Last year I took a class at UNR on Qualitative Research which taught methods for conducting in-depth interviews. I was tasked with conducting two interviews about a sociological concept that interested me. Apart from my academics and in my personal life, I had been thinking a lot about my own life: what made me feel passionate, and what I might be here to do. I decided to take the project as an opportunity to interview two people that I thought would speak beautifully on the topic of “the meaning of life,” Rhonda Ashurst of the Reno Friends Meeting and one of the Buddhist priests from the Reno Buddhist Center, Rev. Shelley Fisher. At the root of this question was a desire to feel my soul a little and share an exceptionally profound idea with two incredible people.
Ever since the Quakers broke from the Church of England in the mid-seventeenth century, they have gathered for Silent Worship in plain rooms – ones usually bare of any religious art or symbols. This tradition has served Quakers well, as most Quaker Meetings still prefer simple rooms with few distractions.
Reno Friends gathered online earlier this year for a spiritual discussion about Quakers and Prayer. Newcomers to Silent Worship, puzzled by the unprogrammed quiet, often ask me if Friends are praying. I can understand their confusion, because it’s not clear during Silent Worship what, exactly, we’re doing. Some of us would say we’re sitting in silence waiting to hear what God might have to say to us. Others say they are meditating, and some might say they are praying.
Near the end of my two years of teaching in China, Volunteers in Asia (the organization that had hosted me) sent me materials about reverse culture shock. I was so excited about going home that I hadn’t thought about problems I might experience upon re-entry. In some ways, returning to “normal” life as pandemic restrictions ease will be a bit like returning home from a foreign land, and we might smooth the transition by taking time to consider the impact of the last year and anticipate what might come.
When I proposed the topic “What is God” for the February Reno Friends spiritual discussion, I was both excited and anxious. Would anyone come, and more importantly, would we have the courage to share from our hearts and souls about this big question? Fourteen of us met on Zoom last month, and almost immediately we opened into a gathered space of deep sharing. It was truly magical!
On a recent Sunday, our Quaker Meeting was gathering for our Zoom Silent Worship, when something lovely happened. As usual, there was a bit of chitchat as folks welcomed each other to the zoom session, and then people began settling into the silence. As the session quieted (and before the host muted everyone) there was a short period when we could all hear domestic noise from each others’ homes: the clink of a spoon in a mug, the scrape of a chair on the floor, the whistle of a cockatiel. It was intimate and wonderful.
This is the time when sunlight returns to our winter world and a new year begins. 2020 has been a year of retreat for many of us, clouded by uncertainty and anxiety. We spent more time with ourselves than usual. I have seen this year as an opportunity to go the “mountain”, to use a metaphor common to many spiritual traditions. There has been less outward activity and more inward reflection. But now the energy is shifting, and the time is coming to re-engage with the “marketplace”—to bring our inner Light into the world.
Several weeks ago Reno Friends met online for a spiritual discussion about membership, which was something of a rare event. Usually, modern-day Quakers don’t talk much about who’s a member and who’s an “attender.” Many devoted Quakers spend their lives as attenders of Monthly Meetings, volunteering for leadership roles and participating in Silent Worship, Business Meetings and social events, but deciding against the step of membership. In truth, that pretty much describes me: I’ve been attending Quaker Meeting (with varying levels of devotion) since I first went to the Florida Avenue Meeting in Washington, D.C., more than 35 years ago. I’m a really good attender.
Last month, Reno Friend Doug Smith led a spiritual discussion about Mysticism on Zoom. It was well attended and stimulated a vibrant discussion. One of Doug’s questions was: Do you think Quakerism can be a form of mysticism? Some thought yes and others no. Defining mystics and mysticism is a tricky task, as mystical experiences are often difficult to explain. Here is the Oxford Languages definition of a mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the Absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.
A Reno Friend recently shared a photo from social media that reminded me of something fundamental to the Quaker faith. It wasn’t a photo of Quakers; it was a photo of Turkish protestors, gathered to stand against their government’s crimes – and they were standing in silence. Below the photo (which was published by The Free Thought Project) was a caption: No yelling. No screaming. No fighting. A more efficient form of protesting: Thousands of people standing in complete silence, protesting in squares & public places in Turkey. Baffling the police by creating a calm curiosity, instead of tension and aggression. Along with the photo, the Reno Friend sent a comment: “Quakers have been using this form of protest for years!”