Tuesday, August 12, 2014

B is for Blessings and Benedictions (and for what happens in between)

Before we sat down to a formal dinner at an educational institution which shall remain nameless, the head of that institution was required to recite a Latin grace. My host, who had studied Latin all the way through high school, elbowed me: “Psst! don’t smirk. [The head] doesn’t know Latin, as you are about to learn.” Soon enough we heard, “Bennie DICK tuss: Bennie DIE, cat!” One could have been forgiven for thinking that the poor man had endured one too many nights of Bennie the tom cat tussling with other felines in the alley behind his home and, taking him to the vet to be neutered, was secretly wishing for a one-way trip. In reality, only one syllable was significantly mispronounced: replacing “dee” for “die” would have made the Latin comprehensible as “Benedictus benedicat,” or, “Let the Blessed One bless.” Minor accent reduction on some of the other vowels would have been icing on the cake that we pictured ourselves about to consume.

“Benedictus benedicat” is a lovely non-sectarian blessing that works on a variety of occasions, but it is incomprehensible if we do not know the language. (History does not relate why no one took this fine person aside at the beginning to explain the pronunciation, but it is probably related to concerns about disrupting the academic pecking order.) Likewise, the way unprogrammed Quaker Meetings begin, end, and progress through their central portions is a mystery to those who have not experienced them. Unprogrammed Meetings for Worship do not begin with an invocation, do not contain a creed, and do not end with a formal benediction. The old playground rhyme runs, “Quakers’ Meeting has begun. No more laughing, no more fun. If you show your teeth or tongue, you will have to pay a forfeit.” When I first attended a Friends Meeting, I figured that worship would not begin with the recitation of that rhyme (if it had, I would have been sunk, as I had paid multiple forfeits on the playgrounds in my youth in northeastern Vermont, lorded over by better-behaved classmates who had even less of an image of what a Quaker Meeting entailed). But I had no idea that the beginning was simply a critical mass of people sitting down together in an appointed place at or near the appointed time, and that it ended with a handshake.

People who have a basic familiarity with the unprogrammed flavor of Quakerism are familiar with our concept of waiting upon the Divine in silence, and of vocal ministry arising out of that silence. An intellectual understanding, however, does not make it easier to grasp in practice. It turns out that people —or, at least, a cross-section of Virginians in a recent psychology study— do not like being asked to sit alone in silence, even for as little as fifteen minutes. The authors of this study (actually an aggregation of eleven related studies), reported in the July 4, 2014 issue of Science, found that some 64 per cent of male and 25 per cent of female subjects would rather administer themselves an electric shock than sit alone in silence for fifteen minutes in an unadorned room without electronic devices, reading materials, or any other form of entertainment. All of the participants had previously indicated that they disliked electric shocks. Having participants prepare briefly before entering the room seems not to have made a difference. A review of this study published in the journal Nature supports these conclusions.

Clearly, Quakers, along with Zen Buddhists, practitioners of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and others versed in contemplative traditions, would have no trouble sitting in silence in an unadorned room for fifteen minutes. (Although the article in Science does not specify how the volunteers for the studies were recruited, presumably people falling into these categories were excluded.) Does the fact that we typically worship in groups make a difference? It does, for a variety of theological and cultural reasons, but most of us could, and many of us do, sit alone in private worship for a reasonable length of time.

Does the fact that many adult Quakers were socialized before the advent (or at least the ubiquity) of electronic devices make it easier to develop the habit of silent worship? While Friends are too small a group for most psychological studies, the answer is almost certainly “yes.” Even as early as the late 1980’s, Ursula Franklin, a Quaker metallurgist and philosopher of science from the University of Toronto, shared her concern about the intrusion of technology into silence (see links to her article “Silence and the Notion of the Commons” in Soundscape 7, 1994 and her 1989 Massey lectures, later revised, inter alia). More recently, commentators such George Prochnik have raised concerns —indeed, alarms— about how the noise and busyness of modern life have crowded out silence, while Sherry Turkle has written about the related problem of the overreliance on technology and the decline of social interaction.

If the Quaker tradition of silent worship is to attract newcomers and retain its young people, it should consider how this recent research might be used to revamp our outreach and religious education. In suggesting this, I realize that a data-driven approach may not be popular. There is no small irony in the fact that unprogrammed Friends, who often have a high level of formal education and a better than average understanding of scientific concepts, sometimes eschew the results of scientific research as it applies to us. “Knowing something experimentally” in the words of George Fox means knowing something through a combination of faith and experience —possessing what one professes— and not learning something through the scientific method. Nevertheless, when we have relevant research at our disposal, what are we waiting for? More research? In this case, further studies, while useful in determining which types of introduction to silence may be successful, are unlikely to disprove the basic premise that the average person has trouble with his or her own thoughts, and that the situation is getting worse, and not better.

The researchers who conducted the study summarized Science, along with the reviewer in Nature, suggested that one way to help beginners deal with silence is to give them specific suggestions about something to think about and ways to direct their meditation. (The researchers looked at mindfulness training specifically, but did not limit their suggestions to any particular approach.) Introductory pamphlets tend to be strong on theory but have less specific guidance, because of concerns about being prescriptive, but here is where being a bit more prescriptive could be helpful. The British  introductory brochure, Your First Time in a Quaker Meeting, suggests using images of light and advises people  to “bring whatever is pressing on your mind to the Meeting.” This is very good, but it might be even more effective to reframe this idea as a Query, by adding a further sentence or two: “Friends often consider what is on our minds and then ask ourselves in Meeting, ‘In what way can our daily thoughts and concerns, however mundane, relate to our spiritual lives, the lives of our fellow human beings, and life on earth? Conversely, in what ways can silent worship nourish and deepen all other activities of our daily lives and the lives of those around us?’” (My inspiration for this sentence is part of Query 2 in the 1985 Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting, “Do all other activities of your meeting find their inspiration in worship, and do they, in turn, help to uphold the worshipping group?”)

The Quaker Advices and Queries are often used for just this purpose of focusing a Meeting and planting seeds for potential vocal ministry. It is likely that they should be used more often. Perhaps, when members of the Committee of Ministry and Counsel (or Elders in Yearly Meetings that have them) notice a reasonable number of visitors —or perhaps even one visitor— the committee might authorize one of its members in advance to make an ad hoc decision to read a brief selection from the Advices and Queries, along with a brief explanation of what they are.

In the interim, introductory brochures should be more specific about how Meeting for Worship begins. (We are clear about how it ends.) Saying that it begins when Friends sit down in the specified location at the appointed time to wait on God in silence is not enough for a newcomer, who may still expect a delegated Friend to stand up after a few minutes and say words to the effect of, “Welcome to Podunk Friends Meeting on this glorious/rainy/snowy Sunday morning. We welcome all of you to wait upon God with us in the silence and, if, so moved, to provide a brief vocal message, which we call ministry, arising from that silence. Our worship will end with a designated person beginning a handshake around the room in about an hour.” We need to say that there is no invocation, or call to worship, of any verbal sort, although in our silence we may well reflect upon the phrase “Benedictus benedicat.”

Not everyone has trouble relaxing in silence for fifteen minutes,
even if some might consider resting on a coat atop a snow scraper
supported by the back and arm of a bench to be rather uncomfortable.
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014

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