“Meeting for worship is a Quaker technology for shifting levels of consciousness,” Bill Taber sometimes explained. A highly respected teacher of Quakerism, he would have a twinkle in his eye when he said this. As a Conservative Friend, he often used explicitly Christian terms to describe the profound transformation that can happen in a gathered meeting for worship. But when addressing liberal Friends, he found metaphors that spoke to the condition of his listeners.
I first began attending morning meetings for worship at Pendle Hill retreat center while Bill was still the Quaker Studies teacher there. As the group settled together into the silence and turned inward, the shift seemed subtle. On a few occasions when I arrived a bit late, however, I experienced the shift in consciousness as soon as I walked into the worship room. When Friends were already gathered into the presence of the Holy Spirit, held in a palpable silence, I felt as though I were stepping into a holy light that permeated everything. In his pamphlet “Four Doors to Meeting for Worship,” Taber writes:
I once thought worship was something I do, but for many years now it has seemed as if worship is actually a state of consciousness which I enter, so that I am immersed into a living, invisible stream of reality which has always been present throughout all history.
It was rare to experience the group being gathered that way at the Quaker meeting I attended on Sunday mornings. Friends told me about the awesome spiritual power experienced by the first Quakers in the seventeenth century. Many were satisfied just to recount the facts of a celebrated history. Some Friends, however, conveyed a deep longing to know that same spiritual power in our time. Some had dipped many times into the Eternal Stream themselves and were yearning for a faith community more on fire with divine Love and Truth. I began to study the writing of early Friends, hoping to discover how and why the first Quakers had been blessed with such a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them.
I found many descriptions of awe-filled gathered meetings for worship experienced in the first years, including accounts by Francis Howgill and Edward Burrough, a pair who had traveled from the rural north of England to bring the Quaker message to the sophisticated city of London. Spiritual seekers and skeptics alike flocked to hear these two men speak about the Light of Christ within. Many returned and learned how to be gathered in worship in a way that radically changed them, empowering them to live their lives with God at the center. While reading Howgill’s description of those gathered meetings, I’ve sought for clues about how they opened themselves to the transforming experience of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven day after day. Howgill wrote:
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?
They learned “a place to stand in and what to wait in.” They stood in their ardent faith, and waited in the expectation that the living presence of God and the Light of Christ within would become manifest among them.
It is key that they waited in “pure silence,” sometimes for hours. This was an outward silence, with “no language, tongue nor speech” from anyone. Equally or more important, it was also an inward silence: their minds were “out of all things.” In his “Epistle To All People Upon The Earth,” George Fox advised everyone to be “still from your own thoughts and imaginations, and desires and counsels of your own hearts, and motions, and will.” In this inward stillness they waited to experience the indwelling presence of God.
Patient, expectant waiting can open to a direct awareness of that divine Presence. When that happens to a person, Fox says, “that of God manifested in him, leads his mind up to God, [and] he comes to the quiet and peaceable life and comes to retain God in his knowledge….” In the silence, the inward Light reveals or “shows” the individual and the group their true condition. They are led to a higher kind of knowing, another level of consciousness. According to Fox, those who patiently practice this silent waiting, “such shall find mercy of God, when their minds are guided up unto God, and … in one half hour have more peace and satisfaction, than they have had from all other teachers of the world all their life time.”
Such experiences, whether they occur in solitude or in a gathered meeting for worship, can have a lasting and transforming effect. According to Fox, they show people how to “find and feel the way of peace,” and lead them “to grow up in that life the scriptures were given forth from, and the life the saints lived in.”
In beautiful advice for finding and entering into the inward divine Presence, Isaac Penington instructs people to, “Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing.” When the mind and will become silent, no longer grasping for anything, then one can, “sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee….”
Penington, Fox, and many other early Friends speak of the presence of God experienced in the heart. In his descriptions of the powerful gathered meetings at the beginning of Quakerism, Francis Howgill tells of a spiritual fire being kindled in the heart, and of the hearts of those present becoming united with others and with God:
[H]oly 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…
Shifting to the Heart: Have you experienced your mind becoming still and your awareness shifting to another level of consciousness? Has a stillness of mind helped open your heart to divine love and passion?
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You can order Marcelle Martin’s new book, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, from Inner Light Books. It’s available in hardback, paperback, and ebook. The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey. QuakerBooks provides discounts for books ordered in quantity.
On the weekend of April 8-10, 2016, Pendle Hill is hosting a workshop on Our Life is Love to explore how the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey manifest in our own experience. Together participants will practice opening more fully to the presence and teaching of God within, and encourage each other to live the truth of Love more passionately.
© 2016 Marcelle Martin