We are a little hung-over, a little loud, a little late. As my friend Giri drives the car up a dusty, unpaved road, my friend Louise and I comment on how rustic the rough wooden fence separating from the field from Princeton Friends Meeting is. The Meeting House, towards the back, faces away from the field, a simple white building on a stone foundation. Giri—never having been to a Quaker meeting before, unlike Louise and me—talks loudly as we near the house. We are quieter than he, preparing for what awaits us within those four plain walls: silence, thought, maybe even God.
I rarely attend Quaker meeting. In Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born and raised, Quakers do not follow the same rules for worship that the Quakers of the east coast—where my father and most other Quaker Sharplesses hail from—do. So even though my younger sister and I grew up half-Jew half-Quaker, we didn’t balance out our High Holy Day services with Meetings for Worship. Meeting for Worship is meant to be a time of unstructured worship, where members of the Society of Friends gather together to share an hour of silent prayer and of thought, searching for the nucleus of God within them that most Friends call the Inner Light. My personal meeting history is limited to one a year, at Third Haven Meeting House, in Easton, Maryland, the third oldest Meeting House in the country, which I attend with my father’s side of the family. It’s framed by a stone wall, shaded by giant trees, with an old crumbling graveyard in the back. The wood benches are cool and the open, glass-less windows let in summer breezes as my cousins and I sit for the calmest hour we will have in a week of swimming and wiffleball and card games.
I don’t really want to go into my Quaker identity, whether I am Quaker or not Quaker. I don’t know if I am or not, and I don’t know what’s at issue here. I do know, that as a religion major equal parts Jewish and Quaker, and overall a person preoccupied by spirituality, I think often about what—if any—religion is right for me, and Quakerism seems almost as close as any religion could come. So when my friend Louise, a Catholic who had been educated within the Quaker school system in Delaware, asked if I wanted to attend Quaker meeting with her, I jumped at the chance.
As we slipped in, late, I—in my attempts to sit down as quickly as possible—stepped on a member’s foot. Frustrated that by trying so hard not to jolt this Friend from her worship I had done exactly that, I sat and mulled hotly about how stupid I was, reproaching myself for my haste and my lateness. I was irritated by my complete inability to avoid—somehow—making those around me notice my existence, my tendency to demand attention whatever way I could get it. I was supposed to be here for God, for writing, not for myself, my ego, and my inability to interact considerately with those around me.
But then, as is wont to happen in a silent room lit only by natural light, surrounded by calm, quiet people, I found it hard to sustain this self-loathing. No one around me was reproaching me for my misstep, no one was looking at me, no one was asking for an apology. My desire to take back my clumsy oaf-like foot was selfish and shallow, at beast. No matter how badly I wanted to tell the person, “No, I am not stumbling and rude and late and hurried, I promise, I am different, I am better,” she probably wouldn’t have cared. For all she knew, I was stumbling and rude and late and hurried. As the owner of not only one foot but two feet, she had probably often found her feet in contact with other feet, or puddles, bulges in pavement, pieces of gum. There was nothing I could say that would change the fact that I had stepped on her foot, apologized, and sat down. Though I regretted it, wanting to be someone else, or more accurately some other version of this self, who hadn’t been late, who hadn’t stepped on a foot, who had come in quietly and rightly, I knew my embarrassment was not a function of empathy, but of the fact that I had done something I wish I hadn’t. It had nothing to do with her.
When you regret something, that’s all you do. Regrets are pure. When I am regretful, it is because I want nothing more than one simple thing: to have undone what was done. My regrets are propelled wholly by a most complete desire to have had something else happen. Because they are based in the past and cannot be changed, they come coupled with a sweeping feeling, an urge contained entirely within your body and its past. I thought all this, watching the fire opposing me on the bench, wondering what it would mean to regret something else, something big. There have definitely been times in my life where I have caused people more pain and discomfort than that I caused by stepping on a strange foot, but nothing came to mind, and I regretted that, thinking about every person I’d caused to feel pain, without intention, sometimes without even realizing I’d done so, and wanting to tell them I was sorry.
In any other context, my having stepped on someone’s foot would have been distressing to me, but only for an instant, if that. I would have apologized, they would have smiled, and we would have both gone on with our lives. Here, though, our lives were temporarily stalled. We were both here to do important inner work, and I had, however accidentally, jolted us back into our externalities. I couldn’t stop thinking about it: I wasn’t rushing to class, to catch a train, to lunch, and there was nowhere to go but deeper inside my own head. I actually had the time and emotional vigor to understand, really, what it means to cause someone unwarranted discomfort, even if it was just for an instant.
Berating yourself, though, is not the point of Meeting for Worship. It’s too easy. I was there to try to feel God, not self-flagellate until I felt I was a good person, after all. This is why an hour of silence is incredibly rewarding. It’s really hard to sit and do nothing but scold yourself for an sixty minutes, and often—whether I want it to or not—I find my brain drifting to something productive, to move past hating myself, which is easy, to forgiving myself, asking myself important questions, as if I were tugging on some bristled, bulbous weed to get at its smooth white root. But the crisis—and the glory—of Quakerism is that, because of what it is, there is little it can do to help the individual navigate through this kind of remorse, anxiety, pain. A Quaker will tell you God is within you and that by thinking you will come closer to whatever that word means. Being a part of a religion that puts so much faith in you to find your own way to God, to direct yourself through other situations and other issues by the light of your own soul is amazingly loving and redeeming. And, above all, it’s terrifying.
Those present at the meeting—if moved by this Light—are told to stand up and share an insight given to them by their commitment to plumbing the God within them. Three people spoke during this meeting, and the last woman who stood was-middle aged, with greying hair, wearing a long skirt. “I was raised Catholic, talk about wonder of wonders,” she paused, and those present laughed, “and everything was a celebration or a sadness.” She then spoke about finding Quakerism in her later life, and with it the peace and simplicity she needed to have a sustainable and lasting relationship with God, divorced from the terror of sin and its accompanying retribution.
This made me think of how, in Franny and Zooey, my favorite book, Buddy Glass says, “I cannot be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight,” a quote I have always loved because it rings so true. I am most religious when I am alone in my bed in the dark, when I’m sad, restless, terrified, forced to confront things that make me want to cry and shake and throw up, and in moments when I am inspired, overwhelmed with wonder at the world, filled with love for the people in it. It is in these moments that I’ve come closest to God, or something like God, and it is in these moments that I’ve needed God the most.
There is some argument against God’s existence that says that those who come to God only in moments of suffering are showing symptoms of depression, pushed into religious delusion by overwhelming sadness. Obviously I have no argument to refute this beyond my own belief that God is real, and the fact that, for me, moments like this are proof that at the very lowest barest edge of life, of what it even means to be alive, there is a capability within the human, or within this human, at least, to remember how beautiful it is to have a beating, pumping heart, and a powerful, electro-charged brain.
Though the word “Quaker” suggests some type of trembling, there is little movement in Meeting for Worship. There is no shaking or weeping. Quaker parents tell their children that the name Quaker comes from something George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, said when threatened with punishment for his seditious sect—that he would quake in fear before no one but God. Historical sources have a different opinion, but that is the myth I was raised believing, a belief not in quaking but in its absence. Meeting for Worship emphasizes the simplicity, stolidity, sturdiness that characterizes the Quaker community: you sit in silence, you sit in stillness, and you speak only if you have something to say. This explains, perhaps, why Quaker communities are usually full of the middle-aged and the elderly, and those without grey hairs and belts and wristwatches are rare at best. It’s maybe where the old tired soul—run out from zapping back and forth between two charged poles of celebration and sadness, grief and high delight—finally rests. In meeting, the sun moves, the shadows shift, the air eddies and wooden benches creak, but Quakers sit still. When people are moved to speak, there are words, and those present rotate to look at the speaker, or don’t move at all, or open very slowly their eyes to stare at a spot on the floor, the back of the head in front of them, before closing their eyes once again.
I am not writing this at my calmest. Right now I feel God’s presence in me, but it is because I am a little angry with God, because I am frustrated with this life, as I often am, and would like to change it. I don’t know how to feel God when I’m not in a place of agitated wonder or crackling pain. Right now it’s hard for me to consider God idly, in the same detached way as in Quaker meeting I leaned my head back and watched a bug, dark and solid, glide up the gauzy threads of a web adorning the corner of a dirty window upstairs. It was beautiful, but I didn’t want to get any closer to it. I didn’t need it. It wasn’t part of me. God, on the other hand, or at least the ability to feel God, is, and I spend Meeting for Worship searching.
I don’t know what to do with the calmness Quaker meeting shapes in me. I don’t know how to channel this towards God or even towards a better self. I sit, I breathe, and I think, and I try to access the same godly presence I feel at my lowest and at my highest. It’s really, really hard. It’s harder than being sad, or than feeling joy, uncontrolled and wild as these emotions are. It’s as hard as those moments when you give yourself to sleep or rise from your bed, those instances where you have to choose to exist within your own body, within your own life, where you have to be alive, awake, here, and aware of it.