Resources for the Spiritual Life:
Worship—A Feeling Sense of the Condition of Others
Worship lay at the center of John Woolman’s life. As for Friends throughout our history, the experience of meeting for worship for John Woolman was manifold. Meeting for worship can be joyful, consoling, disturbing, revealing. Here we can encounter our truest selves as limitlessly loved by God, but to come to that encounter we often first have to come face-to-face with the illusions we have about ourselves. These misperceptions can be many things, but often they are centered in our understanding of our relationship to God.
Here are two common misperceptions. They concern self-esteem. In the first, we see ourselves as so inflatedly important that we are responsible for more than our share of the world’s burdens. If anything is wrong with the world, we must fix it. In its extreme form, this misperception leaves little room for God to do any of the work to redeem the world’s problems. Ultimately this orientation does not trust God very much. It is a good thing to feel compassion for all who suffer, but as the saying goes, even Jesus only had to die on one cross.
The second misperception is that we don’t matter at all. We’re so unloveable that we can’t really be sure that even God loves us. Again, the root of this attitude si insufficient trust in God, so though these two examples look quite different, early Friends would see them as related. Both are a block to deeper spiritual experience because we do not get beyond the focus on ourselves as individuals.
We need to be washed clean of these misperceptions. Earlier Friends used the word “purification” to describe this experience of letting go of our off-center understandings of ourselves. For these Friends, this purification led the way to a powerfully renewing experience of God’s love, which in turn opened the door to move beyond our individual selves. Here we can experience the collective dimension of meeting for worship.
By “dwelling deep” during worship, Friends in John Woolman’s era discovered that they could come to a sense of the meeting as a whole, or of individuals in the meeting. As they came to this “feeling sense of the condition of others,” they could bear the unspoken burdens of others. They could “travail” for the seed suffering in others and be like midwives in bringing this seed to birth. As they felt the suffering of others, they could suffer with them. This silent suffering with others in worship could bring about renewal in the inward life, a renewal so powerful that they dared to call it redemptive.
This discernment of the conditions of others and this suffering for their spiritual benefit was the silent task of ministry. Like spoken ministry, Friends engaged in it under a sense of divine leading. In John Woolman’s words, wherever people are “true ministers of Jesus Christ it is from the operation of his spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them and thus giving them a feeling sense of the conditions of others.” ( Journal p.31)
Meeting for worship embraced more than suffering, of course. Friends also shared their deepest joys, both in and beyond words. The reason for my focus on entering into the suffering of others is so that we can see how this is connected with John Woolman’s efforts to alleviate the suffering of those who bear the weight of oppression. But Quaker worship was not simply about suffering.
For some of us today, this corporate sense of meeting for worship has diminished in our individualistic era. But such experiences are still known. It is rather common for people in many religious traditions who follow a contemplative practice to find themselves blessed at times with an intuitive sense of what another person might be thinking or feeling. Among Friends, this extended to the corporate life of the meeting. A person might, as still happens today, feel that a particular message is given to the gathered body, without knowing to whom in particular or why. At other times a worshipper might sense that the community as a whole had begun to sink or center down into worship but had not yet reached the depths that were possible. Vocal ministry would encourage the worshippers to “dwell deep,” to continue the journey toward a gathered meeting. In the 1940s Quaker writer Thomas Kelly described the gathered meeting this way.
In the practice of group worship on the basis on silence come special times when the electric hush and solemnity and depth of power steals over the worshipers. A blanket of divine covering comes over the room, a stillness that can be felt is over all, and the worshipers are gathered into a unity and synthesis of life which is amazing indeed. A quickening Presence pervades us, breaking down some part of the special privacy and isolation of our individual lives and blending our spirits within a superindividual Life and Power. An objective, dynamic Presence enfolds us all, nourishes our souls, speaks glad, unutterable comfort within us, and quickens us in depths that had before been slumbering. The Burning Bush has been kindled in our midst, and we stand together on holy ground. ( Thomas Kelly, “The Gathered Meeting,” in The Eternal Promise, Richmond IN: Friends United Press, 1988, p. 86)
In John Woolman’s day, Friends would labor in the silence to assist this experience.
Milder forms of such experience were and still are known. In Quaker meetings for worship people still often have the experience of almost rising to speak but then hearing someone else offer substantially the same message–an experience of being tuned in to the same spiritual wavelength. What is important to notice is that earlier Friends did not become absorbed in such phenomena for their own sake. In their experience, the phenomena themselves were subservient to greater spiritual purposes, such as ministering to the suffering of others and assisting the community to come to a more vital spiritual life. Coming to a feeling sense of the condition of others was a divine gift, and therefore no reason to become proud. It was given to build up community and to increase love, not to make the recipient feel special and thus become diverted from more important matters in the inward life.
While we should not become distracted or preoccupied with unusual phenomena, the description of them in the writings of John Woolman and others is a useful reminder of the corporate experience of worship. It can encourage us to recover that collective quality of worship, whether or not it is accompanied by intuitions of the interior states of individuals or of the collected worshippers. The gathered meeting still happens among the faithful.
John Woolman enlarges this collective quality of worship to extend beyond the walls of the meetinghouse, eventually to embrace all human suffering and injustice. Herein lies his spiritual genius.
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