by Chris Willis
I have been attending Quaker meetings here in the UK for nearly a decade but have never settled at one. I usually attend for a few months then find some convenient excuse to leave it behind and neglect my spiritual needs. ‘I didn’t like that Friend’s testimony’ ‘There isn’t enough discipline at this meeting’ ‘It’s too near a noisy road’ I tell myself I don’t need a religious community, I don’t need God. I know deep down these are just excuses I tell myself to disguise the real reason I cannot remain at one meeting for any real amount of time; my fears and insecurities.
I am afraid of getting close to a Quaker community because of the sheer challenges presented by Quakerism. For me Quakerism is not easily defined and it varies a great deal depending on which part of the world you worship with Friends. Is your meeting Liberal or Conservative? Perhaps it is Evangelical? Is it programmed or unprogrammed? Would the majority of Friends at your meeting be comfortable being described as Christians or would they not? It sometimes seems there are more questions than answers and, in some ways that frightens me. This isn’t what religion is supposed to be about is it? It’s about answers not questions. Quakers live their faith, not just talk about it, which can be an intimidating prospect. I’m far from perfect.
Despite these concerns I miss meetings when I don’t attend and feel the loss keenly. My humanity seems to suffer for it. I recently moved 130 miles away from my home to start a new life with my family on the other side of the country. There is a Quaker meeting just a fifteen minute walk away from my house so I decided to go. Everything went fine for a few months then the old doubts began returning, as I knew they would, the fear of commitment and searching for truth myself rather than being given the answers. I attended on a Sunday which happened to be a children’s meeting day. Sadly only one child turned up and, fifteen minutes in, the child went into the next room to do activities as is the custom of Friends. I sat in that meeting and all I wanted to do was leave. I felt spiritually cold and couldn’t see the point. The feeling was so strong I was tempted to leave halfway through worship. I considered but decided that this would be the wrong thing to do so I opted to stay until the end but I fully intended that when the meeting finished I would leave and not return. The meeting ended and the child returned. It was explained to the meeting that they had made a few paper flowers and would like to hand them out. There were twenty Friends present but only four flowers. I sat there deep in my own thoughts when a Friend approached me and handed me one of the paper flowers with a smile. I cannot easily describe how this made me feel. It was like a light was switched on. I don’t believe my face was showing how I felt inside, perhaps it was, but at that very moment that simple gesture, the gift of a paper flower from a member of this community felt to me like a huge weight had been lifted. For the first time I felt I belonged and that this was the right place for me to be. At that moment it was exactly what my spirit needed.
Although it may seem insignificant I believe there was a lesson to learn and I believe I learnt it. Fear should not be allowed to dictate the path of our spiritual journey. Each of us is challenged and it’s how we respond to the challenge that matters. We all have a lot to learn and the answers aren’t always conveniently laid out for us. It can take a lifetime of searching to find it. Living in the light is the crucial first step and, when you try, it can seem as natural and right as breathing.
Since that realisation I have attended the same meeting faithfully and as regularly as I can, although I am an attender I still feel that I am part of that community and have been accepted as such. It needed a paper flower to remind me that I shouldn’t let my fears get the best of me. To be a part of a Quaker family is a wonderful thing. I am accepted and valued despite my fears, doubts and emotional baggage and in this world that is truly something to be cherished.