The Work in the Middle

This past week, I got to share my spiritual journey with my Quaker meeting.

I’ve shared a written version of my journey before, here, at Quaker Pagan Reflections.  However, I’ve never attempted to describe my religious path in person before.  It took me a little while to figure out how I needed to approach it.

My invitation was one in a series of talks at Mt. Toby Meeting, and on the one hand, there was nothing unusual about it.  On the other hand, it seemed to me that sharing the story of how I have experienced the movement of Spirit in my life is a form of ministry… and I’m committed to the Friends’ idea that even a prepared message needs to rise from a spiritual prompting.

“Ministry” in a Quaker context is usually taken to mean vocal ministry: the messages given out of the silence of expectant waiting that forms the heart of a Quaker meeting.  The idea is not unlike the Wiccan practice of Drawing Down the Moon, though it differs dramatically that in most unprogrammed meetings, there is no one who has been designated in advance to carry that responsibility for the group.  Instead, each person centers down in worship, opening themselves to the Spirit that gathers us.  Sometimes, just the experience of being gathered is given to us.  That’s not a disappointment: often, those fully silent meetings are the deepest communions of all.  But more often, one or more people feel a nudge to speak a message that seems to come from somewhere not entirely within themselves.  After testing to see that the message is not from our own egos, we stand and share the words that come to us.

And there are also “prepared messages” which Quakers are sometimes asked to give, either in a pastoral meeting (yep–there are Quakers who have ministers!) or as a keynote speech or for some other occasion.  And here, too, though the minister may be working from an outline or from notes, they’ll be striving both as they prepare the message and as they share it to stay low and to stay open to the promptings of Spirit.  What is the message which that exact group of Friends gathered together, at that exact moment, is meant to hear? It’s important for the minister to allow herself to be surprised by new openings at any moment.

Sharing my spiritual journey with my own monthly meeting isn’t exactly the same as any of those forms of ministry.  But it felt close enough that it was important to me to stay in that place of openness.  I most definitely did not want to simply recite the outline of events I’ve written about before; that would have felt like a cheat.

Happily, I had very little time to prepare what I was going to say.  I didn’t even have time to review my journals or re-read my blog posts, because it was the last week of the school year.  All I had time to do was hold the event in my heart during my morning meditations, and to talk about it very briefly with my spiritual accountability group.

On the morning of the talk, I’d figured out that I would be focusing on my life as a Quaker-and-Pagan.  I knew that there was enough to talk about that I might not even get to discussing my life as a Quaker if I stuck with chronological order–so I didn’t.  I began by talking about becoming a Friend, and about what being a Quaker offers me that being a Pagan doesn’t, and about how I have been changed by Quaker life.

The version that emerged I called “A Quaker Pagan Love Story in Three Gods and Some Music.” I told it within a cast circle, and I shared Pagan songs that reflected my relationships with the gods as I talked of them.

The storytelling went well.

It went very well.  I could feel the Presence of God/the gods and of my gathered community through the entire experience. I felt held and I felt upheld, and the story flowed out of me like a clear spring from a hillside.  It felt great.

And then, afterwards, many people came up to me to talk about how moved they had been, how powerful the story had been, and how much the story had meant to them.  Which was very kind of them to say–but also somewhat disconcerting.

See, I really had not been the one telling the story.

I don’t mean I’d been channeling a god or a goddess, nor that the story had been–quite–vocal ministry.  But by coming together in the way that we did, with everyone there open to God and the gods, my community as deeply committed to hearing the story as I had been to sharing it as honestly and freely as possible… something very different from a good storytelling performance occurred.

Between us, my community and I were faithful to the promptings of Spirit. We created a space for Spirit together that none of us could have created alone.

There were several people who were acting as “elders”–in Quaker terms, those Friends who center down in Spirit to hold the space, ground the ministry, and to draw forth the gifts that are needed in that moment.  I saw them and I felt them at work, and a few of them mentioned it afterwards.  (Peter was partially Drawn Down–”cloaked”–with the Horned God while I spoke of Him. It was interesting to hear what that experience had been like.)

But even those who were not consciously helping to draw the story forth were listening with the kind of deep faithfulness that pulled a corresponding faithfulness from me.  I told several people who thanked me or praised me for my story that it felt like a collaboration; it was not me telling the story, it was all of us.  I don’t think I was exaggerating.

This is what a spiritual community can do when we understand how to put the Work in the middle.

It’s not about the one carrying the gift; it’s not about the ones receiving it.  It’s about being mutually faithful to the Gift Itself–and to the Ardagh chaliceSpirits that create it in us.  When we can do that together, keep the Work, the Spirit in the middle, whatever we are doing together is like a deep chalice.  We fill it up and we watch it overflow.   Everyone is bathed by Spirit–and it was never about the minister.  That kind of faithful spiritual collaboration is about the Life that comes in when all the elements are combined in loving balance: earth with seed with sun and water and time.  Life.

I feel a tiny bit shy, sharing this with you today.  Will you think I am boasting about my talents?  Will you think I am puffing up an experience because it was mine?  I do hope not.  What I need you to know is that this kind of grace is not a product or a performance, and it is not the property of the one who brought it to the door, any more than the UPS man deserves credit for a package he delivers.

This week, I got to tell the story of my religious life to one of my religious communities.  Tomorrow, someone else may have this same experience working in a soup kitchen or visiting a sick friend.  There’s a way in which the details don’t matter.  It’s the coming together in faithfulness is the thing that brings Life–listening for and following the promptings of the Spirit of Love and Truth.

All we have to do together is to remember: keep the Work in the middle.

About Cat Chapin-Bishop

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