A few weeks ago, at the Meeting House, Zach was breathing too loudly while he was sitting in quiet contemplation for the still small voice of God. A woman in front of us, panicked but also terrible, kept turning around. Zach’s eyes were closed, because, again, as I said, he was sitting in quiet contemplation for the still small voice of God that comes from within. His breathing shouldn’t have been a prob– I’m getting ahead of myself, or at least away from the story I want to tell.
So, a few weeks ago, at the Meeting House, Zach was breathing too loudly and this woman was losing her mind. Zach finally opened his eyes for a moment — I think someone was giving a testimony — and the woman began to artlessly sign at him not because she was deaf or hard of hearing, or even that she thought Zach was, but because the strict letter of the law in a Quaker Meeting House is silence, unless you’re moved to speak. She was following the letter by silently, yet animatedly, gesturing for him to not exhale.
Zach didn’t know what she was going on about.
“What’s she going on about?” he asked me. I maintained eye contact with the woman in front of him, our itinerant signer, and said, in a normal speaking voice not whispered for a Meeting: “She hates that you’re breathing.”
My religious background — what little there is — and my social background — what even littler — are sort of Southern Baptist. My mom is from Arkansas and has, even in the dark thick of Alzheimer’s, the full recipe for the best fried chicken you’ll ever eat, as well as a passive-aggressive spin for everything. She once said a baby was as cute as it could be — and that wasn’t a compliment. Another time, describing a relative’s two-year-old: “I could love her more if I saw less of her.” Visiting my house — actually, the first time she visited a house I was living in — she walked in, looked at the clutter (that looked tidy to me), ran her finger across the top of a dusty bookcase, and said, “Y’all must be so busy.”
I paint this picture because what I desperately wanted to do during the time of the meeting where we hold people who need healing in the light, is to stand and say, “I’d like to hold Laura, sitting in front of me, in the light. Her ears are giving her fits like to ruin her life. Sensitive to breathing, you see.”
But I didn’t. Because I was raised right*.
[* I was not.]
Earlier this week, after Meeting, I went up to that day’s Friendly Ear. (It all gets sort of Gileadish, what with its Friendly Ear and Gilead’s Under His Eye, but may the Lord open, they are totally different.) I wanted to find out if there was a group of local Quakers who read the Bible together. And then it all got sort of escalated?
I’ll quote from some email exchanges, but leave names out.
First, I’ll try to describe the in-person interaction:
Mike: I was wondering if there was some sort of group that meets together to read the Bible here?
Ear: Oh. I. Erm. I.
Mike: I have a directory — should I just look there?
She decides I need to speak with this other person, who is on the Religious Education Committee. It takes some time to find her. Some said she had already left. Some said she was by the punch. She did turn up, but from where remains an ineffable mystery unless you ask her directly, then you’d know.
Ineffable Mystery: Hi, I hear I’m being looked for!
Ear: Yes. This young man is interested in Bible study.
Ineffable Mystery: Oh. I. Erm.
Ear: That’s what I said!
Ineffable Mystery: That’s not really something we have. We have a lovely library, and a book group. Is that what you mean?
Mike: No, I mean, those are great, but I’m interested in a weekly group of some number of people who get together and read the Bible.
Ineffable Mystery: So you have experience teaching the Bible?
Mike: No — and that’s not what I am looking for. This is really more like a book group, but for the Bible.
Ear: Oh, we have a book group! Maybe you didn’t know about that?
Mike: I don’t want to read The Kite Runner is the thing. I just want to read the Bible. With other Quakers. Together.
Ineffable Mystery: Well, I don’t know if that’s something I would be into or not.
Ear: Yeah, it’s not something we do. We have a different relationship with the Bible.
Ineffable Mystery: Yeah.
Mike: [channeling his mother, Patricia Kelly] Okay. Well, it sounds like my church isn’t the place to read the Bible and I’ll figure something else out.
— FIN —
So, to the emails. First, the Ear wrote me:
I have been thinking about your question of having a reading group on the Bible partly because I think Ineffable Mystery and I gave you a pretty inadequate response. [Several] things have occurred to me since:
1. Although many Quakers are extremely knowledgeable about the Bible and would appreciate having the opportunity to reflect on passages together, there may not be many of them [here]. On the other hand, there may be some who would be delighted to know of your interest and a new group may form. To that end, if you would send me a brief description of what you have in mind, I would be happy to forward it to everyone…asking them to be in touch with you.*
[* This is literally all I wanted from the very beginning. Just that. Ask others! Some may, some may not!]
2. I mentioned the Spiritual Formation program at the rise of Meeting and this is a program in which small groups within the Meeting get together twice a month to share reflections on spiritual readings, which certainly could include the Bible.* You may wish to become a part of that program.
[* My heart sank here, dear reader, when I thought, “Fuck. I bet they read The Alchemist.”]
I replied with my bona fides and a bit more about what I was interested in accomplishing.
Friendly Ear! This email was so wonderful! Thank you. I felt bewildered (through my own fault) when I left our conversation last Sunday. This email really helped. I’m also just generally socially awkward; however, I’m also stunningly handsome. God doesn’t give with both hands. (I KID.)
A bit about me: I have been coming to Meetings for about 2 months now. I am new to Quakerism, and new, really, to religion. But everyone has been so warm and welcoming; I really feel I made the right choice.
My day job is in Regulatory Financial Compliance: I make sure banks and creditors and collection agencies stay on the right side of the law. I love it because it involves knowing the rules and explaining them — two things of which I am inordinately fond.
My passion, though, is in literature. I read an upsetting amount. I have been lucky enough to have run the library’s Classics in Context program for the past 12 years. It is one of the more popular reading groups offered by the library, and I get to read with some incredibly intelligent people. I have never left a book discussion with any of my assumptions about the book intact.
I have also been privileged to be invited to lecture to a variety of audiences, primarily on 19th century history, culture, and literature. I have lectured to the Victorian Society of North American, Washington D.C. chapter; The Gay & Lesbian Alliance; Oasis Lifelong Learning; and for Bethesda Live & Learn. Where I am most interested is in how people perform certain actions. I call it performative morality and actual morality when I’m talking about how the Victorians acted towards, say, the poor.
What I am hoping for is one of these two options:
1) An already-existing Bible group who read the Bible from a Quaker perspective, but with room for personal readings people may come with. (It sounds like this doesn’t exist.)
2) A need for one, and I could facilitate it.
My interest is not at all in saying, “This is what this passage means,” or posing in any way like an expert. I’m as confused by the Bible as anyone else — and that’s what is so intriguing to me about this project. It’s a chance for me to hear many other interpretations, among people, other Quakers, whom I love and respect.
This can all be done entirely free. And it would mean a lot to me as a new member to use the Quaker space as a spiritual home.
I’m available for any questions or follow-ups you may have.
This didn’t get me any closer to where I wanted to be.
I just found this excellent bibliography of Quaker-oriented Bible study books and courses:
I would be glad to talk further with you about your thoughts about this.
Thank you so much! I will read through these.
In case this wasn’t clear: it’s not that I’m confused about the Bible and looking for experts. I thought that a group of like-minded people, reading a book like the Bible and other texts*, might enrich each other with their personal thoughts and reactions.
[* I’ll be honest here: I threw in that “other texts” nonsense because I thought they’d be more interested/receptive if they thought I’d bring in some Eckankar, a religion I know about only because a straight boy I was obsessed with named Johnny was an Eckist so I’d like my Comparative Religions doctorate now please and thank you.]
If a Bible reading group doesn’t feel at all like a good fit, that is fine! I don’t need special accommodations; I just like reading and sharing ideas and the Bible has some common currency among us.
I wasn’t supposed to send the above email. I had met with my therapist yesterday (Tift Pelias, if you’re in the market; tell him Mike sent you!), and talked about how my go-to strategy is to react, rather than respond, when I’m feeling aggrieved. React is sort of following your body’s lead, which isn’t a problem necessarily when your mind and your body are functioning as a team. My brain and body function as a buddy cop movie with none of the fun stuff included and the cops hate each other. When I react, it’s almost always based on bad, biased information. Responding, however, is taking your reaction, and a moment, and sitting with both. Ask if what you’re feeling is true, or if it’s just convenient. (Sometimes anger is a convenient feeling or me because it justifies my bad mood and terrible behavior.)
So, I was going to start practicing responding over reacting and I was going to write out my email response, quoted above, put it aside, read it to Zach (this is key; he keeps me in check), and then discuss how I’m feeling and if the message I’m sending is the message I meant. I was going to start that; but then I hit send rather than close and I’ve been saying, “It was by mistake,” and I may even say that that is the truth — but I’m new to not being an asshole so it very well may have been that it was That Mike who said, “Fuck it.”
So, it was perfect when the last email I received before I decided to disengage until a later date, said this:
Hi, Mike – here is an article that describes “A Quaker Approach to the Bible.” You might find it interesting.
I DO NOT WANT A QUAKER APPROACH TO THE BIBLE. I DO NOT WANT ANY APPROACH TO THE BIBLE. I ONLY WANTED A GROUP OF PEOPLE WITH A COMMON SPIRITUAL BELIEF TO COME TOGETHER ON THE REGULAR AND SAY, “Hey, guys, that story about the binding of Isaac. Man. What do you make of that?”
THAT’S WHAT I WANTED.
When I was reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins (bonus poem by that guy at the end of all this), the biographer mentioned, several times, that Hopkins could not be an Anglican at all — he hungered, too much, for the actual body and blood of Christ. (“Food for the journey,” I read, once. A woman’s husband was in hospice and she made sure he received the Host every day and I find that such a beautiful and profoundly transforming story.) In Anglicanism, it’s all metaphorical. For Catholicism, which Hopkins was inexorably drawn towards, it’s literal. (Flannery O’Connor on Mary McCarthy and the Eucharist: “Mrs. Broadwater [Mary McCarthy’s married name] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”)
My hunger isn’t for the Host at all. Catholicism is, for me, best understood as a mystery that I am glad exists, but have no interest in engaging. But my hunger is for the Bible, and the Quakers are VERY weird about it.
Some of that might be where the Bible sits within Quakerism, which is shakily, and off to the side. Quakers see the Bible as an interesting document of God’s revelations from a specific time and place; they do not see it at all as an item that bears any more weight than today’s revelations experienced during a Quaker Meeting. In fact, primacy of the Bible can be seen to undermine today’s revelations from God.
But I have yet to hear, at a Quaker Meeting, anything so lovely as “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). It’s mostly well-meaning white people wanting to perform responsibility. Several meetings, someone will stand up and either announce their intention of going to the border to help with the family issue, or someone will stand up and say, “My heart is breaking because I know I can do good at the border for those families, but I do not have the resources to get there.” This all smacks a little of Mrs Jellyby, obsessed with an obscure African tribe, rather than proferring help to those in London or even, God forbid, her own children. The help we want to give — the showy, busy, selfless work — is rarely the help that is needed. And the help that is needed is often boring, with no glamour to it.
So, what is to be done? I don’t know. I want to continue my spiritual journey towards/with God; however, I am worried that maybe the Quakers aren’t the home for me that I want. Which puts me in the wonderfully awkward position of visiting a local Baptist church this Sunday. I know they read the Bible there.
Pied Beauty — Gerard Manley Hopkins
Glory be to God for dappled things— For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.