by N. Jean Toomer
From An Interpretation of Friends Worship
[Times set aside for prayer during the week]
Definite periods for worship should be established because, constituted as we are, worship does not occur as naturally as it might, and at all times. Unless we set aside regularly recurring times, many of us are not likely to worship at any time. We appoint times and places so that we may do what something deep in us yearns to do, yet which we all too rarely engage in because most often we are caught up in the current of contrary or irrelevant events. Set times of worship not only aid us to worship at those times but at others too; and, of course, the more often we try to worship at other times, the more able we become to make good use of the established occasions.
Among the people of our day, Mahatma Gandhi is an outstanding example of applied religion. It might seem that he, of all people, would feel no need of special times of prayer; yet this is not the case. There are appointed times each day when he and those around him engage in prayer. Whenever possible he attends a Friends meeting for worship. The following quotation from the Friends Intelligencer gives his view of this matter. “Discussing the question whether one’s whole life could not be a hymn of praise and prayer to one’s Maker, so that no separate time of prayer is needed, Gandhi observed, ‘I agree that if a man could practice the presence of God all the twenty-four hours, there would be no need for a separate time of prayer.’ But most people, he pointed out, find that impossible. For them silent communion, for even a few minutes a day, would be of infinite use.”
Each of us individually should daily prepare for worship and, now and again, go off by himself in solitude. Fresh stimulus and challenge are experienced when a man puts himself utterly on his own and seeks to come face to face with his God. Aloneness may release the spirit. So may genuine togetherness. Group or corporate worship is also necessary because, as already mentioned, we need each other’s help to quiet the body-mind, to lay down the ordinary self, to lift up the spiritual nature. Many a person finds it possible to become still in a meeting for worship as nowhere else. Peace settles over us. Many a person is inwardly kindled in a meeting for worship as nowhere else. The creative forces begin to stir. When a number of people assemble reverently, and all engage in similar inward practices with the same aim and expectancy, life currents pass between them; a spiritual atmosphere is formed; and in this atmosphere things are possible that are impossible without it. More particularly, we may have opportunity in a meeting for coming close to a person more quickened than we are.
By proximity with him or her we are quickened. It is true that in a Friends meeting the responsibility for worship and ministry rests upon each and every member; but it is also true that Friends, like others, must somewhat rely for their awakening upon those who are more in God’s spirit and power than the average. We minimize an essential feature of our meetings if we fail to recognize the role of the sheer presence of men and women who are spiritually more advanced than most and are able to act as leaven.
[Entering the worship space] The meeting for worship should begin outside of the meeting house, on our way to it. As we enter the house, we would do well to remind ourselves of the meaning of worship, the significance of corporate worship, the possibility of meeting with God. Be expectant that this may happen in this very gathering. Lift up the mind and heart to the Eternal Being in whom we have brotherhood. The hope is that by these initial acts we will put ourselves in the mood of worship and kindle a warmth of inner life that will continue throughout the meeting and give spiritual meaning to all subsequent efforts.
[Laying aside assumptions about yourself] Settle into your place as an anonymous member of an anonymous group. If you have come to have a reputation among people, forget this and become anonymous. If you have not made a name for yourself, forget this. The opportunity to practice anonymity is a precious one. The meeting for worship would be of great value if it did no more than make this practice possible. If you are accustomed to feel yourself important in the eyes of men, lay it down and feel only that you and others may have some importance in the eyes of God. If you feel unimportant, lay this down. If articulate or inarticulate, forget this. Lay aside all your worldly relationships and your everyday interior states. In fine, forget yourself. Surrender yourself. Immerse yourself in the life of the group. This is our chance to lose ourselves in a unified and greater life. It is our opportunity to die as separated individuals and be born anew in the life and power of the spirit. Seek, in the words of Thomas Kelly, to will your will into the will of God.
[Quieting your body & mind] Quiet and relax the body. We should try to quiet its habitual activity, to relax it from strain, yet not over-relax it. Though relaxed it should not become limp or drowsy. It must be kept upright, alert, wakeful. What we desire is a body so poised and at rest that it is content to sit there, taking care of itself, and we can forget it.
Still the mind, gather it, turn it steadfastly towards God. This is more difficult. It is contrary to the mind’s nature to be still. It is against its grain to turn Godwards. Left to itself it goes on and on under its own momentum, roaming, wandering. It thinks and pictures and dreams of everything on earth except God and the practice of His presence. Even those who developed great aptitude for taking hold of the mind and turning it to God found it difficult and even painful in the beginning. If we expect it to be easy and pleasant we shall be easily discouraged after a few trials. Brother Lawrence warns us that this practice may even seem repugnant to us at first.
The mind of an adult is more restive and all over the place than the body of a child. How are we to curb its incessant restlessness and stay it upon prayer and worship? How restrain its wanderings and point it to the mark? How take it away from its automatic stream of thoughts and focus it on God? Only by effort, practice, repeated effort, regular practice. It requires life-long preparation and training. We cannot hope to make much progress if we attempt to stay the mind only on First-days during meeting. We must make effort throughout the week, daily, hourly.
[Centering] It is by stilling the body-mind that we center down. Put the other way, it is by centering down that we still the body-mind. I would judge that all Friends have in common the practice of centering down. This is our common preparation for worship. From here on, however, each of us is likely to go his individual way, no two ways being alike. This is the freedom of worship which has ever been an integral part of the Friends religion. We are not called upon to follow any fixed procedure. This is creative. The individual spirit is set free to find its way, in its own manner, to God. Yet it leaves some of us at a loss to know what to do next. Some of us are not yet able to press on. We are unsure of the inward way, and our available resources are not yet adequate to this type of exploration. We need hints from others, suggestions, guides. To meet this need, a number of Friends have written of what they do after they center down. Among these writings may be mentioned Douglas V. Steere’s A Quaker Meeting for Worship, and Howard E. Collier’s The Quaker Meeting. In the same spirit I would like to indicate what I do.
[Opening myself to the light] Once I have centered down I try to open myself, to let the light in. I try to open myself to God’s power. I try to open myself to the other members of the meeting, to gain a vital awareness of them, to sense the spiritual state of the gathering. I try so to reform myself inwardly that, as a result of this meeting, I will thereafter be just a little less conformed to the unregenerate ways of the world, just a little more conformed to the dedicated way of love.
[Expectancy] I encourage a feeling of expectancy. I invite the expectation that here, in this very meeting, before it is over, the Lord’s power will spring up in us, cover the meeting, gather us to Him and to one another. Though meetings come and go, and weeks and even years pass, and it does not happen, nevertheless I renew this expectation at every meeting. I have faith that some day it will be fulfilled. We should be bold in our expectations, look forward to momentous events. We should not be timid or small but large with expectancy, and, at the same time humble, so that there is no egotism in it.
I kindle the hope that, should the large events not be for me and for us this day, some true prayer will arise from our depths, some act of genuine worship. I hope that at the least I will start some exploration or continue one already begun, make some small discovery, feel my inward life stir creatively and expand to those around me.
[Laying down, waiting] Having aroused my expectancy, I wait. I wait before the Lord, forgetting the words in which I clothed my expectations, if possible forgetting myself and my desires, laying down my will, asking only that His will be done. In attitude or silent words I may say, “I am before thee, Lord. If it be thy will, work thy love in me, work thy love in us.”
“O wait,” wrote Isaac Penington, “wait upon God. Be still a while. Wait in true humility, and pure subjection of soul and spirit, upon Him. Wait for the shutting of thy own eye, and for the opening of the eye of God in thee, and for the sight of things therewith, as they are from Him.”
Sometimes, while waiting, a glow steals over me, a warmth spreads from my heart. I have a chance to welcome the welling up of reverence, the sense that I am in the presence of the sacred. Sometimes, though rarely, the practice of waiting is invaded by an unexpected series of inner events which carry me by their action through the meeting to the end. I feel God’s spirit moving in me, my spirit awakening to Him.
[Joining with the sufferings of others] More often I come to have the sense that I have waited long enough for this time. To forestall the possibility of falling into dead passivity, I voluntarily discontinue the practice of waiting and turn my attention to other concerns. I may summon to mind a vital problem that confronts me or one of my friends, trying to see the problem by the inward light, seeking the decision that would be best. I may bring into consciousness someone I know to be suffering. This may be a personal acquaintance or someone whose plight I have learned of through others, or people in distress brought to my attention by an article in a newspaper or a magazine. I call to him or them in my spirit, and suffer with them, and pray God that through their suffering they will be turned to Him, that by their very pain they may grow up to Him.
[Feeling held by God] Hardly a meeting passes but what I pray that I and the members of the meeting and people everywhere may have this experience: that our wills be overcome by God’s will, that our powers be overpowered by His light and love and wisdom. And sometimes, though again rarely, I find it possible to hold my attention, or, rather, to have my heart held, without wavering, upon the one supreme reality, the sheer fact of God. These are the moments that I feel to be true worship. These are the times when the effort to have faith is superseded by an effortless assurance born of actual experience. God’s reality is felt in every fibre of the soul and brings convincement even to the body-mind.
[Encountering distraction or deadness in myself] I would not give the impression that what I have described takes place in just this way every time, or that it happens without disruptions, lapses, roamings of the mind, day-dreams. Frequently I must recall myself, again still the mind and turn it Godwards, again practice waiting. All too often I awake to find, no, not that I have been actually sleeping, but that I might as well have been, so far have I strayed from the path that leads to God and brotherhood. And I must confess, too, that during some meetings I have been buried under inertia and deadness and unable to overcome them. Having meant nothing to myself, it is not likely that my presence meant anything to the others. My body was but an object, unliving, filling space on a bench. It would have been better for others had I stayed away. A dead body gives off no life; it but absorbs life from others, reducing the life-level of the meeting.
[Vocal ministry] As I am one of those who are sometimes moved to speak in meetings, I may indicate how this happens in my case. First let me say what I do not do. I never try to think up something to say. I am quite content to be silent, unless something comes into my mind and I am moved to say it, or unless I sense that the meeting would like to hear a few living words. In this latter case, I may search myself to see what may be found; and by this searching I may set in motion the processes which discover hidden messages.
I never go to the meeting with an “itch” to speak, though it sometimes happens to me, as to others, that I am moved to speak before arriving at the meeting house. Even so, I usually restrain the urge until we have had at least a short period of silent waiting before God. One is vain indeed if he thinks that his words are more important than this waiting. If I have not been moved to speak before arriving, such an impulse, if it comes at all, is likely to arise after I have been waiting a while. It arises within my silence. An insight or understanding flashes into my mind. A prayer or a pleading or a brief exhortation comes upon me. I hold it in mind and look at it, and at myself. I examine it.
[Discerning whether to speak] Is this a genuine moving that deserves expression in a meeting for worship, or had I best curb and forget it? May it have some real meaning for others, and is it suited to the condition of this meeting? Can I phrase it clearly and simply? If it passes these tests, I regard it as something to be said but I am not yet sure it should be said here and now. To find out how urgent it is, I press it down and try to forget it. If time passes and it does not take hold of me with increased strength, I conclude that it is not to be spoken of at this time. If, on the other hand, it will not be downed, if it rebounds and insists and will not leave me alone, I give it expression.
If it turns out that the words were spoken more in my own will than in the power, I feel that egotistical-I has done it, and that this self-doing has set me apart from the other members of the meeting. I am dissatisfied until again immersed in the life of the group. But if it seems that I havebeen an instrument of the power, I have the feeling that the power has done it and has, by this very act, joined those assembled even closer. Having spoken, I feel at peace once again, warmed and made glowing by the passage of a living current through me to my fellows. With a heightened sense of fellowship with man and God, I resume my silent practices.
I never speak if, in my sense of it, spoken words would break a living silence and disrupt the life that is gathering underneath. But I have on occasion spoken in the hope of breaking a dead silence. Spoken words should arise by common consent. The silence should accept them. The invisible life should sanction them. The members of the meeting should welcome them and be unable to mark exactly when the message began and when it ends. The message should form with the silence a seamless whole.
If the message be a genuine one, the longer I restrain it the better shaped it becomes in my mind and the stronger the impulse to express it. A force gathers behind it. Presently, however, I must either voice it or put it from my mind completely, lest it dominate my consciousness overlong and rule out the other concerns which should engage us in a meeting for worship. It is good when a message possesses us. Our meetings need compelling utterances. But it is not good when a message obsesses us to the exclusion of all else. This is a danger which articulate people, particularly those like myself who have much dealing with words, must avoid. We miss our chance if we do not use the meeting for worship as an opportunity to dwell in the depths of life far below the level of words, rising to the surface only when we are forced to by an upthrust of the spirit which seeks to unite the surface with the depths and gather those assembled into a quickened sense of creative wholeness—each in all and all in God.
An Interpretation of Friends Worship by N. Jean Toomer was originally published by the Committee on Religious Education of Friends General Conference in 1947. This excerpt “What Do We Do in Worship” is the 4th section of the pamphlet, which is well worth reading in full.