About five years ago, a professor at my first seminary asked me if I was a Quaker. “In my heart,” I responded, timidly but quickly, without any substantial hesitation.
Unsatisfied with my answer, almost impatiently, he asked, “What are you in your mind?”
I wanted to answer, “Quaker,” but I didn’t, for that was more complicated. I paused. He rephrased, “What denomination are you officially a part of?”
That was easy. “None,” I told him. “I have no official denomination.” I wanted to say something about the hallway, but I didn’t.
“Well, Quaker works then.”
It almost sounded dismissive, and maybe it was, but believing that the heart of it was good-natured, I smiled—but he didn’t see my smile, for he had already walked off.
As I was processing my recent experiences, assessing my current answer to this person’s question, I kept remembering a scene from an Evangelical youth group I attended a few times when I was in sixth grade. I remember almost nothing significant from these experiences except this one scene from this one night. I think about it all the time.
That night, the worship team decided to skip the “message” and continue to play songs because everyone was feeling it. Or because God was feeling it; I don’t know.
Rarely or never engaged in regular worship, I was even less engaged during this extended version. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I felt emotionally manipulated: the lights were off, and the band played mostly in the light of the projectors on either side of the stage; the songs were simple, romantic, even sappy; and the worship pastor’s voice changed in an attempt to create or reflect some sense of holiness in the room.
I was sitting and observing the scene silently when I noticed someone crying in a seat not too far from mine. I moved over to them in the dark and recognized a girl a year or two older who had been kind to me a few weeks back. I sat down next to her, and she lifted her head to smile at me before putting it back in her hands to resume weeping. I was confused; is she or isn’t she fine? I waited a minute or two, and then I gently asked if she was okay.
I will never forget the way she sat up and glared at me. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t need to—I heard everything clearly. I understood immediately that she was crying because “God” had “touched her”—I felt those quotation marks deep in my soul even then—and that there was nothing more than that going on inside of her. Her eyes seemed to say both “What is wrong with you?” and “You don’t get it.”
“No, I don’t get it,” I thought to myself as I leaned back in my chair, as she put her head back in her hands. I was horrified, not by her glare or the likelihood that we would never speak again, not even by the fact that I had committed some sort of embarrassing youth group faux pas. It was the sudden awareness that I was different, not emotionally in-tune with God, I guess. Not spiritual—or not spiritual like them. Not religious. Not Christian?
I still feel this way sometimes when I’m around Quakers, like there’s something I’m lacking, like there’s some significant disconnect. I don’t get it. I’m not deep enough, not spiritual enough, not reverent or silent enough (though I am not, to be clear, the least bit loud).
There is a level of cliquishness within Quaker communities, sometimes a rather high level, and I have been wondering if I will always be asking myself that question: “What is wrong with me?” What is wrong with me that I don’t think that silence is so special that it can’t be interrupted? What is wrong with me if I think that the Other, or whatever is being listened to and waited for, will speak or move anyway?
Maybe it isn’t just me—maybe every Quaker knows the feeling of accidentally walking into a silent room, of interrupting Sacred Classroom Silence with a question, or worst of all, of destroying any measure of silence with an involuntary digestion noise. On that note, when I complained to a friend recently that I didn’t feel comfortable in such silence, that I was tired of it, he asked, “Do you not like Quaker silence or does your stomach not like Quaker silence?” He had a point, but I suspect the answer is both.
I once arrived at a Quaker facility late, intentionally skipping worship, for I had a long day ahead of me and not much energy. When I walked into the building, I saw that the door to the worship area was closed, but there were a few people waiting patiently and quietly outside of it. I whispered a question to a woman near me, unsure of what to do, and she glared at me—the kind of glare that lasts—and pointed to something I should pick up. The subtext was: grab that, then sit down and shut up.
Is the silence so holy that we can’t smile at an awkward stranger and try to make them feel at ease, or at least avoid causing dis-ease? If the answer is yes, that’s fine. I get it. I respect it, and I’ll try harder to honor it—to sit down and shut up. But I want nothing to do with it.
I keep thinking about how certain I was that this would become my home.
It seemed to me that Quakerism had the potential to be the one room in “Christianity” that would allow space for a hallway-dweller like me, space for any person to be authentic about what they are and are not able to accept, about where they are or are not in their “spiritual pilgrimage.” It was more than that, like the way I substituted words like Light and Real for God years before I even knew what a Quaker was, but that was the crux of it.
I was reminded of this quality, this theoretical spaciousness, when I sat in a small group recently and debriefed with a classmate. I admitted that the class we were taking, that I loved and appreciated in multiple ways and on multiple levels, seemed to be confirming to me that I wasn’t meant to be a Quaker. It wasn’t about the professor or the course content but the practices woven into it all.
It’s too intimidating, I told her. Everything is taken too seriously. The silence is too heavy. There are too many spoken and unspoken rules—I can’t function. If I were allowed to just be a Quaker in my heart, that would be fine, but I don’t know if I can be a Quaker in community.
These are the three quotes I wrote down, bits of humorous wisdom she offered throughout my mini rant:
“You have to understand: Quakers do whatever they want.”
“If it’s Quaker to you, then it’s Quaker.”
“Quakers believe in that, changing the rules when needed.”
I asked a seasoned Quaker to rate these statements on a scale of 1-10, not so true to very true, and they were all perfect 10s (if only in theory).
What does this mean? In one sense, I am still figuring that out. At minimum, it is permission for me to continue to be a Quaker in my heart, if I want—and it is permission to view that as Quaker enough.