In preparation for an online conversation and exploration of how we can be more receptive to the gathered meeting, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on that’s been written about the amazing experience of entering what can be described as Heaven on Earth. This past week, during the several online meetings for worship in which I’ve participated (one of them lasting three hours), I’ve been paying close attention to how the experience develops, in me and the group—trying to notice the gentle movement as a meeting becomes settled or centered, and how that moves into a gathered meeting. I have long been convinced that being gathered by the Spirit in meeting for worship is one of the greatest gifts of the Quaker way. Now, after deeper consideration of my own experience and what I’ve heard from others, I realize more clearly that this experience is a doorway into another state, a state of profound unity and an openness to the movement of the Spirit. It provides a blessed opportunity for the Spirit to give us the wisdom and strength needed to do God’s work in the world.
During the gathered meeting, most (or all) of the participants in a meeting for worship are drawn into a subtle or strong awareness of the underlying reality at the deepest levels of our being, where we are part of a loving oneness with one another and with (or in) God. This awareness quiets minds and opens hearts. In Listening Spirituality, Vol. II, Patricia Loring writes that during these special times Friends feel that they know, “both God and their fellows more fully and dearly in some indefinable, immediate, non-cognitive way. The sense of oneness, knowledge and tenderness that is planted and tended in the times of gathering has been the ground of Quaker community, organization, and conduct of life together.” Although participants may experience revelations of divine truth during a gathered meeting, and are collectively taught by the Spirit both in the silence and through the vocal ministry, Loring believes that the “true fruit and sacrament of the gathered meeting is love…” By this she means the kind of love that motivates people to action: “The people who have experienced themselves united with God’s will are drawn to manifest it as love in the world.”
Around 1940, Thomas Kelly wrote a beautiful essay, “The Gathered Meeting,” in which he describes the experience as follows: “In the Quaker practice of group worship on the basis of silence come special times when an electric hush and solemnity and depth of power steals over the worshipers. A blanket of divine covering comes over the room, and a quickening Presence pervades us, breaking down some part of the special privacy and isolation of our individual lives and bonding our spirits within a super-individual Life and Power—an objective, dynamic Presence which enfolds us all, nourishes our souls, speaks glad, unutterable comfort within us, and quickens in us depths that had before been slumbering. The Burning Bush has been kindled in our midst, and we stand together on holy ground.” Gathered meetings come in all degrees of intensity or depth, from subtle to very palpable. Here Kelly is describing the more intense form of the gathered meeting, sometimes called a “covered meeting.”
The term “gathered meeting” probably only came into common use as a consequence of Kelly’s essay. But the experience of being gathered by the Spirit in worship was described by the first Quakers in the middle of the seventeenth century. Francis Howgill, for example, spoke of powerful meetings in which, “The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net….”
Edward Burrough was Howgill’s partner in traveling to share with crowds of people the Quaker message of the Light of Christ within. Some of the curious people who came to listen were scornful of radical new ideas; others were hungry for a deeper intimacy with God. Those who were sincere seekers were invited to attend meetings for worship that lasted for hours. Again and again, participants in some of those meetings were gathered by the Spirit. Burrough describes this as a return to the experience of the first Christians at Pentecost: “And while waiting upon the Lord in silence, as often we did for many hours together, with our minds and hearts toward him, being staid in the light of Christ within us, from all thoughts, fleshly motions, and desires, in our diligent waiting and fear of his name, and hearkening to his word, we received often the pouring down of the spirit upon us, and the gift of God’s holy eternal spirit as in the days of old, and our hearts were made glad….”
The effect of being gathered by the Spirit is transforming. Francis Howgill described how their hearts were bonded with one another and God in a powerful way, and they were set aflame with the desire to give everything to do God’s work in the world: “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 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.”
Being gathered in the Spirit during meeting for worship is entirely different from reading remarkable accounts of such experiences, whether those of the first Quakers or contemporary Friends. It’s a bit like the difference between reading about the taste of a ripe peach and actually eating one, or hearing about the view from the top of a mountain and actually standing on a summit facing a clear panorama. Reading or hearing accounts of the experience of others cannot convey the experience itself, but it can help us glimpse the potential of surrendering to the Spirit together in a silent meeting for worship, and give us clues about how to open to the experience ourselves.
Whether or not you have experienced the gathered meeting, I invite you to explore further. I have creating an online page of resources with videos, readings and quotes. HERE is the link: https://awholeheart.com/gathered-meeting/.
One With God and Each Other: Have you ever experienced being gathered by the Spirit into a oneness with God and with others? If so, what was that like?
© 2022 Marcelle Martin
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Nurturing Faithfulness 2022-2023
a 9-month faith and leadership program
September 10, 2022 – May 22, 2023
Nurturing Faithfulness is a multi-generational faith and leadership program designed to help Friends explore ways to meet God more deeply, hone methods of discernment, reach for fuller faithfulness, and ultimately bring these gifts and strengthened abilities home to their local meetings and beyond. The program is structured to set in place support, encouragement, and accountability. It includes two long weekend residencies at Woolman Hill Retreat Center, as well as a mid-course residency and monthly webinars to be held online. Marcelle Martin and Hilary Burgin are the core teachers of the program, which also includes the participation of several elders and guest teachers.
For more information: https://neym.org/nurturingfaithfulness22-23
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A Guide to Faithfulness Groups explains what faithfulness is and how it can be cultivated by small groups that practice ways to listen inwardly together for divine guidance, a practice that holds great potential for supporting individuals of any faith in allowing the work of the Spirit to become manifest through them and their communities.
Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey describes the transformational spiritual journey of the first Quakers, who were inwardly guided by God to work and witness for radical changes in their society. Focusing on ten elements of the spiritual journey, this book is a guide to a Spirit-filled life, designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all. Our Life is Love has been reviewed by Marty Grundy in Friends Journal, by Carole Spencer in Quaker Religious Thought, and by Stuart Masters on A Quaker Stew.
Both books are available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website for Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey.)
Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder