The Empty Chair

‘…Why gad you abroad? Why trim you yourselves with the saints’ words, when you are ignorant of the life? Return, return to Him that is the first Love, and the first-born of every creature, who is the Light of the world… Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him.’ Francis Howgill, 1656 [Quaker Faith & Practice 26.71]

If our Teacher can be found within, how does that shape my own identity as both a Quaker teacher, and a teacher of Quakers? I haven’t got a complete answer, but as a response to this question I make a habit of keeping a chair empty every time I work with a group. It’s a physical reminder to make space for, and listen to, the Inward Teacher. It challenges and reassures me that I’m not, and don’t need to be, an expert. It alludes to the Jewish tradition of setting a place for Elijah at the Passover Seder, and to the Christian image of Jesus knocking at the door, ready to come in a dine with us [Rev 3:20]. Jesus told a lot of stories about hospitality, a general rule seeming to be expected the unexpected. The Inward Teacher could arrive at any moment. Or perhaps it is we who are the guests, accepting the hospitality of the Host? Maybe the Inward Teacher was waiting for us when we arrived, eager for our company, as George Herbert evokes in his poem ‘Love’:

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

The lessons of success and failure

After a recent successful workshop, I wrote in my journal ‘I find it easy to recognise the presence of the Host. People come to me in tears, telling me of profound transformational experiences, and I stand in awe. I’ve held the space, but the work hasn’t been done by me. My job is to make room for the Spirit to do its work. It is a constantly humbling experience…’ It was easy to write those words, basking in the joy of the participants and feeling pride in my own skill. Maybe it wasn’t such a humbling experience after all.

The real lesson in humility comes when a workshop goes badly. My own worst critic, I rehearse the workshop over and over in my head, noticing every instance of poor planning and each badly worded instruction. I know I couldn’t have planned it any differently, and it wasn’t a disaster, but now that it’s over the whole thing feels like a failure, my dissatisfaction amplified with every replay in my mind. When my teaching falls flat, my pride makes it difficult to see that the Inward Teacher was present there too.

When I was teaching music in primary schools, the impact of my work was often immediate. If the kids can sing the song well after thirty minutes then that’s a job well done. At Woodbrooke several weeks can separate teaching engagements, and the nature of the work is very different. Am I missing the instant hit I got in my previous job? Am I ridiculously hoping that every group I work with has a moment of life changing, Holy Spirit-filled ecstasy? As a music teacher I was told to make my job musically satisfying, then I wouldn’t need to find that satisfaction elsewhere. I was beginning to think that this principle could be applied to my work with Friends, but now I’m not so sure. In my mid-20s I learnt that growing in the spiritual life meant leaving the search for spiritual highs behind. Is it time to learn that lesson again?

‘Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.’ George Fox, 1656

Whether I feel a session goes well or falls flat, the empty chair reminds me that there’s a greater Teacher already at work in the participants. ‘That of God’ in them has something to teach me, and I will be blessed by the ‘witness of God in them’. The Spirit can work through my frailty and incompetence as well my skill. Who knows what seeds have been sown in a workshop that appears to be a dud? It is not my privilege to witness the fruits they eventually bear.

2 thoughts on “The Empty Chair”

  1. I think your conclusion about seeds is a helpful one. As I see it, an important element of the teacher/facilitator’s rôle is preparing the ground as best we can, then standing back so that the Spirit can do its work. Sometimes the shoots of new growth are visible instantly; occasionally we may hear years later what happened. And often we will never know, but we can live with that.

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