Archive for May 2009
Years agodecades agowhen people rose to give vocal ministry in a Quaker meeting for worship, it was common for the speaker to quote a passage from the Bible, or from the essays of Emerson, or from Leaves of Grass, and follow it with some reflections that brought out the meaning of the quoted text and its relevance to some situation at hand. That type of vocal ministry has become less common these days. A more common message these days is a first-person account of something the speaker has recently experienced or has been thinking about. Speaking in the first person was at one time less customary than it has become now.
The change in the style of vocal ministry in Quaker meetings seems to be a reflection of a change in American society in general. People seem to speak much more about themselves these days than used to be the case. They want to tell their storynot just any old story that could have happened to anyone. People are very much at the center of their own universes these days; everything revolves around them. One sometimes gets the impression that not much else really matters except that person who is at the center of his or her universe, making comments on all the things rotating around the center. These are egocentric times.
Quakers are encouraged to speak what the spirit urges them to say, and it is not uncommon for the spirit to relate things to the speaker’s own experiences. Quakers are encouraged to speak from their own experience and understanding rather than merely offering reports of what others have said and thought. The locus of authority is one’s own inward light, the particular refraction of light that has worked its way through the prism of one’s own life history. So there is nothing at all blameworthy in first-person narrative in vocal ministry in a meeting for worship. For something to be a truly spirit-led ministry, as opposed to a simple report of something interesting that happened on the way to the meetinghouse or an account of something amusing that the cat did yesterday, it should have some sort of universal dimension. It may be about oneself, but it should also be about others as well. It should be something that, in Quaker idiom, speaks to their condition as well as to one’s own.
Needless to say, not every message can or should speak to everyone’s condition. There is a reportedly a belief among some Muslims that there are so many religions in the world because there are so many kinds of people with so many different needs and perspectives that God must constantly provide new ways of reaching all of them in their diversity. Even God cannot find messages that speak to the condition of everyone. How much less can a Quaker minister impart such a message. That said, even if a message cannot be expected to speak to everyone, it can be expected to speak to others in the room than the speaker.
When someone else rises to speak in a meeting for worship, one sometimes has the initial feeling that what is being said is irrelevant to one’s own conditioning. Rarely is it the case, however, that a spoken word, however falteringly delivered or apparently pointless, cannot become the basis for fruitful reflection by nearly everyone who hears it. In the final analysis, the old saying is perhaps true that the spirit makes no mistakes.
These are first-person times in America. These are times of self-centeredness and self-absorption. That is just how things have become for now. But why?
There is nothing more terrifying than one’s own mind.
There is no greater source of comfort than God.
What is God but one’s own mind?
The first of the above claims is a paraphrase of a Buddhist dictum. The second is a fair representation of a belief found in numerous theistic religions. The third is not a claim but a question. Perhaps it is a rhetorical question, in which case it could be worded as the claim "God is nothing but one’s own mind." This third claim could be made not as a metaphysical statement but more as an epistemological observation: "The only thing one can know of God is that part of God that can squeeze into the confines of one’s own mind. All the rest is perforce beyond one’s ken." Treat the question in whatever way suits your temperament.
The point of quoting the two claims and the question is to state what is increasingly obvious to me: one’s own mind is both the source of one’s greatest fear and one’s greatest comfort. The mind is both that to which one can go for refuge and that from which one feels a need to be a refugee. My own mind conjures up everything that terrifies me, and then it releases me from that terror by conjuring up something to protect me from the terrifying images it has created. The cycle continues unpredictably, sometimes amusingly and sometimes annoyingly. (Amusement and irritation, of course, are also created by the very mind taht creates the things that are found amusing and irritating.)
Folly takes many forms. One form it takes is the belief that the mind is somehow under one’s control—that one can volunteer oneself out of fear by thinking more clearly, or by meditating or by praying. As one who does a fair amount of thinking (clearly, I hope, at least on good days) and meditating and even a little bit of praying, I have observed that nothing is predictable. Sometimes meditation "works" and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes prayer provides relief, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes thinking is lucid, and often it is not. No practice can be known in advance to be effective. When things go well (that is, when terror goes dormant for a while, or when peace and tranquility arise or when love floods the heart), then one believes that whatever one was doing before things went well must be the cause of things going well. Or, if one honors the common religious taboo against taking credit for things going well, one may regard going well as an instance of divine grace—a gift, a charism. If one is otherwise conditioned or indoctrinated, one calls it all a matter of blind luck.
Whatever one calls it, all but the most foolish agree that there is not much of a correlation between what one sets out to achieve and what actually comes one’s way.
At the moment, I am very much at peace with the fact (if it really is a fact) that I have very little control over how I perceive things at any given moment. Peace of mind is a creation of the mind no less than terror, envy, hope and solace are creations of the mind. They come. They go. I just watch.