This week the HDS B.A.R. Hoppers (that’s Boston Area Religions, mind you), went to check out the Quaker community at Beacon Hill Friends House. This was a new experience for most of us and I think we were all able to gain some great insights and of course learn about and participate in a unique worship service!
Beacon Hill Friends are housed in a beautiful converted house in downtown Boston, just off of the Commons.
We all loved the space. It was simple but very elegant.
Their meeting space used to be a ballroom (fancy).
And it still managed to have little areas that gave it a very comfortable, warm feel. Certainly welcoming.
The library was one of my favorite parts. They even had Quaker murder mystery fiction!
This huge window behind one row of benches not only provided a rather heavenly glow to the entire room, but also quite nicely allowed the sun to warm our backs during the service. Though it made me sleepy.
The service was unlike anything I had experienced before. No minister, no sermon. In fact, hardly any speaking at all. This community practices “unprogrammed worship” — for one hour every one sits together in silence in “an effort by everyone present to experience God’s presence collectively.” When a member feels moved to speak, they stand and share their thoughts/ insight with the group. This time around, 4 or 5 people spoke (which was apparently more than usual!). After someone breaks the silence, community members are meant to silently reflect on what was said.
The pamphlet on the back of the bench stated “centering down means clearing the mind and heart from distracting thoughts, worries, or cares.” I proved to be almost completely incapable of this. Silence, it turns out, is challenging when you’re not accustomed to it. Sitting in quiet reflection, if nothing else, made me realize how incredibly difficult it is for me to sit in quiet reflection. Here are just a few of the thoughts that went through my brain– “I should probably have had three pancakes this morning instead of four,” “oh my god I just remembered I have a paper due next week,” “how long has it been?” “how long now?” “please shut up, brain.” And that was in about the first 7 minutes. I appreciated this challenge, however. It was a good reminder of the importance of slowing down once in a while.
When the hour was up, a community member stood up and started in with the hand shaking. Folks followed suit and everyone turned to each other, shook hands, and said, “Good morning!” It was lovely. Afterwards there were announcements and then introductions. Anyone who was new or returning after an absence got a very warm “WELCOME!” from the group.
I came away with a great respect and admiration for this group of Quakers. In many ways I think that religion should challenge us — not only by confronting us with ourselves in what can initially be an uncomfortable experience of being stuck with our own brains in silence — but also with the challenge of cultivating a deeply personal relationship with God. At least, this in many ways feels like a challenge to me. In a good way. Faith is something that I want to wrestle with.
The Quakers manage to cultivate both productive silence and deep communal ties and relationships. This was a wonderful, friendly, and warm community. They come together to sit quietly with their own thoughts and faith and to be a part of a collective which participates together in this unprogrammed worship.
Again, simplicity and elegance.
The B.A.R. Hoppers!
Stay tuned for our visit to the Chai Center shabbat service this Friday!