Monday, 18 August 2008

My experience at Canadian Yearly Meeting

I became convinced, and joined a meeting last year in Sheffield, UK, while on sabbatical. During this period, I read a number of inspiring works about Quaker worship and business. I had some taste of the worship through Sheffield Central Meeting, but the few business meetings I attended there didn't grapple with any substantive issues. So I came back to Edmonton eager to join in the life of the monthly meeting, and came to CYM particularly eager to experience the Quaker business process.

It was excruciating. A report is received, a proposal is approved, I think we're home free, the recording clerk tries a minute, I hold my breath ... But of course, some Friend stands up and needs to speak to the minute. The proposed minute ties in with some other minute that we already approved, or some other report we haven't received yet. Other Friends stand and speak to the connection between this minute and, say, the FUM affiliation issue, and it goes on. I'm trying to breath deeply and hang on to shreds of patience. Yes, the points Friends are making are valid, sometimes crucial. This is the Quaker discernment process I've read about and admired, but I hadn't realized how painful it can be to sit through. I'm not much of a praying man, but I pray now for patience, a spiritual lubricant to get us through the friction of labouring over these issues.

Other parts of CYM more than made up for this discomfort. I'm thinking particularly of the worship sharing which broke out Tuesday night after the ecology panel presentation. Friends spoke movingly of our world as the Titanic, the iceberg already struck, the poor folk on the lower decks already drowning. Friends spoke of letting go of attachment to unjustly acquired and maintained comforts and security, that underlie this crisis. For the last three years, well before joining Quakers, I've been under great concern about environmental catastrophe and the future of human civilization. Frankly I wondered whether I was going mad. The world as we know it is appears to be coming to an end, but in all the media, in conversations with family, friends and colleagues, I encountered at most a dim, superficial awareness of the issues, if not vehement or mocking denial, that left me feeling acutely isolated and powerless. I was afraid to raise the issue, afraid of sounding like a lunatic street-corner Jeremiah. Nevertheless, with support from Friends, and brothers in Mankind Project (a men's organization I belong to), I've been finding my voice. But to be in a room with over a hundred Friends who get it ... who have the courage to put aside glib denial, to wade into that scary swamp in pursuit of the Truth -- that ministered to me deeply, knowing that I am now part of this courageous and loving family.

I also unexpectedly found that this family I have joined is broader than just the thousand-odd (no pun intended) Quakers of Canada. During the morning walking meditation sessions (thanks to Friend Margot Overington), I had the strong sense that the trees, the flowers, the grasses, are also my Friends, delighted that I was at last waking from the mental illness that kept me from communicating with them. Leaves fluttering in the wind looked to me like "Quaker cheers," whether directed at me or just expressing general joy in the sunlight and breeze. In despair over environmental concerns, I have sometimes slipped into thinking of humanity as a disease that the earth would gladly be rid of. We are indeed living amid a human-caused mass extinction event (estimated at 200-400 species per DAY at current rates), and it seems likely that it will be our own turn very soon. Yet, I sense that the trees I met in walking meditation are not hostile or indifferent to us -- that would be a projection of our culture's inner emptiness and guilt -- they love us, and would mourn our extinction, as I am learning to mourn theirs. And who knows what wonderful new expressions of God/dess' love our passing, or perchance our survival, may make way for on earth?

During CYM's special interest groups, I struggled with Quaker traditions of "speaking truth to power," i.e. classic liberal political activism in the form of petitioning government figures, and/or electoral campaigning. I am frustrated that such efforts seem to lead to, at best, superficial, symbolic changes, that leave fundamental unjust power structures untouched -- perhaps even distracting our attention from these structures. One Friend at CYM particularly spoke my mind on this issue: we should not try to speak truth to "power", we should be speaking truth to people. Another Friend suggested the simple step of getting out and talking with our neighbours. More generally, my past political activism (and I have run the gamut of political orientations over the course of my life, from Reagan supporter to anarchist) always started with the assumption that my views were Correct, other views were Evil or Deluded, and that my job was to campaign, to mobilize, to persuade (if not coerce) others into acknowledging the Correct Position. Quakers know very well that we dare not approach our own business meetings in this "creaturely" spirit. We must speak our own truth, but also listen to the truths of others, always remaining open to the discernment of a larger truth that unites us. Do we approach all our social activism with this same sense of Spirit-led discernment? Do we listen?

Returning home after CYM, I am (at present) full of enthusiasm around making changes, large and small, in my life, in the direction of simplicity, and bringing ideas from CYM back to my monthly meeting. I was immediately reminded that I can't make these changes without practising what I preached in the previous paragraph: exercising though it may be, I must listen to my family, and to my Friends, as well as speak my own truth.

2 comments:

Hystery said...

If, culturally speaking, reality is merely a mutually constructed and shared narrative then those of us who construct an alternate reality are functionally insane. At least it sure feels that way sometimes.

Even with scientific evidence and careful, rational thought behind my own "green jeremiad", I too have wondered if I was losing my mind. My urgent concern for the environment is so many times laughed off. "There she goes again!"

I positioned myself among Friends in part to provide a community of people who "get it" so my own children can do the work they need to do for peace, environmental consciousness and equality without feeling that sense of alienation and insanity.

But I find it hard to lay aside my rage and my fear at what I see done to the Earth and her most vulnerable children. I am still learning how to speak clearly, listen compassionately and act...without despair. And sometimes what I see as a kind of cultivated Quaker dispassion just about sends me over the edge. I want to scream, "There's no time for this!"

God, I hope I'm wrong.

Jeremiah said...

Don't feel bad about being a street corner Jeremiah. Jeremiah was right - Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians, and the king and the temple priests were deluded in believing themselves secure. The process is playing out again, on a planetary scale, and once again the Jeremiahs are being ignored or ridiculed.

It's important to find a community who share our point of view, critically that is, so that we don't go crazy or give up. I'm glad that you've found one with the Quakers.

It's important too to look clearly at the worst that may befall, but still insist on cultivating hope. Nihilistic despair and eat-drink-and-be-merry hedonism are contributing to the crisis. As the Babylonians besieged the city, Jeremiah bought a plot of land in the country as a sign of hope for the distant future (Jer 32).

I don't think the trees know or care about us. But yes, they matter, in their own right and for their part in the web of life that sustains us. And yes, the destruction and injustice, and our knowledge of our part in them, are hard to bear.