PHOTO: Guardian trees standing over the Meeting House and cemetery at Sandy Spring Quaker Meeting
My spouse and I participated in the Sandy Springs (MD) Quaker Meeting this morning at their 11am gathering. Our own church had rented their adjacent Lyceum for two of our own services in recent weeks. We were taken with the natural beauty of the grounds, the historic nature of the local Quaker community (dating back to 1752), and the sincerity and genuineness of the local Quaker leaders we’d encountered there.
We arrived about ten minutes early and found our way to a pew in the historic old Meeting House. There were only a handful of others present then, but people continued to flow in in silence until the pews were half full — maybe 80 to 90 attendees all told. Everyone simply sat in silence and I called on my meditation training to close my eyes, focus on the breath, and allow a deeper level of inner calmness to emerge.
I was struck by the absence of any ritual marking of a start time. We all simply continued to sit in our pews as new people entered, noticing but not engaging with the sounds of doors opening and new people joining. There were a dozen or so children with their parents, but the kids all left together after about twenty minutes or so, presumably for Sunday school.
At that point, one of the Meeting elders got up to speak. I recognized him as the man who had provided a tour of the buildings and grounds when I’d inquired about rentals. He was a tall, healthily built yet aging man with a ponytail and rustic clothes. He spoke slowly and deliberately, acknowledging the departing young people, and recognizing the advancing age of most of those of us who remained. He wove this reality into a natural, organic observation about life’s many comings and goings. He spoke to the importance of Quaker culture and identity in helping to shape his own young sense of self, and prayed that the young people of this meeting would also find the spiritual nurturance needed to find and maintain a life-sustaining faith. He acknowledged a longtime meeting member who had passed recently, and ended with a prayer for acceptance and peace with the many comings and goings that marked all of our lives.
This brief talk was followed by another long period of silence which gave me an opportunity to really take in his words. I reflected on my own spiritual community and on a number of longstanding members and leaders who had recently left us. James’ words helped me hold a sense of loss and diminishment within a greater reality of life’s ongoing cycles of growth, change, inevitable decline, and yet ongoing perseverance and meaning
After more silence, another late-middle-aged man rose to speak. He was dressed in a saffron-colored robe and turban though his face was of a ruddy American kind. He said he was visiting this meeting for a second time while travelling around the country on a book tour. He practiced a form of yoga meditation that he said was inspired by his initial experience of silent Quaker meetings while he’d attended Earlham College in Indiana. He remembered how much he valued the sense of deep inner quiet and peace he experienced at those Quaker meetings as a young college student. He also spoke to the deep commitment to peace and justice that he had found at Earlham, and how that had shaped the rest of his life. He had spent most of the previous forty years travelling in southeast Asia and South America, teaching yoga meditation and trying to exemplify a selfless devotion to the well-being of all human souls, teaching in schools, hospitals and prisons.
The second man’s sharing also affected me with its genuineness and deep commitment to spiritual values. He had traveled the world attempting to live out his spiritual vision of peace, service, and social justice. And he was offering gratitude and appreciation to the Quaker roots which had inspired him.
Another man and then many women also spoke during that hour of heightened presence and attention. Many of the women testified to various social action projects they were engaged in. One woman expressed gratitude to her Methodist father for teaching her the value and importance of healthy philanthropy. Another spoke of her attempt to use Quaker methods of calm listening and attention as she tried to engage productively with a loud group of anti-abortion protesters in downtown DC.
The last part of the meeting began with a spoken invitation to share any immediate human concerns that people were experiencing. Many people rose to speak short prayers of healing for loved ones and community members, and for those who had recently died. There were also prayers for people getting married, starting new jobs, moving, or experiencing other major life-changes.
The gathering ended as unceremoniously as it had begun, with people simply getting up to walk over to the Lyceum for coffee and fellowship, talking among themselves as the old friends that many of them clearly were.
After coffee, we were heading back to our car when we ran into the man who had spoken first. After he shared some about the grand old “guardian” trees standing over the old Meeting House, I expressed my appreciation to him for his talk about “comings and goings”. I said that my wife and I were longtime practitioners of meditation and appreciated the deep sense of quiet and peace from which his words seemed to emanate. The man thanked me but also corrected something about my compliment. As a Quaker, he said, he believed that such “inspirations” came directly from Spirit, and that he couldn’t take personal credit for whatever he had shared. I took in this correction and my appreciation for the Quaker way increased even more. I had a distinct sense that I would be returning soon.
John Bayerl, 4/29/18