Sunday #20 – Friends Meeting of San Antonio – A Quaker Presence in South Texas
I’ve only met one Quaker family in my life. My eldest daughter developed a strong friendship with a young Quaker girl, so we all got to know her family. I’d describe each member of that family as peaceful and filled with wisdom that seems to surface from a deep well. So, I’m curious if other Quakers exhibit the same qualities. An online search proved valuable; I found a Quaker Meeting in San Antonio.
Surveying the Quaker website, I learned that this Friends meeting in San Antonio is unprogrammed, meaning that the service would have no pastor-led message or music. Instead, I would experience absolute silent worship. I immediately wondered what on earth I’d have to talk about in the next blog post.
Before attending the service, I telephoned the family I’d previously met in Colorado to ask a few questions about programmed versus unprogrammed services; I also got a few other questions answered. I learned that the most common misconception about Quakers is that they are somehow related to the Amish. This may be due in part to the photo on your Quaker Oats morning cereal – funny how we make associative assumptions without much knowledge.
I also did a little Wikipedia research and learned that in 1650, George Fox became dissatisfied with the teachings of the Church of England and broke away to teach and preach a more simplified way of worship. The followers of Fox became known as “Quakers” because Fox bade others to tremble or “quake” at the word of God. Also interesting is the fact that the greatest concentration of Quakers is found in Kenya, though I’m not sure why. Likewise, I learned that 89 percent of Quakers practice programmed worship with song, prayer and a pastor’s message, while only 11 percent of Quakers worship in silence.
Preconceived Ideas about Quakers
I have only a few possible thoughts about Quakers. The first was in place before I met this family and the other two developed after meeting the family.
- Like most, I previously believed Quakers to be somehow related to the Amish
- Quakers are peaceful people
- Quakers live simple lives
Running a few minutes behind, I zipped into the parking lot and immediately found a place near the front. The building looks much like the front of a home and one wouldn’t know the difference if it were not for the sign out front. As I made my way through the entrance, a woman that I’d previously spoken to on the phone greeted me. She walked me to the sign-in book that was positioned outside a courtyard-like area that reminded me a bit of what might be found in a Japanese garden. Then, she led me to the worship area. I stepped into a beautiful meeting room with a wooden floor, three walls of what resembled wooden pallets, a large expanse of glass overlooking a forested area, and three sets of cushioned pews with about 25 people sitting quietly with their eyes closed.
I slipped into a back pew and began to sit in absolute stillness for the next hour. As a current student of yoga and meditation, this did not seem odd to me, as it might to others. I relished the idea of sitting completely silent for 60 minutes, just connecting with God. As I sat with these other people – all in their 50s, 60s, 70s and up, I concentrated on my breath and let various sounds pass over me. I heard the hoot of an owl, chirping from birds, the whirl of car tires as they passed by on the street outside, and the pleasing sound of a gentle rain shower as the drops fell onto the roof and against the windowpanes. Occasionally, a sneeze or a cough startled my meditation, but then I’d go right back to focusing on my breath.
At one point, I heard someone stand and say a few divinely inspired words, then the person sat down and silence resumed. After an hour, people began to shake hands with one another. Everyone made introductions, and then we had a break before the next part of the service called a “Forum.” During the break, several people came up to me and introduced themselves personally. I learned “Janet” had been a lifelong Quaker. Quakers are known as pacifists and are often conscientious objectors during a time of war. I also learned that Sunday’s forum would be on “The Experience of Emptiness.” That sounded interesting, so I decided to stay.
Thirty minutes later, the Forum began with two men reading the words of Buddha, Thomas Merton and Gary Whitting. Their writings centered on emptiness and detachment. Then we broke up into groups of five and six to share thoughts about the readings. Oddly enough, I learned nothing from the subject matter; but the forum process taught me a great deal. Before going into these groups, we were instructed to let each person speak from their feelings about the readings, followed by a few moments of silence after each person spoke. We were told that we should listen intently to what was being shared, but when it came to our turn (if we so desired to share), we were not to agree or disagree with anyone who had shared before us.
Somewhere within this group sharing, I began to feel something I’ve only felt once before. Years ago, my family invited Eric and Ellen Weihenmayer over for dinner. Eric is the first blind man to climb Mt. Everest. As I prepared for that dinner, it struck me that Eric would not see me the way others see me. He would not judge or evaluate me for my weight, what I wore or how I moved because he couldn’t see me. Instead, he would experience me only from the words I used and the way I listened to him. WOW! I had the same epiphany yesterday when I realized that sharing thoughts and ideas could be something totally different from what I previously had known. Within this group sharing, I could allow God to speak to me through other people. All I had to do was listen.
Post Service Commentary
I’m still deeply affected by my experience with the Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends. That experience is truly hard to describe. Without music, without the offering, without the message or pastor-led prayer, what is worship? From yesterday’s experience, I think I have a better understanding – it’s the silent space where you can experience the divine presence of God.
When I think I’ve experienced it all, something new like the Quakers show up to remind me that I haven’t. So, I must keep stretching. This past week, I heard that my good friend Dr. Bob Blaich is to speak at the Universalist Church in Denver about his book “Your Inner Pharmacy,” so I wondered if San Antonio had a Universalist Church. A quick Web search resulted in a Unitarian Universalist Church, so I may just head there next Sunday.