Image courtesy of John Hall
22nd March 2023
The first day I tried a Quaker meeting I got there early, but I didn’t go inside. I crossed to the other side of the road and sat on a wall. I was nervous. I felt scared that someone might tell me I had to read the Bible, or corner me with a piece of religious nonsense of their own invention. I wasn’t sure I could trust what I’d read about these Quakers.
I watched them arrive – just a trickle of people at first, then more and more until there were perhaps fifty inside. They had kind, expressive faces and they all looked happy to be there.
The meeting was due to start at eleven. With a minute to go, my heart started to beat faster. ‘OK, I’ll go in,’ I thought. I had nothing to lose. So, at thirty seconds to eleven, I walked smartly across the road and through the front door. Someone shot their hand out to welcome me, but I hurried past them into the meeting-room. There was a free seat just inside the door, so I sat down. Good for a quick getaway.
The meeting began. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever been to, because someone was playing a radio at full blast just outside the window, but I soon realised that I absolutely did not want to leave. There was peace there, despite the racket. And humour too, despite the seriousness of the occasion. And there was wisdom in the words of the people who stood up to speak. I loved it.
After that first experience, I kept going back. There were always around fifty people in the room, but for the first six weeks I never spoke to anyone. I left as soon as the meeting was over, because I still had a tremor of fear that somebody might try to convert me. It was enough for the moment to sit with them and be part of the spiritual encounters we were all sharing.
And yet, for all that, I was storing up questions. How could these meetings work with no one in charge? Where was the statement of Quaker beliefs? Did I have to be a pacifist? Did I have to join? I wasn’t getting answers to these questions, because I wasn’t staying long enough to ask. It was a stupid situation of my own making, but I was just too nervous and diffident to break my self-imposed deadlock.
It might have gone on like that for months, but in my seventh week a friendly Quaker broke the ice. The meeting had been a good one and I was about to make my customary dash for the exit, when the young man sitting next to me turned a little in his chair. He said, ‘I’ve noticed you here for a few weeks now. How are you finding it?’ Well, I could hardly slope off then. So I took a breath. I summoned up the first of a growing list of my uncertainties. I said, ‘I’m enjoying it,’ and paused, ‘but… I find it odd that there’s no spiritual direction here.’
He smiled and looked me straight in the eye. He said, ‘Yes, it is odd, isn’t it?’ He didn’t add anything. He didn’t explain. And suddenly, seven weeks in, I knew I wanted to stay. He hadn’t said, ‘Ah, that’s interesting because we Quakers have no hierarchy’, or ‘Yes, with Quakers, spiritual direction comes from the whole meeting’. Both of those answers would have been true, but not right for me then.
Instead, I had been listened to. He hadn’t tried to persuade me of anything, but there was a hint that there might be more for me to find out if I stayed. He implied new mysteries to come. And, as it turned out, there were.
And that day, for the first time, I hung on and met some Quakers. And none of them told me to read the Bible. And none of them spouted any religious nonsense. It was the start of one of the great adventures of my life.
Geoffrey Durham (Adapted from his book Being a Quaker: a guide for newcomers)