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The Individual and the Meeting
by Martha Paxson Grundy
Part 3 of 4
A somewhat different approach to the Quaker ideal realizes that the individual and the meeting are in balance. There is a healthy tension like that in a taut violin string. Seekers in the 1640s and 1650s lived in the almost unbearable tension “between visible churches and the invisible church, the particular and the universal, the already and the not yet, the conservative and the progressive.” Creative energy is released in a situation of healthy tension, and this was perhaps one of the most important aspects of early Friends’ experience.
Let’s look at both ends of this metaphorical violin string, first the individual, and then the group. Each end has its responsibilities, its role. In today’s more familiar psychological terms, each end has its particular needs and wants. But narrowing our understanding to this psychological view, if used exclusively, seriously diminishes our understanding of the larger spiritual dimension.
My assumption is that humans are created to be social animals, which means that it is very rare for one human being to come into the full fruition of human potential living entirely alone. The desert fathers and mothers in the fifth and sixth centuries fled into the wilderness to face down their own internal demons, but in time, one way or another, they did not remain isolated. Either they joined together in monastic communities, or others sought them out for spiritual direction. They supported themselves by simple crafts, which necessitated commercial interactions with other humans. Japanese survivors of the Second World War after twenty or more years hiding on Pacific islands could no longer stand the solitude and stumbled out of the jungle to face what they thought would be surrender and infamy. Prisoners under the supposedly benign punishment of solitary confinement often went mad. So I am not arguing but accepting as given that we humans must, some way or another, live together.
The individual needs a group, but what kind of a group will it be? This is one of the basic human questions of virtually any age: what is the right relationship between individuals and the group? What sort of group do we create in which we can best function? What structure will facilitate us becoming the people we were created to be?
Early Friends felt they were living in the new covenant, under Gospel order, which gave them a way to live in love with each other in community under the leadership of Christ. Their living would demonstrate to the rest of the world what the Kingdom of Heaven, breaking into history in their day, looks like. These terms, “new covenant” and “Gospel order,” which they used with great frequency, have lost much of their meaning for us today. The new covenant, that relation between God and God’s people in which God was to write Divine laws on the hearts of people, was experienced by Friends not as a set of internalized rules, but as a person: Christ Jesus. As Sandra Cronk wrote,
At the heart of Quaker faith is the understanding that one cannot live God’s new order alone. This is a sociological as well as a spiritual reality. It is necessary to have a community to embody a new pattern of living. A single person cannot live a new social pattern alone. . . .
Early Friends stressed that God’s new order was not present simply because people did all the “right” things in an outward sense; rather, God’s new order, gospel order, was present when people lived out of the fullness of their living relationship with Christ. Truth is not found by professing correct beliefs and correct actions while actually living outside the life and power of Christ.
But perhaps the reality of this profound transforming experience is too foreign to many who join Friends these days. Let’s raise the question of why individuals might want to join together with others in a Quaker meeting. The most obvious reason for Friends to come together is to worship. As Robert Barclay pointed out so descriptively,
Many lighted candles, when gathered together in a single place, greatly augment each other’s light and make it shine more brilliantly. In the same way, when many are gathered together into the same life, there is more of the glory of God. Each individual receives greater refreshment, because he partakes not only of the light and life that has been raised in him, but in the others as well.
When a group waits in expectant silence, with hearts and minds prepared and open, they can be gathered up by the Spirit to experience communion with God and with each other in a way that is not possible when praying or meditating alone. A time of covered worship is more than the sum of its individual participants.
Within the religious context of a Friends meeting the individual needs the group to be the laboratory in which he or she tests what he has learned about how to love, forgive, and give over to the greater good. Patricia Loring has eloquently spelled this out in Volume II of her Listening Spirituality. An important part of Quakerism
…is an implicit assertion that God's work in us is not confined to the solitude and privacy of our inward relationship in prayer and worship. A major arena for that work among Friends has been life together in spiritual community, in both worship and fellowship. . . . [This] means learning to live lovingly with and through the human frailties of others. Most especially, it means allowing our own frailties, faults and sins to be illuminated in the encounter with others—accepting the guidance of the Light to lead us out of our own darkness. . . . It can't be done by gritting our teeth and forcing ourselves to "be nice" any more than we can force ourselves to accept a theological dogma that has no meaning or logic for us.
[T]here are times of great sweetness, comfort and warmth in [communal life], even though we live this life together with people we might not have chosen for our beloved community. The mystery is that people’s inevitable differences give us openings for spiritual growth and maturing in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable, if not downright painful. The harmony, peace and tenderness we experience in favored times of worship are usually actualized only at the cost of revelatory confrontations with, and healing of, our own wounds, brokenness, willfulness and egotism—in encounter with the wounds, brokenness, willfulness and egotism of others. Staying with conflicting senses of God's will and Truth testifies to our trust in the healing and revelatory work of the Spirit of God within our very conflicts. Friends have cherished meeting community, both for the Life in it and as a prophetic witness to the rest of the world about the nature of God and the effect of God's transforming love. It is at once hard-won and a gift of grace.
As Sandra Cronk sums it up, “The internal life of the meeting-community, the church, was a reflection of the love and unity Friends felt in their relationship with God. Conversely, in the meeting they could know God’s power and love through one another.”
The facet of the relationship between an individual and the group having to do with gifts is pointed to in Paul’s epistles to the Romans and Corinthians. Each individual needs to expect and look for whatever gifts are given, great or small. The individual must be willing, with humility, gratitude, and awe, to try out these gifts within the group and learn how to rightly use them for the good of the faith community, for the “up-building of the church.”
The group, at the same time, needs to take up the high and weighty responsibility of overseeing and nurturing the spiritual life of individuals, both in terms of encouragement and in terms of setting limits and expectations. The group needs to expect and discover gifts and to encourage their right use. The group then gives authority to those whose gifts it has recognized, either explicitly or tacitly, to go forth and exercise those gifts. One small example among a wide spectrum of possible ways of exercising one of many diverse gifts is to counsel with those whose messages in meeting for worship give cause for concern.
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