Thursday, June 19, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - L for Learning

How do we learn about Quakers and Quakerism? The obvious answer, for me, is by reading, but when I have thought more I realise that this is far from the only way. Over the years I have certainly read a lot of books about Quakerism but also books - and diaries, letters and other less formal writings - by Quakers both past and present. Some of these have spoken to me more than others but in their variety they have built up a picture of Friends not just in 'Quaker grey' but in a whole rainbow of colours.

When I first fell among Friends I was working in Friends House Library in London  and there I learned a lot about the history and structure of the Society of Friends as well as meeting a wide range of contemporary Quakers - not always a wholly positive experience! I went to meeting for worship - at first to the brief meetings for 'staff' and later to the Local Meeting where I lived.

When I first attended Meeting for Worship in Reading I went on my own and didn't talk to anyone, going straight in to the meeting room and straight home afterwards. If anyone had approached or tried to involve me at that stage I probably would not have gone back. I thought that the worship was all I wanted or needed. Later we made a decision to go regularly as a family and it was at that point that I began to get to know people in the meeting and the way that Quakerism worked in practice. Of course I soon found myself on a committee and that was another learning experience. Working with Friends towards a common goal was not always easy but taught me a lot. I also began to go to Meetings for worship for business and saw the Quaker business method in action. Eventually I learned to take on some roles of responsibility within the meeting.

One of the first things that I had learned about Quakers was that local meetings were part of a whole structure and I have always found my experience of other meetings positive, even when difficult. Yearly Meeting, General (now Regional) Meeting and Monthly (now Area) Meeting were and are all part of my learning experience, even when things do not run smoothly. I have come a long way from the individual on a spiritual journey that I did not see the need to share with anyone else!

So have I learned about Quakers through osmosis (a long-standing excuse for not needing Quaker education)? Yes and No. It is true that sitting in meetings, getting to know individuals, working together, has not involved formal learning but I have also had a lot of things explained to me that I did not understand, and sometimes did not know that I did not understand. Eventually I became more comfortable with asking questions and am now very happy to answer other people's. Learning can come to us in many ways and the important thing I think is to be open to it whenever the opportunity arises.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - K for Knees

The general title of my long-running but (before the Quaker Alphabet Blog project) not regularly updated blog is, as you can see, Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones. This is a quotation from the refrain of a hymn which I heard by chance on the radio many years ago and which struck me as being the perfect title for my spiritual autobiography - the one that I haven't quite got round to writing yet!

I have shared parts of my spiritual journey here and in other places and I have spent a lot of time, in workshops and whenever opportunity arose, encouraging people to share their spiritual autobiography with others. I even wrote a book about my project but so far I have got no further. Lately I have been feeling that perhaps the time is right for me to concentrate a bit more on sharing my story, perhaps because I have become aware of another stumbling block in my way which I need to incorporate in my spiritual journey.

Quakers were not the only people in the 17th century to find a virtue in sharing spiritual experience. Many other puritans used this tool to unite their congregations and to encourage one another. One of them, Samuel Petto, an Independent puritan with Calvinist leanings, wrote these words in 1654 and I have often quoted them and found them helpful.

Christians know not what they lose, by burying their experience, they disable themselves for strengthening the weak hands and confirming the feeble knees of others; and it is a great disadvantage to themselves.

When I first came across these words I thought the imagery striking and it was not until I found the same words in another writer's work that I realised that Petto is referring to Isaiah 35,3. The context in which he uses the quotation, however, is his own and that was what spoke to me. He is saying that we don't know how much sharing our experience with others may help them and ourselves - very much the message I try to put across myself.

But what spoke to me most was the feeble knees. My own knees have been feeble for quite a few years, hurting occasionally and sometimes giving way. I knew that I had probably inherited my mother's osteoarthritis and in the last six months things have got a lot worse and the diagnosis has been confirmed. My left knee is worst and hurts whenever I walk on it. Going out for a walk is becoming more of an ordeal than a pleasure and I am often tempted not to try but to sit inside at my computer instead.

What stops me is a determination not to disable myself. Sharing this experience has brought me help from friends, from an understanding doctor and a helpful physiotherapist. There are things I can do to ameliorate the condition and accomodate myself to it without giving up. I am determined to keep going even though this stumbling block may prove very hard to turn into a stepping stone. I may even eventually write more than a blog about my continuing spiritual journey.