In my twenties, I wondered when I could safely start calling myself a “woman.” It was unclear when the official shift came from “girl.” Next it was “teacher,” which I adopted quickly because it was my profession. “Writer” was a label I didn’t feel I deserved for a while, but I use it freely now that I have published pieces under my belt. “Mom” is an identity I cultivated when I started this blog.
“Quaker” is not an identity I have been eager to spread in my online presence, even though it is my religion. Going to Quaker meeting and working at a Quaker magazine has become a huge and important part of my life, but I have been shy to fully embrace the label.
A big part of the reason for that is I never identified as a religious person. Growing up without positive role models of faith, organized religion seemed divisive to me, judgmental and harsh. It seemed to be for groups of people who blindly accepted beliefs and rituals handed down to them——or didn’t, but went to church anyway. I always found it ironic when Christians used the name “Jesus” to judge or condemn others, or suggest they had figured out the truth and the rest of us were wandering around in the dark. Organized religion, especially fundamentalist Christianity and Catholicism, has always felt like a patriarchal cult where women were secondary. I often admired people who were able to still have faith despite the setbacks of their church.
Despite my lack of religious upbringing, though, I was always interested in beliefs, in meaning, in answers to the important question, Who am I? I’ve always had a strong moral center and held myself——and others——to high standards of behavior. The reason I was drawn to Quakerism years ago is because it seemed different from organized religion, a safe refuge. I loved the openness to different beliefs and paths, the emphasis on silence, the inherent equality in believing that anyone could be a minister, that we all have a direct connection to God. Quakers were on the right side of history, too: as a group, they were among the first to acknowledge (albeit reluctantly) that women should have the same rights as men, and that slavery was evil.
If you are unfamiliar with some of the basic tenets of Quakerism, here are the three most central to me:
1. There is a spirit within each of us, a piece of God——what many Quakers call “that of God.” (Some use the terms “Light” or “Divine.”) This belief is the most important and most challenging. It means I have to greet “that of God” in every person I come into contact with. It means that I can’t write someone off, or assume that because I disagree with someone, he or she has no value to me. Instead, I am called to see that person as a teacher, as an opportunity for me to grow.
2. Silence is key. I access the divine through silence. Each week at my meetinghouse, I sit with my community and connect to a beauty deep within that flows through all of us. Occasionally, someone will feel called to speak and offer a message. But that ministry gets processed during the silence.
3. Being Quaker means I have a commitment to my community. I’d rather this wasn’t the case. It’s so much easier to go to a quiet meeting, soak in the silence and the calm and occasional messages and leave, never having to offer a thing. But this is where being a member of a Quaker meeting is different than going to a mindfulness retreat, or participating in meditation. Because I am in a community, I have an obligation to offer myself, even when it hurts, and even when it’s hard.
There is more, of course, and Quakers are a lot like Rabbis——get five in a room and they’ll tell you five different stories. The more liberal branches of Quakers I worship with do not believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, or that you need to read the Bible to know God. They may believe there are lessons in the Bible, but there are also lessons in every person we meet. Quakers are more likely to try to adhere to testimonies——Equality, Integrity, Peace, Stewardship, and Simplicity——than scripture.
Now that I’ve become more immersed in the Quaker world, however, I see that my faith community has flaws. Quakers tend to look like nutty professors and eccentrics, forcefully un-hip. They love acronyms for their smaller organizations within the religion: AFSC, FCNL, FWCC, FLGBTQ, FGC, FUM and the most important one, WTF? In the absence of a clear Quaker hierarchy, a subtler one develops in which reigns the common religious assumption that men know more about spiritual matters than women. Quakers seem to think they know every other Quaker, which makes the “Society” of Friends feel at times like a country club——and a rich old man’s country club at that. Another problem Quakers have is that, like their forebears, they are too insular, and haven’t fully shaken off the tradition of being closed off from the rest of the culture. Many who talk about Quakerism nowadays are too absorbed in what Quakerism “used to be,” rather than what it is right now. Quakers also need to be reminded of the fact that they are human and can be wrong, just like human beings in every other faith tradition. We are no better than others: we have just chosen this particular path as a way to connect to God. There are, of course, plenty of other ways.
As much as I feel connected to this faith, I know there is a lot of work to do.
The reason I’m writing this here is that my blog is going to change a bit. I still want to connect to my audience of moms and writers, but I also want to share this journey of my spirituality, of what I’m learning and how I’m transforming to become a better person. It’s no coincidence that my journey of writing and creating and my journey of faith are happening at the same time. My desire for art and beauty is inextricable from my desire for something higher and broader, a faith that helps me grow. My belief in a powerful force that flows through all of us comes from the same belief I have in the power of inspiration, of imagination, love and hope.
I’m coming out as Quaker.
Where have you found your spiritual home?