Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - Z for Zzzzz (Sleeping in Meeting)

The possibility of falling asleep during meeting for worship has been seen as something to be guarded against from the early days of the Quaker movement. As early as 1656 George Fox writes in one of his epistles, 'All Friends everywhere take heed of slothfulness and sleeping in your meetings, for in so doing you may be bad examples to others'.

One charitable excuse given by a modern commentator for being overtaken by sleep is that 'Drowsiness at these meetings may have arisen from people who led physically active lives, usually outdoors or in unheated rooms, having an opportunity to sit at ease in a room which was probably heated by a fireplace'. Perhaps another reason was that they, like the young Samuel Bownas in the late 1690s, were at meeting because it was expected of them rather than because of their own conviction.

Throughout the 18th century travelling ministers and other 'weighty Friends' urged Quakers to guard against sleep both for their own sake and to avoid giving a bad impression to others. A letter written to New Jersey Friends in 1704 advises 'Friends all take heed of sleeping, sottishness and dullness in Meetings for it is an illsavoury thing to see one sit nodding in a Meeting,and so to lose the sense of the Lord and shamefacedness both; and it grieveth the upright and watchful, that wait upon the Lord, to see such things, and for the Priests, people and others that come into your Meetings, to see you that come together to worship God and wait upon him, to have fellowship in His Spirit, for you to sit nodding is a shame and unseemly thing.’

In 1776 Catherine Payton Phillips, writing to Friends in Ireland after travelling among them, condemns drowsiness in meeting in no uncertain terms but also suggests a remedy. 'It is not improbable that the drowsiness beforementioned may, in some, proceed from eating and drinking more than nature requires; this most certainly unfits the mind for spiritual exercises; for, when the body is still, the mind sinks into rest. Under this consideration, it becomes the duty of all to watch, lest their table becomes a snare to them, and wine and strong drink be so indulged in their feasts, as to unfit them for Communion with God, and the participation of the New Wine of his Kingdom. And, young People should, especially, be careful not to indulge themselves in the use of much wine, etc. lest the prevelance of custom grow upon them as they advance in years.'

Is sleeping in meeting something which we should still worry about today? It certainly still happens as we relax in our usually well-heated meeting rooms. Indeed Ben Pink Dandelion in his 1986 book The Quakers; a Very Short Introduction states ‘In terms of the inward, studies show that Friends are engaged in many different kinds of activity, often in parallel or tandem in any one Meeting. They may be praying or praising or seeking communion or guidance, thinking or sleeping.'  

So is sleep just one of our options or should we guard against it? Perhaps if we look upon this drowsiness as a metaphor as well as an actuality it might help us to address the question. As Jacob Ritter, a 19th century minister, put it, 'Friends, we must try to keep one another awake, or else we shall lose the life. To lose the life would be losing everything; the life is more than meat, and the body than raiment.'


Peter Smith said...

The anti-sleepers are united by an assumption that those they are addressing are in good health, mentally alert, possibly even middle-aged, middle class and white; they assume that the primary purpose of MfW is what WE do in it rather than what happens withion it or even its simply un-complicated existence. It is surely terribly unQuakerly to not do something (in this instance , sleep) simply because of what others might think.
OK so I confess I sleep frequently in meeting. Partly that's to do with indolence against which I wish I could be inoculated; partly it is due to anti-depressants; partly it is to do with sleep being so much safer than Saying Things ( i have been eldered for ministering too often and too often from the ego rather than in the spirit). But whether I sleep or not my being present shows my commitment to being there, my desire to be there, my continuing membership of my Quaker community. Sometimes my present will give pleasure to others, certainly their presence gives pleasure to me. And it gives God a chance to do something with me if so required.

Don said...

I always tell my Friend sitting next to me...if I start snoring, gently hit my arm...

Charleston, SC