By Alice Hildebrand
One of my childhood memories is of playing “church”: in my backyard at the edge of the woods with my stuffed animals — inspired by my mother’s reading to me the chapter in The Wind in the Willows, which is the title of this piece. A baby otter has been lost overnight; the anxious searchers find him at dawn, asleep peacefully at the feet of their god, Pan. The animals fall on their knees, overwhelmed by the majesty and the tenderness of the god before them. The sun rises, and the vision is gone; the baby otter awakens and runs towards the searchers. They turn to each other, knowing that Something has just happened but already not sure what it was. For me, a shy little girl more comfortable with animals than with people, this vision both of God’s care and of God’s mystery was somehow more clear than the Bible stories I had learned. It didn’t matter that the god was Pan. I knew instinctively that the name wasn’t important. Seeking to know, to relate to, both that loving, intimate God, and the incomprehensible, “wholly other” God, and to share that knowledge and that search with others has been the defining passion of my life.
I became a Quaker in 1979, during a time of much personal tumult, including recovery from substance abuse. The sober alcoholics that I met were people with the most vivid spiritual lives I had ever experienced—they knew that God’s grace was saving them on a daily basis. There was nothing theoretical about it. The clari ty that began to emerge in me was that the “interest” (all I was willing to call it) I had in going to Seminary could possibly be what was meant by “call.” I went to Seminary in 1984, clarifying my Quakerism and that sense of call against a backdrop of other denominations.
After Seminary, one of my challenges was how to earn a living and still have the time to live into the meaning of that call. I worked part-time for Vassalboro Quarterly Meeting, developing with Molly Duplisea an intergenerational spiritual education program, and part-time for a local Congregational Church, mostly doing religious education. In 1991, I spent a year as a chaplain in the Hartford Hospital Clinical Pastoral Education program. After I returned to Eggemoggin Reach Monthly Meeting in 1992, the Meeting felt led to begin the process of recording.
The process of being recorded, the questions asked of me by myself and others, was very nurturing, and the fact of being recorded is also nurturing. Being recorded holds me accountable to express whatever measure of light I have been given, and to a cloud of witnesses, both present and historical. It does not mean that at any given time I have a greater ability to articulate the prompting of the Spirit than someone else does; for the first two years after my recording I almost never felt led to speak in Meeting for Worship. It is an acknowledgment of the passion that I describe above, and of the time and hard work I have put into the living out of that passion.
At present I work in two non-Quaker settings: as a Hospice chaplain, and as “parish assistant” at a local Congregational Church, doing education and outreach. I am continually reminded of how Quaker my own faith and practice are, and I think that I bring the strength of that with me as an offering to others. Am I serving the Society of Friends in this work? I don’t know. I’m not trying to win converts. Maybe, if I’m a good example of a Quaker, that serves the Society of Friends. I think it is vital both to Quakers and to ecu menical dialog that we not be a people turned inward in our ministry; we need to have Quaker chaplains in jails and hospitals, Quakers at ecumenical prayer breakfasts, Quakers speaking and teaching as boldly as they once did. We are called by God in different ways and to different activities; recording gifts in ministry is part of that.
The joy of my present work life is that, whether it’s in Hospice or at the Congregational Church, the point of the conversation(s) is the God stuff. My life in the Society of Friends is also a joy, as it’s sometimes important to be with people who use the same language for their spiritual understanding that I use. But a sectarian conver sation can be limiting. That’s why I like working in ecumenical settings. If it’s the real stuff, it doesn’t matter to my faith life how it’s expressed, what the language is, what the icons are, how silent it is. I seek these places, these relationships, and wherever I can— whether in secular or spiritual settings—I bring this theme, this reality with me, in some form.
This article by Alice Hildebrand of Eggemoggin Reach (Maine) Monthly Meeting was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of The New England Friend on the subject of recording gifts of vocal ministry.