On (Not Being) Moved by the Spirit

WA Reflection for 2/25/18

In 2003, when I was a junior in college, I got to spend a semester studying at Oxford University in England. The walk from the house that I shared with three other American undergrads to New College, where I met with my professors, took me down St. Giles’s Street past two significant landmarks: the Oxford Quaker Meeting House and The Eagle and Child, which is the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien would meet with other writers to eat, drink, and read unfinished drafts of their work.

I’ll admit that I visited the pub before stepping foot into the Quaker Meeting House, but from the start I was intrigued by the Quakers. I had read about their radical history, their pacifist reputation, and the egalitarian structure of their worship—with no official clergy or minister, on Sundays the Quaker society of “Friends” sits in simple benches arranged in a circle around the room. Quakerism holds that each individual has a direct relationship with the divine, with God, and so their “service” consists of a meditative silence punctuated by congregation members who speak “when the spirit moves them to speak.”

Up to this point in my life, I had attended church only when visiting my grandparents for extended periods, and even then, my family tried to weasel out of it. When asked about my religion or faith, I would identify as an “optimistic agnostic”—meaning that I had no idea if there was or wasn’t a God, but that I hoped for the best.

Before the first Quaker service I attended, the friends welcomed me, explained the basics of their theology and worship practices, and even invited me to speak during their meeting—when the spirit moved me to do so.

“When the spirit moved me to speak?” What did that mean? How would I know? Would God whisper in my ear, and if he did, would it be the full text, or crib notes? Or would it be subtle? Would the ether begin to hum?

I was mostly drawn to Quaker meeting through the allure of sitting in silence with other people. (This same impulse lead me to Buddhism later in life.) But I went to each Sunday’s meeting alive to the possibility that, sometime, the spirit might move me to speak. Sitting in silence with the congregation, I contemplated what it would mean for the spirit to move me to speak. I was 20 years old, so I knew just about everything, yet I somehow intuited that the intent of this spiritual practice was not to for me explain things to other people.

Truthfully, though several people would speak at each meeting, I don’t remember a single thing any of them said. But I do remember how they spoke. One woman, in particular, remains in my memory. Rising from the pew, her eyes half open, curly brown hair falling at her shoulders, she swayed gently back and forth and. Spoke. One. Word. At. A. Time. As though tugging at a thread. no one. could see. It reminded me of improvised jazz, but slower, halting, and without the safety net of an established rhythm or melody.

For three months, I sat in the meeting house and waited for the spirit to move me to speak. I never spoke. Whether I was not touched by the divine, or just shy, I can’t say. I wanted to speak, but the time never felt right. The call didn’t come.

In fact, not feeling called may have been a more important spiritual lesson, for the most profound moments of service occurred when I could hear nothing but the soft breath of the congregation. And this is fitting, because the Latin root of the word “spirit” is spirare, meaning “breathe.” And it was while sitting in the meeting house, a 19th century building of wood and stone, that I first learned that just breathing can be a spiritual practice—one that takes a lifetime to master at that.

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