Advice and Query 10: Worship in the desert

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold. In the silence ask for and accept the prayerful support of others joined with you in worship. Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy. Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart, may bring healing and unity as nothing else can. Let meeting for worship nourish your whole life.

Worship is not always about celebration and fulness. Grief and emptiness have a vital role to play in the authentic faith community. Thomas Kelly writes that spiritual wholeness involves an enlarging of the heart, intensifying the joys and sorrows in our lives. This A&Q invites you to come to worship when you feel you have nothing to offer, realising that your sadness, anger, tiredness, weakness and desolation are in fact important offerings that your fellow Friends need. No meeting is complete without them. ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ [Psalm 51:17]. Our needs allow others to give. As well as asking in the silence, verbally ask trusted Friends for prayerful support. There is a real power in naming our needs. In the silence, trust that the Holy Spirit is praying in you. for ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ [Romans 8:26].

What if this time of spiritual coldness continues beyond one meeting? Do you still feel inspired to go to meeting, despite your inner emptiness? If so, then coming regularly to worship is a sign of faithfulness. To keep coming to meeting, even when you get nothing out of it, may be a time of important spiritual growth. It may be a wilderness time, a ‘dark night of the soul’, that you will only truly understand once you are on the other side. It is important to share this journey with a trusted Friend, perhaps a spiritual director. Don’t walk through the desert alone.

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But there is another possibility. Sometimes, if we find ourselves in long spell of spiritual dryness where going to meeting seems to make no difference, this might be a sign that something’s not right. Maybe it’s time to experiment, to try something else, or simply to take a break. The key question is: ‘are you going to meeting because you feel called to go in spite of the dryness, or are you going to meeting because that’s what good Quakers do?’ If it’s the latter, then maybe it’s time to try not going to meeting. What love requires of you may sometimes be to stay at home. If you’re going to try this, do it with the blessing of your meeting. Speak to the people responsible for pastoral care, and explain your feelings. It is better that they know the reasons for your decision, so they can support you in the best way. ‘Accept the prayerful support of others.’

Finally, this A&Q also addresses the worshipping community, and not just the individual within it. It reveals that true worship can take us in all our complexity. It can take our rage and our emptiness. Worship is not about playing a role. Worship should be somewhere where we can be our thoroughly disreputable true selves. This is a real challenge for the Quaker community. Can we hold each other in times of distress, where no easy answers are forthcoming?

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6 thoughts on “Advice and Query 10: Worship in the desert

  1. Good one, Mark! Now all I need to do is find a spiritual director… But seriously, what you’ve written is good, and helpful. A few years ago, QLGF met up in Dunblane for a weekend gathering, and on the Sunday I was given this ministry – loud and clear, overriding the thing I thought I was being asked to say, “JUST SHOW UP AND LET YOURSELF BE LOVED” – I find it very helpful still, and on occasions am led to share it

    And yes, we need to bring all the uncomfortable feelings and Stuff, and ask Friends to listen and accept *without trying to fix*!

    Hope you’ve recovered from the EfM week: we’ve had the Young Friends’ retreat in, which has been a blast of fresh air in a very wet and miserable time…

    Hugs Mxxx

  2. Although I no longer worship among Friends, I am active in our parish. I think the focus on what I get out of worship is misplaced. I think showing up is what matters. Dry times come and go. Rich times come and go. But it is only a community of worshipers if we all show up.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful post. I find that pastoral care is generally a pretty big challenge for both our monthly meeting and our yearly meeting. I question whether the paradigm of unpaid ministry is sustainable for Quakers.

    1. Thanks for reading Chad. I question it too! I wish that British Friends would more readily consider paying people at a local level to do such work.

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