Being Gathered into Community

After several years of mostly solitary and intensely inward spiritual experience, I began to worship with Quakers. At that time I dreamed I had been swimming laps in a big pool, developing strength, and now I was being put on a team. This dream was one of many ways I came to understand that henceforth my spiritual journey would not be a solitary one. Joining with a Quaker community, I was gathered into a larger body.  Although the encounter with the Light within has a deeply personal aspect, sooner or later each person discovers that being in spiritual community is an essential part of the faithful life. Without spiritual companions, it is very difficult to sustain an awareness of the indwelling divine presence and to remain faithful to the guidance of the Light.
Many disappointed seventeenth-century seekers turned away from the religious groups and outward rituals they had once practiced with enthusiasm. Only then did they turn within and wait for God to act. For a time, many became isolated, finding no companions in the same condition. Those who experienced their awakening in solitude were afterwards drawn to join with a gathered group, or to write letters if no group was nearby. Other seventeenth-century seekers joined with others to wait together, learning to turn toward the direct inward encounter with God and Christ, without intermediary. Being in the company of others making the same discovery helped all to make the necessary shift of consciousness. Early Friends left many descriptions of tangible and transforming collective experiences of the presence of God, experiences which they often described by saying that “the Power of the Lord was over all.” In such cases, the surrender to God by a whole group was a great aid to each person; together the group was opened to the presence of the Inward Light and the direct teaching of the Spirit of Christ.
One of the most beautiful descriptions of the collective experience of those who became the first Quakers was written by Francis Howgill in 1663: The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue, nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: “What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? … And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord while we had a being…. And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God… And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.

A few weeks after his convincement, early Quaker leader Richard Hubberthorne described the bond he now felt with others in the Quaker community: “And to you all the dear family of love, my love is run into you all. You are my relation, father, mother, sisters and brothers, which I must now own and dwell with in amity and love eternally.” (qtd. in Barbour and Roberts, 157.)

Being in community with others desiring to be faithful to God’s inward promptings is a great and usually necessary aid on the spiritual journey. Individuals receive much assistance, both outward and inward, from the group, and at the same time, much is asked from each person, as well. Sharing in the life of the community often functions as the Refiner’s Fire. One is purified and stretched spiritually in the process of learning to listen, communicate, love, support, and forgive the other members of the group.

As a group collectively learns to surrender to God, a powerful spiritual bond develops among fellow souls committed to the same path. Early Friends found this was especially so when they helped one another to persevere in spite of persecution. In his journal, John Banks wrote: “Oh! the days and nights of comfort and divine consolation we were made partakers of in those days together (and the faithful and true of heart still are).  And in the same inward sense, and feeling of the Lord’s power and presence, we enjoyed one another, and were near and dear unto another.  But it was through various trials and deep exercises, with fear and trembling, that on this wise we were made partakers.” (qtd. in Barbour and Roberts, 186.)

For Quakers, church was not a building but a people gathered by God. God endows the community, through its members, with all the necessary functions and spiritual gifts. Among seventeenth century Friends, a way of being church together emerged that the early Quakers called Gospel Order. The Quakers had no paid clergy, and all the members of the meeting bore a share of responsibility for ministry to and maintenance of the community. The Spirit requires each person to give time and resources to meet needs identified by the corporate body, for the sake of furthering God’s work both within the beloved community and in the wider world. In an epistle raising funds for the support of traveling ministers and imprisoned Quakers and their families, Margaret Fell described how all parts of the Quaker body were responsible for the care of those among them in need:

So let love constrain you to love one another, and be serviceable to one another, and that every one may be made willing to suffer for the Body’s sake, and that there may be no Rent in the Body, but that the Members have the same Care one over another; and where one member suffers, all the Members may suffer with it: and here is the Unity of the Spirit and the Bond of Peace.  (qtd. in Garman et. al., 460.)

Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers, two early Quaker traveling ministers, were imprisoned for three years by the Inquisition.  They came near death during that time, but felt upheld by the presence of God and by the prayers of their community:  “[A]s owls in deserts, and as people forsaken in solitary places; then did we enjoy the presence of the Lord,…and we did see you our dear friends,…and did behold your order, and steadfastness of your faith and love to all saints, and were refreshed in all the faithful hearted, and felt the issues of love and life which did stream from the hearts of those that were wholly joined to the fountain, and were made sensible of the benefit of your prayers.” (qtd. in Mack, 209.)

Being Gathered into Community:  Has being part of a community been an essential element of your spiritual journey?  How did this happen for you?  How do you experience God at work among the members of the community?

Discerning Our Calls Course Pendle Hill 2007 photo by Iris Graville

Discerning Our Calls Course Pendle Hill 2007
photo by Iris Graville

* * * * * This post is Part Ten in a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe people’s experiences today of Being Gathered into Community. Please share your experience!

Click here to see the bibliography page.

(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin


About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
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6 Responses to Being Gathered into Community

  1. Phil Swank says:

    a wonderful message.

  2. Michael Klinger says:

    Dear One, Fellow Traveler, Friend,
    Thank you again for your heartful-Soulful insights, thoughts, feelings re: The Journey. Very HopEful, which i could ‘use’ at this time. “…waited upon him in pure silence…” Yea! “…& holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire…” “…the Refiners Fire…!” I’ve again forwarded it to Harrisburg Mtg. & Blair who i was just talkin w. when it appeared on my cmptr. & he hadn’t yet seen same.
    You’re quite a Blessing, you “ARE”- (Edgar Caycee, ‘sleeping prophet,’ Va. Beach, VA.) Heartful/Soulful thank yous’ for your latest numinous, Inspired efforts… Hope Easter Time -& Happy Spring, bring you much Inspiration & Deep Contentment – Gratitude. Heart-Hugs M.M.
    Peace n Love & Hope . . . ♻ 🌻
    Michael K.

    Date: Tue, 2 Apr 2013 19:23:03 +0000

  3. Carole Treadway says:

    “Sharing in the life of the community often functions as the Refiner’s Fire. One is purified and stretched spiritually in the process of learning to listen, communicate, love, support, and forgive the other members of the group.” This speaks to my experience. Over the years I have seen many Friends, drawn in part to the fellowship of those who love and accept them, leave when the inevitable conflict or personality clash happens. Those who stay with it, learn to listen, to be open, to forgive, to submit to the requirements of divine love, are the ones who form the community that draws others in. They are the wise ones, the “seasoned” Friends, the elders.
    I do believe that one cannot be a Friend in willful isolation.

  4. Pingback: Day 187: Discerning the Way Forward | Finding God in 365 Days

  5. Liz Blackshine says:

    First off, Marcelle, Im so delighted to have come upon your blog this morning. I was in your Discerning our Calls and at least one other class of yours at Pendle Hill during 2005-2006 when i resided there. Im blessed to reconnect with your ministry in this way.

    Secondly, I have much to say on this topic as I struggle with staying in fellowship within a Friends community longer than a couple years. While i find the worship completely dynamic, unlike any other form of gathering and worship that Ive experienced, I seem to run into road block after road block socially among Friends. My perception is that its race-based on both sides. This is not an accusation but more a shining of light on a deep wound that all Friends could benefit from looking at and pouring attention to for Spirit to continue to slowly heal.

    Lastly, I’ll say that my time at Pendle Hill, with a very racially and gifts diverse group of Friends, was indeed the most gathered I felt in a spiritual community to date among Friends. I do now participate in a very nourishing non-Friends women’s group that is largely “pagan” in its orientation. But to focus on my Friends experience with community, never had I ever been so ripe for healing and transformation than that year I spent at PH and never had I ever been so deeply met and supported than at that time. I attribute it to the many elders that were there, it was the last year most of them were there. They and other seasoned Friends offered such a deep holding space, that unquantifiable quality of cultivating the air of love in every corner of a space, of having the love generator on 24/7 that allowed me to heal and transform deeply feeling so spiritually and soulfully held. Like i mentioned earlier, that willingness to be deeply vulnerable, exposed, fully present from all Friends is a big factor. Im so thankful for the Friends who are doing that on their racial and social justice committees and for Friends like Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye whose book “Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship…” has been an enormous resource along this slow journey. I long for more worship sharing around topics of race and other social barriers that still need enormous healing in the nation and therefore naturally still in the Society of Friends. That year at Pendle Hill was such a beautiful balance of holding on to a core of Quaker principles and an encouragement to have meetings for worship with a concern for just about any topic one was drawn to–there was such a wide container for Spirit to fill. I pray to help cultivate such a container for my local meetings and hopefull learn to weather more of these storms together and not in isolation. I pray for the courage to participate with a whole heart…as your beautiful blog encourages us.

    Thank you for your deeply felt gifts to draw out truth, love, beauty, and challenge to the community, Marcelle!
    Yours, Liz Blackshine (previously Black at PH)

    • Dear Liz,I remember you very well! Thank you so much for responding to this post and sharing your experience of the blessings of community that you experienced the year you were a part of a diverse group with good elders at Pendle Hill, and the struggles in a Quaker meeting not ready to be vulnerable, open and present in the same way. I pray that we Friends learn how to be a place where we reach across all kinds of social lines and barriers (inward and outward) to grow into the openly loving communities God calls us to be. Love, Marcelle

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