All my life I have yearned for a deep experience of community. Perhaps this grew from my yearning to have a family in which I felt I belonged, and in which there was an experience of being heartfully present to each other. I was a pretty resilient kid, though. I made fine use of even a little bit of goodness. So I found my community in a Catholic school, and I knew just how to fit in: follow the rules, don't talk out of turn, and make sure you write JMJ (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) in the right hand corner of your paper, under your name. I fit in so well that in the eighth grade, I was asked to consider a vocation as a nun.
But, as I got older and got interested in boys, the charm of becoming a nun lost its luster. I went to high school, then to college and on into the professional world, and I was really lost for awhile in terms of community. I had my friends. I eventually had a husband and two wonderful boy children. Their father and I experimented with a community of renegade Catholic families who set up a house church and held our own liturgies. That was very satisfying for awhile, because this community was grounded in a shared experience of worship, social justice and peacemaking. Many of us had young children so there was a sense of shared community in childrearing. But there was inevitable conflict among us, and we had no good way of coping with that. We eventually split up.
When I attended my first Quaker meeting I sat in the silence with 30 other people, only a few with whom I had any acquaintance, and I felt at home. I don't think it was only because I was familiar with and opened by the Quaker style of worship. I think I felt at home because I sensed and felt included in the gathered meeting of that particular First Day.
Here is what it felt like. It was as if everyone in the room had been scooped up by the Hand of God, and that we were all being held tenderly, lovingly, peacefully. It was as if all fear, hopelessness, agitation, and concern had been drawn off without fuss, leaving only sweet calm. And what's more, it felt very different than how the peace that surpasses understanding feels when it comes to me alone. This was all of us, bundled up together, as if our individual lights had become one Light held at the center of the Sun. It made me weep.
I was soon to learn, however, that not every meeting for worship would be a gathered meeting, and that the community that existed outside of worship had a whole different feel. As I became more involved with Friends I tried to push the river, so to speak – to create a gathered meeting. I researched and talked, and tried to convince the Friends of my meeting to let go and let God so that we could experience more gathered meetings. But that really was just arrogance. The experience of God grows from a hunger of the soul; it is not a goal that can be achieved.
So eventually, I just let it be. Now I wait, expecting God to make herself known. I try to be faithful, to keep silence when the Inward Teacher silences me, and to give ministry when she gives me the words. I support the Friends of my meeting in following their bliss – to participate in spiritual formation groups, work with spiritual directors, meditate, do the inward work of healing and integrating, discern developing ministry, cooperate in service projects, eat together, teach our children, help each other. Everyone in my meeting is growing, including me, so I think we are doing something right.
And sometimes the grace of a gathered meeting is given. Thomas Kelly says the conditions for a gathered meeting include a number of Friends who come prepared in mind and heart to enter deeply into worship; and deep vocal ministry that continues, but does not break, the silence. I don't know if those are requirements. I've been in situations where the gathered meeting was sprung on us, even though we were all unprepared, and even after there was a vocal offering that broke the silence.
I just know that the gathered meeting is a grace, given not earned. I just know that it is the gathered meeting – and nothing else – that feeds my communal hunger so deeply that I am content to wait patiently for the gift of it. It is the only collective food that satisfies me.