If I was to describe what a gathered Meeting is, I first need to talk about the purpose of Meeting for Worship.
It is human response to Divine initiative. But in a Quaker Meeting for Worship, it’s not individual meditation or individual prayer. It’s really a communal mystical experience. It’s an opportunity to experience for the group as a whole to encounter the divine presence in our midst.
So the gathered Meeting for worship describes a quality that might be achieved in a Meeting for Worship in which the body is gathered together. I imagine the arms of the holy spirit, the arms of God gathering us together.
Yesterday, we found ourselves trying to explain to friends from another Christian tradition just what Quaker worship is all about. They had heard this and that, but had never attended a Meeting.
Meeting for Worship, I found myself saying, is something quite different from a group of people sitting around, each meditating by themselves. It is not an excuse, either, for each to become lost in their own thoughts and fantasies – though among the best of us, in the best meetings, it can happen from time to time, as any Friend will tell you!
In Meeting for Worship we are not met to meet each other, or not mainly. Let Ross Hennessy explain:
We start to become more sensitive to the folks around us and their process and what they are going through. As that communication, that nonverbal communication, increases, there starts to be this emerging presence in the center of the room…
There comes this point where your will starts to bend in the direction of that presence. Up until that point, you feel like you’re in control and you’re the one that’s processing what’s going on and you’re the one that’s making decisions about the content of your mind or you’re making decisions about what your prayer looks like… but then something happens. Something shifts. Something emerges, that you’re not in control anymore and there’s just a gravity that you start to circle around.
Kody Hersh adds:
It’s just an act of grace that we can all just fall into something that is effortless, that is not about any of the things that we do to try and make something happen in our worship experience or in our relationship with God—we just fall into the arms of God together.
Quaker worship is as much communion as prayer, as much a vivid, real encounter with the living God, even, perhaps oddly, for those who would find difficulty with conventional definitions of the word God. Quakerism is an experimental faith, both in the sense George Fox and his contemporaries used to mean based on experience rather than authority, dogma or conjecture, and in the more modern sense of discovering truth through direct, empirical testing. This is the whole point of being a Quaker, really.