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It is my Sunday refuge, the old-fashioned Quaker meeting hall with its long benches and its empty tiers of balcony benches, a reminder of the day when silence was more in vogue in New York. Founded in the mid-1600s by the contemplative Englishman George Fox, who rejected the pomp of Anglicanism for the simplicity of inwardly waiting for the spirit of God to make itself felt, his new brand of Christianity was brought to these shores, by missionaries, in 1657.
Unlike the true Quaker, I do not wait in silence for God’s presence. My silence comes without the topping of devotion. It is a kind of theft. It sneaks in among everyone else’s longing, and seems, I am sure, like the real thing.
If collective silent waiting on God forms the bedrock of the Quaker service, room is made for one to speak out if inspired, even sing if that’s where the spirit takes one. The more contemplative Quakers will rise and have their say about the presence of God or the absence of God, or their presence with God, or their absence from God.
I am more strongly drawn to those who rise to remind God of the evils of US war funding (this, let it not be forgotten, is a peace church), or the unjust prison system that disproportionately screws the poor and the homeless, blacks and Hispanics.
It makes my heart happy when faith shakes out on the side of social justice. The wounded in the pews will speak of their wounds. Usually, variations on the theme of loneliness, the New York illness.
A woman, in a lidded voice, tells us of the death of a friend. Her words, rising up from the silence, jar us awake. In our speeded up lives, friendship is one more thing that flies by unexplored. Life is not kept out of worship on Rutherford Place. It seeds my meditation with a rough tenderness. Who are all these people? And the woman beside me, looking miserably at her fingernails, bored to death, what brings her here?