Last Sunday I worshipped at the 15th Street Quaker Meeting House in Manhattan. Are you familiar with Quaker worship? I knew from my studies that an unprogrammed meeting meant a long period of people sitting in silence (40 minutes), the divine light coming in through the windows, and then a shorter period (20 minutes) of people voicing any messages that they felt moved to share with the community. My first experience of Quaker worship followed the same outline but the impact it had on me completely surpassed my expectations.
I assumed Quaker worship was a-liturgical and that service occurred elsewhere in the living out of discipleship. I was mistaken on both counts.
When speaking with Catholics about liturgy, I often try to bring to their awareness the ministry of the assembly. We use the word “minister” to refer to different people, most often the leader, the presider, the celebrant, the person convening the gathering but also to those with various visible roles in the liturgy. The “ministry of the assembly” applies to everyone gathered. In the unprogrammed Quaker service, there is no one person designated to lead. There is no singular “minister”.
I’ve been practicing silent prayer, being attentive to God and attentive to my feelings for a few months. The silence and its process was familiar and at times I began to cry. But I also smiled through the tears. Corporate silence is different. It was like being held in an embrace of complete acceptance, total safety. After the main silence, some people began to share the messages they had for those gathered. Never before did I feel ministered to so deeply and gently, intimately and publicly. It was remarkable. Everything that was spoken or sung, the fruit of corporate silence and divine light, came like a gentle caress from God. When I told my mother about this experience she asked: “isn’t there a minister?”. There were many ministers. The experience was both a witness and a challenge. Kathleen Norris quotes a Presbyterian minister in her book “Amazing Grace” as having asked “Why do we go to church?” The answer: “Because somebody needs you there.” I felt ministered to and I also felt that by listening and even by crying I was ministering to others.
As for the liturgy, it was the last thing I expected. Individually the messages might have seemed random but as a sum, they made up all the parts of a liturgy as I know it. The first speaker told a story about friendship: the gathering rite. The second, a woman in African clothes stood up and sang in a powerful deep voice the hymn “What Wondrous Love is This”: the call to worship. The woman behind me quoted Jesus: “Love one another” and explained that it starts with ourselves. She admonished the community members to prepare themselves for the meeting that would follow: the confession. The fourth speaker had his back to me so I couldn’t hear him clearly. He started by saying that there were three miracles, the first the creation of the world. Everything else, he said, theology and doctrine, “are just discussion.” Miracle and mystery: the Eucharist? There were extended silences between each message, time for every ear to absorb the message and discern how God was speaking through it. Time for my cheeks to be soaked with tears and dry again before the next message. Then a man stood up and prayed aloud. I’m sure everyone found themselves and their condition named somewhere in the litany he offered: the final blessing.