by Susan Davies
I have experienced two instances of formal minister-elder relationship, one in which I served as the minister and one in which I served as the elder. Both were overwhelming affirmations of the reality of God’s grace experienced. In April 2006 Tom Antonik and I were invited by New England Yearly Meeting to lead a retreat focused on intense experiences of the divine presence, to be held at Woolman Hill, the Quaker retreat center in Deerfield, MA. Woolman Hill offered to cover the cost of an elder for each of us and I soon set about trying to find someone whom I knew and with whom I would feel comfortable, to serve as my elder.
Over the course of several months I asked four people, all of whom told me they had major, unavoidable conflicts with the date. I was feeling desperate with just a couple of weeks to go before the retreat. J.H. had been serving as a helpful advisor to Tom and me for the retreat and I called her to ask if she could suggest anyone else. She offered the names D.L. and J.L., neither of whom I knew. She assured me that she was clear that D. was deeply gifted and a good choice for me. While I was relieved to finally have found an elder, I was very uneasy that I didn’t know her and more worrisome- she didn’t know me. How, I wondered, could she fully give herself over to ‘releasing’ my ministry if she didn’t even know me? I decided to send her some things I had written about my own transformative spiritual experiences, mostly to reassure myself that she would be able to trust my leadings during the retreat.
I arrived at the retreat a day early in order to meet privately with J. again and to meet with D., J., and Tom. From the first moment I was in D.’s presence I had a feeling of deep calm and rightness. Her words were very few but full of openness, welcome and clear-sighted perception. Her presence during the retreat was astonishing to me in its capacity to ground me and deepen me. She positioned herself in various locations during the 3-day retreat, always maximizing my ability to draw strength from her deep place of prayer–sometimes behind me and sometimes across the room, where I could easily see her. The focus of her presence was unwavering, utterly peace and love and light-filled–it just poured out of her and washed over everyone in the room. D. has described her understanding of what “eldering” is as:
“Eldering–to hold another person(s)–in grace and light– …the image of opening the window, but blocking the brunt of the wind. (and like the wind over the airplane wing- the wing itself doesn’t feel the brunt of the wind either) and Eldering to absorb another’s pain–completely different–willing….
And to hold you in the burning, soul searching, unquenchable light….
I experienced the effect of D.’s deep understanding of eldering and it was a gift I will never forget. A definition of ministry that I’ve heard J.H. offer is “making God’s love more visible in the world”. The gift of eldering can, as D. says, throw open wide the window to the Divine so that we tangibly experience the immediacy of God’s presence among us.
As powerful and intense has been my experience of serving as elder for a minister of enormous gifts. In September 2007 J. asked if I would serve as her elder during a 3-day annual family retreat for the Vassalboro Quarterly Meeting at Friends Camp in China, Maine. She was to give the keynote talk and guide us in our retreat theme on the ‘Spiritual Wellsprings of Quaker Process’. I had consulted J. for many years, seeking out her guidance at different points in my own spiritual journey, but always in a somewhat formal relationship. The opportunity to partake of her process, in such an intimate way as serving as her elder, was a tremendous privilege and, I felt, a daunting responsibility. I was not confident I was adequate to the task but figured I had to trust J. and the Holy Spirit. J.’s clarity about what she needed from me as her elder was a great help to me. She understood that her responsibility as minister was to honor and care for her message and that, as elder, I was to uphold, protect and draw out that message as well. My support of her involved practical care of her person, as well as a more mystical care of an, as yet undefined, message. She arrived early, to prepare herself with a solo retreat on Thursday at our Meeting house. I met with her at the end of that day and we spent Friday morning together, prior to the afternoon start of the retreat. I had arranged a place for her to stay on Wednesday and Thursday night and also, at her request, arranged that she and I would have a cabin together, somewhat removed from the bustle of the rest of the camp. Because of this arrangement she and I shared a sort of cloister-like intimacy during that four day period that remains a treasure to me. My role was to hold an attentive, practical, as well as prayerful, focus on protecting and preserving her deepening journey into the message that she was to offer.
The message evolved over the days until Saturday morning when she took her place in front of the gathered group of about 100 Friends from around central Maine. Humbly recalling the grace and power of D.’s care for me, as my elder, I chose a chair at the front, but to the side where J. could see me, and where there were no obstructions between us. I experienced a powerful bonded, resonance between us as we took our places and I settled into prayer. During her talk I let her words wash over me without trying to capture them or even hear them with my mind. I prayed that she would be given words. At a certain point in her talk I felt a sense of knowing that something of great import was just ahead. I had felt J. cycling to a deeper and deeper place and I prayed “Please, stand near her and whisper into her ear the words You would have her say”. I was astonished by the depth of what she said next, feeling a clear sense that I was hearing the Voice of the Friend of Friends speaking through her.
Eldering is a mystery. Many people who are clearly ‘elders’ have no idea that their humble, attentive and reverent presence affects the people around them, and serves to release the Voice of the Spirit. To elder is not something you “do”– it’s something you are. Perhaps you are an elder! Think about it!
Susan Davies is a member of Vallsalboro (ME) Meeting. This was written homework at a Pendle Hill retreat on eldering held in March 2008.