Harbour or ocean?

19th November 2023

Does a Quaker Meeting for Worship feel like a safe place to be, or is it a place that makes demands on you, or even feels risky? That question came up recently, in a conversation comparing people's experiences of different faith groups. Someone said churches with a lot of ritual can feel safe because you can be in the congregation passively - all that is asked of you is your presence. Whereas in some other churches an active emotional or spiritual response is expected of those who attend. I answered that for my Quaker Meeting it is both safe and potentially risky.

Sitting still in a room with other people for an hour can feel like a bit of a challenge at first, but many find they settle into it quite quickly. Beyond that, what you do with the time is very much in your hands. There is no liturgy or ritual to listen to or watch, just the opportunity to go deeper, to feel connected with a group of people who are all, in their own ways, reaching out to what is beyond the everyday. It's about opening yourself inwardly. Waiting to feel whatever might come, whether from deep within us or from beyond us all. It can be hard to put into words what happens. A recent newcomer to our Meeting said over coffee afterwards that she had found a sense of peace. I often feel the same. Peace, reassurance, even being loved.

We are after all just sitting there, and how much we are willing to open ourselves is up to us. I really don't know whether to describe that process as being passive or active. It's a bit like deliberately relaxing your mental muscles. Quakers sometimes call it 'centering down'.

But that inward opening up can sometimes lead us to face difficult things. Perhaps the sense of safety that shared silence provides allows us to dare to go to mental spaces that we usually keep closed. Or we find ourselves more able to face up to some of the suffering in the world. We're somehow not facing these things alone. In the shared silence we may find ourselves more able to see a way to cope with our problems, or a practical thing we could do to help others. Quakers who get involved with work to make the world a better place will often say that they have a sense of 'leading' which originated within the quiet worship.

I once felt led to stand up in a Quaker Meeting for Worship and speak (what we call 'ministry' or 'spoken ministry') because what had come to me was an image of a harbour. Inside the harbour, the ship is safe from storms, but ships are not built to stay in the harbour. You can think of worship as the harbour, a haven from the 'real world' outside, maybe a place for a bit of repair work and re-stocking with provisions for the journey of the coming week. Checking the compass and the maps. But you can also look at it the other way round. Out in the ocean is where the depths are, and the winds of the Spirit. So maybe the harbour is our mundane, everyday world, and coming to Meeting is daring to set out beyond the harbour walls, a voyage into the unknown?

Helen Drewery