Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Demystifying the mystics

It's 6am and I can hear two older Quakers speaking earnestly about toothpaste. Yep, it's another day of "Yearly Meeting", the name for the annual Australia Quaker Gathering. If you've ever read Roald Dahl's book "The Witches", the first day of Yearly Meeting for me is a bit like the witches' AGM. Quakers from all around Australia begin to arrive and with great delight greet friends from the other side of the country that they haven't seen since last year. While there aren't the wigs, square toes, or an abhorrence towards children, there are some physical features that set Quakers apart from the rest - lots of sensible hair cuts and sensible shoes.

Mealtimes are a good opportunity for inter-generational exchange. The first morning at breakfast I overheard a rather articulate nine year old boy explaining to his grandfather why he should be permitted to walk across campus and across a busy road to reach the children's room rather than taking a lift in his grandfather's car: "Well, grandpa I have been around for 9 years and have never been hit by a car. Yet, it was only yesterday that you got lost driving across campus". Grandpa conceded defeat.

The first day of Yearly Meeting is when we hold "Summer School", a full day workshop where we can explore deep spiritual issues or creative processes. I selected to do a workshop on "Eldering", which is about the spiritual nurture of the local meeting we are part of. Elders in Quakerism are not necessarily older, and in fact the most profound experience for me in that workshop was when the facilitator's daughter, aged 18 months, waddled around the room quietly greeting all of us, pausing for longer with those who she sensed needed more loving attention. There was a wisdom in her that we often overlook in children.

The other days are taken up with meetings for worship and for business, where the Quaker process of discernment and working towards consensus are applied to a range of issues from earthcare concerns in Australia, international aid and development projects, and appropriate resourcing of our children's program. When there isn't unity on an issue, sometimes the Clerk will ask for silence so we can all centre ourselves before considering the issue again. Each person can only speak once, and there is silence between each contribution. As Friends rise to stand and voice their concerns or support, it's possible to see the energy in the room shift as the group comes to a shared understanding of the best way forward. Sometimes the final decision is different to, and in some ways better than, the original proposal.

Taking a break to cycle around Lake Ginnunderra
But it's not all serious stuff. There is always time for hugs, smiles, and more earnest conversations about toothpaste or the time and energy saved drinking tea with cold water. One Young Friend fondly remembers a year when he was invited to spend an entire afternoon learning Tibetan throat singing.

During the week the children have their own sessions, with older Quakers joining them to share stories from their life experience or to hear what the children have been up to. Older Quakers take seriously the care and nurture of their younger counterparts, taking the opportunity when given, to teach experientially about Quaker process. I can remember one year when I was a teenager, it had come to pass that one of the phones in the dormitories had been broken, possibly as a result of enthusiastic over-use. Rather than attribute blame, or swift discipline, our adult carers asked us to sit in a circle and "discuss" the issue of the broken phone and what to do about it. As the sun became stronger and stronger, and our stomachs hungrier, we discussed and discussed without "unity", until finally one of our number stood, and declared that he thought perhaps it was in fact he who had broken the phone after all. We all breathed a sigh of relief, agreed to share the costs of the repair, and finally went to lunch.

Invariably the staff at the university where we are staying are not used to a group with so many vegetarians and people with other dietary requirements, and so soon enough a brash Quaker who needs her energy for the next session will be heard explaining in no uncertain terms to the kitchen staff that salad doesn't cut it - they need to provide protein to the vegetarians! Slowly, under the guidance of more brash Quakers, the quality of the vegetarian meals improves over the course of the week, until we are inundated with beans, eggs and tofu.

The final night of Yearly Meeting is when we hold the concert. Suddenly all semblance of quietness dissipates, and there is poetry, singing, laughter and dance. My favourite act this year was Young Friends' Australian rendition of Jon Watt's slightly irreverent flash mob rap song "Friend speaks my mind", closely followed by the Children's mock news segment and weather report for 2050, highlighting the risks of not acting immediately on climate change.

All too soon, it's time to go home, and I hope yet again that the hugs, smiles and enriching conversations will lovingly sustain and hold me throughout the coming year, enabling me to go about my life with integrity. The challenge for me is to find ways to recreate this same sense of community, love, passion and depth in my everyday life.

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