like C.S. Lewis (Last Battle) with the Tamerand and even suggested by Pope Francis expect to see all people who seek God whether through the Triune, or the Goddess, or Tash, or others, in heaven. I think I would feel comfortable and be able to pray effectively in your meeting, if you could accept me. I do not want to change my religion, but greatly respect and find common ground with yours. I wish you every blessing. Sheila Jane