I’m here at New England Yearly Meeting Sessions, the big annual Quaker business session and gathering for worship. This year is unusual, in that the agenda-driven business sessions that normally shape the rhythms of our time together have been subsumed, mostly, in a much more open-ended “Meeting to Hear God’s Call”–a kind of back-to-basics discernment session about our spiritual condition and where we may be being led by Spirit, as a body.
My attention, however, has been much less on the spiritual condition of my meeting, and much more on myself. Since I arrived here on Saturday, I have been wrestling with almost overwhelming feelings of self-doubt, excoriating shame, stupidity, and a temptation to be severely critical of others.
This feeling has alternated with moments of extraordinary grace and quiet strength, in which I have found my heart more open and intuitive to the needs and longings of others than I can ever before remember being, and moments so filled with the Spirit of the Holy that I have half-expected to see Light burst from beneath my fingernails and shine out through my open eyes.
I have been teetering on the lip of a new level of spiritual maturity, seeing men and women around me clearly, both in their gifts and in their folly, able to love them deeply and fully in one moment, without sentiment or illusion… and the next moment, finding it all I can do to hear them and care for them at all in the wash of my shame and self-consciousness.
I am passing through yet another spiritual adolescence, and I don’t like it much… though today I am beginning to hope I have traveled through my adolescence, and I’m emerging on the other side. It has not been an easy journey.
Like all adolescents, I’ve been alternating between idealizing and judging the “grown ups” around me. Unlike biological adolescents, I’ve been down this road before, and I’ve known from the beginning of my association with Quakers that the day would come when I would see their faults and follies in such a clear focus that I would be capable of forgetting the things they do right, or to hold each individual Friend in a kind of regard of mercy, understanding how impossible it is to move through life without hurting anyone, ever. We all blunder; we all hurt each other. Only the adolescent believes otherwise, or thinks that they themselves will be held to such a standard.
There are so many Friends here I want to engage in deep conversations with. I want to be fully present to an absolute laundry list of remarkable Quakers, men and women I will likely not even get to see again until next year. I’ve had a wonderful, growthful year, and I want to share it with them. What’s more, I want to be seen by them, loved by them, given a chance to give them my love in return–and admitted to a kind of full adult friendship I don’t think I was quite capable of before this year.
I’m almost a grown-up, now, in “Quaker years” to coin a phrase. I’m almost ready to be giving something back, to the people who have given me so much. I want to sit with the grown-ups, and be real to them and real myself, open and transparent to Spirit.
And a lot of that is happening. I’ve had some amazing heart-to-heart talks, and amazing quick conversations punctuated by a hug, or even just a brush of the hand. I had a brief conversation on Sunday, for instance, with Viv Hawkins, one of two plenary speakers, and a woman whose warmth and genuineness in ministry is as rich and good as the smell of sunlight on loam. She asked gently after some of the sources of the sadness I was feeling on that day. Her questions and her attention were wonderful, but more wonderful still was just the ordinary touch of her hand against my wrist as she made some passing remark. She was so simply present in that moment, to me and to God, that it made my whole heart still and glad.
There have a lot of moments like that, and I’m aware that I have given as well as received that kind of presence. Moments of grace, as I said.
But at other moments, my damned teenaged awkwardness has gotten in my way.
Two days ago, feeling as naked and skinless as a newborn, but also filled with love and a sense of Spirit, I got a chance to walk between commitments with my friend Will T. It was really just the down-payment on a longer conversation we were able to have later, and I hope my perception was correct, that despite his busy-ness at Sessions, the company was welcome.
But then, moving to give him a hug goodbye as we parted, I stepped on his foot.
Pretty hard, I’d guess. I wouldn’t know for sure, unfortunately, because I was in hiking boots. (He, of course, was in sandals. Is there some cosmic law that this must always be the way?)
That’s such a perfect metaphor for what it is like to be a human being, trying to be in a loving, friendly spiritual connection with another human being. Even when we are guarding with all of our strength, all of our vigilance, all of our love against harming each other, we are apt to come down hard on each others’ toes. Right at the moment we mean best.
Will, of course, was good-natured about it. I, however, was mortified.
Unreasonably so, actually. But you know, it’s one thing to know that in your head, and it’s another thing to overcome your adolescent self-doubt long enough to be able to let something like that go. Now, out there in the world, I could have put that blunder behind me with a laugh and an apology. Here, trying so hard to live without armor, I am without the instincts that keep me from wounding myself.
It turns out that when you take off your skin to try to get really, really open to other people, you not only feel every bump and bruise and careless touch of theirs against your own vulnerable baby soul, but you feel every wound you inflict on them, too.
And we inflict those wounds on each other all the time.
What clumsiness of mine have I missed, in my eagerness and gladness to greet Friends or rejoice in Spirit–or even just in tiredness, humanness, ordinariness?
My teenaged self is ashamed. My spiritually adult self is beginning to know–really to know–this is just how it is, and that it needs to be accepted, acknowledged, and released. My emerging spiritual maturity understands that this is really a lesson in the absolute imperative of forgiveness and mercy.
(Don’t worry–I have forgiven myself for stepping on Will’s toes. I’m pretty sure he’s forgiven me, too–though I think he’s entitled to stand a little farther away from me if I hug him again while in steel-toed shoes.)
The advantage of growing up is gaining an empathic inner eye, one with perspective that can level out the bumps and valleys with a little hard-won wisdom. Wrestling with my own feelings of shame and stupidity lets me see other people more clearly. And one of the things I’m watching unfold before me at sessions is a parade of men and women who, like me, find themselves a bit overwhelmed by their vulnerability here. We truly are trying to live into the Kingdom of Love–and that’s something that’s very hard to do, in a world that teaches us to wear our armor even among our closest friends. We who are trying to move beyond being defended castles of one into becoming members of one another are doing something new, and we are feeling more, loving more, grieving more than most of us are really in condition for just yet. We get tired. We get hurt. And we too easily imagine we are the only ones in pain, the only ones who wonder if our spiritual gifts will be welcomed, if the love that we want to give one another will be acceptable.
Jan Hoffman delivered a memorable message on the pain of spiritual gifts not accepted by our communities; whether gifts of ministry or eldering or healing or just love and tenderness.
Whether through error, a rejection of what seems too far from our understanding, or simply through the ordinary bumps and bruises of a life in Spirit where some of us are in sandals and some of us can’t quite see where our boot-tips are landing, our gifts are not always welcomed, let alone drawn out and nurtured, in this community.
It hurts when it happens to you.
And it’s going to happen to you.
There’s not a damn lot we can do about that, except keep trying: keep trying to give, keep trying to receive, keep trying to stay skinless and real and loving with one another, and to reject that little voice in the backs of our minds that suggests that we’re the only ones who have been hurt like this, or that those who have hurt us did it on purpose, are Bad Friends, unloving, unfeeling, unkind.
Mostly, it won’t be true. And even when it is, it’s not going to change by judging and labeling it. It’s going to change through tenderness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness.
And, yeah, telling the other guy to get off our foot–or going back to our meetings and reaffirming we’ve got a ministry, or a need, or a problem that is being forgotten. Plain speech belongs in the equation.
But always, always, remembering to let love be the first motion.
The more I see of ministry and eldering in action, the more I see gifts in both that never become ripe. Because the bearer of the gift had been hurt… and had not been courageous in forgiveness.
We must be giants in forgiveness–giving it, asking it, receiving it, accepting it. Or we will not be able to carry the gifts we bear.