Today I went to my fourth Quaker Meeting.
I'll stop right there and suggest you put aside any preconceptions of who Quakers are, what they stand for and also what they look like. I too had the preconceived idea that they all looked like the guy from the Quaker Oats box.
They look like me and you. They dress like me and you. They talk like me and you.
They are people who, as one author nicely put, don't believe what they told. Quakerism is very experiential. They have to experience something in order to believe it; to take something on board and make it a part of who they are.
It's very common to hear that Quakers don't believe in violence. This is true, but only to an extent. As an elder Quaker member told me on my first visit, 'Yes, we believe in non-violence. Then someone comes along and says, "OK then, what if I have a knife to your sister's throat, then what would you do?" And to that I would I have to say, I don't know. Why? Because I've never been in that situation, so how could I know how I would react?'
One thing which Quakers do have in common is that they honour and worship (a nasty word, I know)silence. This is why every Sunday they gather around and sit in silence for an hour or so.
'But why?' as my mum asked this morning.
Because it is in the silence that they can reflect. It is in the silence that they can be spoken to by the divine (and when this happens it is called minister - if you are spoken to you're called to minister (to share) with the rest of the group the fruit of your contact which you have had with the divine).
So basically, they meditate.
They don't preach or plan to minister. This wouldn't be a form of contact with the divine - it would be just you wanting to share a product of your mind with the rest of the meeting.
I'm assuming (and I know one shouldn't assume, but I can't go on my own subjective experience) that when you're spoken to, you know it.
With today only being my fourth time attending the group (at Birdsedge, in a 17th century converted barn, surrounded by stunning landscapes) I'm without doubt still learning about Quakerism - and the Quaker elders will no doubt humbly say they too are still learning about what it is to be a Quaker.
The path of Self discovery is a never ending one, right?
Whilst sitting in the silence this morning my senses were awakened. I could hear the usual rumblings of stomachs from other sitters - plus my own. I could hear coughs and sniffs and people talking outside. I could also hear a great tit outside showing off by shouting, 'TEACHER! TEACHER!' repeatedly. Then I heard a pheasant squawk, and then to my surprise a woodpecker started to drill every four seconds or so. A wonderful sound. I just sat there and smiled to myself.
Then something interesting began to happen.
With my eyes shut I sunk into the darkness of my eye lids and felt my consciousness expand.
Slowly at first, it expanded to the rest of the meeting. Then it filled the room, not missing out a single crack in the wooden seats we were all sat on. Then it spread to outside - and outside is quite vast, you know! It included every noise. Every sensation. I could sense the interconnectedness between me and everything else.
I was everything else!
I became the birdsong. I became the plane flying overhead and it's hundreds of passengers. I became the clouds and the trees and the sun.
I was sat there with my eyes shut just smiling.
I lifted my eye lids and looked down at my body. It looked so small, but significant and beautiful.
Just like yours.
I don't call myself a Quaker, but I don't believe that matters. Quakers are grateful for people to show up and share that space with them. You just show up, shake hands with some wonderful people, sit and be patient in the silence. You practise being with others. Then you shake hands again, have a cup of tea, a biscuit and a chat.
As my friend, William West said, 'The space that Quakers offer is truly amazing'.
(If you'd like more info on Quakers and would maybe like to experience a meeting near you, go to http://www.quaker.org.uk/)