Normality

“Please take the time to silence your cell phones before entering our space of worship.” It was a Sunday morning in late February and I was entering a meeting of the Tempe Quakers with four classmates to observe their form of worship for an assignment. There we unexpectedly met three other students who were in attendance for the same assignment.

“And please, let me know if you have any questions afterwards. I would be happy to answer any of them.” I had little previous knowledge of Quaker traditions, so of course I Googled “Quakers” before heading to the meeting. After scrolling past several search entries about oatmeal, I found a Quaker website where I learned I could anticipate an hour filled with mostly silent, expectant waiting. What I experienced, though, was unlike anything I could have imagined and, to be honest, was a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t know about my classmates in attendance, but throughout the service I felt more like I was waiting for everyone else to finish a test that I had already completed than like I was at a religious ceremony.

Normally, the only forms of religious worship I took part in were Catholic masses. It was my habit to listen to what others preached and obediently sing the songs others told me to sing, rather than to wait until I myself was moved to give a message. At the Quaker service, though, that was exactly the expectation. I sat in a room of about 40 Quakers who were almost all over the age of sixty. My first thought was, “Way to conform to your stereotype.” There were two circles of chairs, one inside the other, and at promptly ten o’clock the doors closed and the service started. Of course, unless one was aware of what was going on, it would have been easy to miss the closed doors as the sign to start the service. We sat in a silence that was broken only five times by brief messages from the spirit speaking through people who were in attendance. The spirit was clearly not speaking to everyone because a couple older men dozed off about five minutes into the meeting. Of those whom the spirit did speak “through”, I was most perplexed by the second man who spoke.

“I am appreciative for the normality of my daily life,” he said simply.

I wondered what exactly his daily life entailed, because if it was more silent, expectant waiting I wasn’t sure that many outside that room would consider it normal. I brought this up with the four girls I drove to the meeting as we made our way back to our residence halls.

I wondered aloud, “I didn’t notice a leader. Who do you think is in charge? Who teaches them?” “I guess they don’t need to be told their beliefs. They can believe whatever they want.” “What does it say about us that we have to be told our beliefs?” I couldn’t argue with that. When I thought about it, I did feel sort of childish because others told me what to say, think, and do. The appearance of freedom for Quakers seemed appealing. However, who would choose to sit in a large room with noticeably white walls, not saying anything, when they could be exchanging warm welcomes and singing with others? As much as I tried to understand their belief (in not having beliefs), I couldn’t seem to wrap my head around their weekly meetings.

I suppose being part of any religion requires faith: faith that you are worshipping and living how a higher power wants you to, faith that you’re doing what’s right for you. Why bother to regard another’s beliefs as strange when they probably believe that yours are equally illogical? When I think about it, nothing is “normal” about many Catholic traditions: not allowing priests to marry, telling a priest every sin you commit and believing he has the power to relieve you of them, making nuns and monks live away from society and often in silence. In fact, that last example sounds a lot like a traditional Quaker service, allowing me to believe that things are often not as strange or different as they first appear.





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