Finding a traditional Quaker meeting in Indianapolis would not be easy. No steeple would loom above the meeting house, no bell tower, no neon cross. No billboard out front would name the preacher or proclaim the sermon topic or tell sinners how to save their souls. No crowd of nattily dressed churchgoers would stream toward the entrance from a vast parking lot filled with late-model cars. No bleat and moan of organ music would roll from the sanctuary doors.
I knew all of that from having worshipped with Quakers off and on for thirty years, beginning when I was a graduate student in England. They are a people who call so little attention to themselves or their gathering places as to be nearly invisible. Yet when I happened to be in Indianapolis one Sunday this past January, I still set out in search of the meeting house without street address or map. My search was not made any easier by the snow lolling down on the city that morning. I recalled hearing that the North Meadow Circle of Friends gathers in a house near the intersection of Meridian and 16th Streets, a spot I found easily enough. Although I could not miss the imposing Catholic Center nearby on Meridian nor the Joy of All Who Sorrow Eastern Orthodox Church just a block away on 16th, the only landmark at the intersection itself was the International House of Pancakes. Figuring somebody in there might be able to direct me to the Quakers, I went inside, where I was greeted by the smell of sausage and the frazzled gaze of the hostess. No, she’d never heard of any Quakers.
“But there’s the phone book,” she told me, gesturing with a sheaf of menus. “You’re welcome to look them up.”
I thanked her, and started with the yellow pages. No luck under “Churches.” Nothing under “Religion.” Nothing under “Quakers” or “Friends, Society of.” Finally, in the white pages, I found a listing for the North Meadow Circle, with a street address just a couple of blocks away.
As I returned the phone book to its cubbyhole, I glanced across the room, where a throng of diners tucked into heaping platters of food, and I saw through the plate-glass window a man slouching past on the sidewalk. He wore a knit hat encrusted with leaves, a jacket torn at the elbows to reveal several dingy layers of cloth underneath, baggy trousers held up with a belt of rope, and broken leather shoes wrapped with silver duct tape. His face was the color of dust. He carried a bulging gray sack over his shoulder, like a grim Santa Claus. Pausing at a trash can, he bent down to retrieve something, stuffed the prize in his bag, then shuffled north on Meridian into the slant of snow.
I thought how odd it was that none of the diners rushed out to drag him from the street into the House of Pancakes for a hot meal. Then again, I didn’t rush out either. I only stood there feeling pangs of guilt, an ache as familiar as heartburn. What held me back? Wouldn’t the Jesus whom I try to follow in my own muddled way have chosen to feed that man instead of searching for a prayer meeting? I puzzled over this as I drove the few blocks to Talbott Street, on the lookout for number 1710, the address I had turned up in the phone book. The root of all my reasons for neglecting that homeless man, I decided, was fear. He might be crazy, might be strung out, might be dangerous. He would almost certainly have problems greater than I could solve. And there were so many more like him, huddled out front of missions or curled up in doorways all over Indianapolis this bitterly cold morning. If I fed one person, why not two? Why not twenty? Once I acknowledged the human need rising around me, what would keep me from drowning in all that hurt?
A whirl of guilt and snow blinded me to number 1710, even though I cruised up and down that stretch of Talbott Street three times. I did notice that the neighborhood was in transition, with some houses boarded up and others newly spiffed up. A few of the homes were small enough for single families, but most were big frame duplexes trimmed in fretwork and painted in pastels, or low brick apartment buildings that looked damp and dark and cheap. On my third pass along Talbott I saw a portly man with a bundle of papers clamped under one arm turning in at the gate of a gray clapboard house. I rolled down my window to ask if he knew where the Friends worshipped, and he answered with a smile, “Right here.”
I parked nearby in a lot belonging to the Herron School of Art. As I climbed out of the car, a pinwheel of pigeons lifted from the roof of the school and spun across the sky, a swirl of silver against pewter clouds. No artists appeared to be up and about this early on a Sunday, but some of their handiwork was on display in the yard, including a flutter of cloth strips dangling from wire strung between posts, an affair that looked, under the weight of snow, like bedraggled laundry. An inch or two of snow covered the parking lot, and more was falling. Footprints scuffled away from the five or six cars, converged on the sidewalk, then led up to the gate where I had seen the man carrying the bundle of papers. True to form, the Quakers had mounted no sign on the brick gateposts, none on the iron fence, none on the lawn. Twin wreathes tied with red ribbons flanked the porch, and a wind-chime swayed over the front steps. Only when I climbed onto the porch did I see beside the door a small painted board announcing that an “Unprogrammed (‘Silent’) Meeting” is held here every First Day at 10 a.m., and that “Each person’s presence is reason to celebrate.”
There was celebration in the face of the woman who greeted me at the door. “So good to see you,” she whispered. “Have you worshipped with Quakers before?” I answered with a nod. “Wonderful,” she murmured, pointing the way: “We’re right in there.”
I walked over creaking floorboards from the narrow entrance hall into a living room cluttered with bookshelves, cozy chairs, and exuberant plants. Stacks of pamphlets filled the mantle above a red brick fireplace. Posters on the walls proclaimed various Quaker testimonies, including opposition to the death penalty and a vow against war. It was altogether a busy, frowzy, good-natured space.
From there I entered the former dining room, which had become the meeting room, and I took my seat on a wooden bench near the bay windows. Five other benches were ranged about, facing one another, to form an open square. Before closing my eyes, I noticed that I was the ninth person to arrive. No one spoke. For a long while the only sounds were the scritch of floorboards announcing latecomers, the sniffles and coughs from winter colds, the rumble and whoosh of the furnace, the calling of doves and finches from the eaves. The silence grew so deep that I could hear the blood beating in my ears. I tensed the muscles in my legs, balled up my fists, then let them relax. I tried stilling my thoughts, tried hushing my own inner monologue, in hopes of hearing the voice of God.
That brazen expectation, which grips me now and again, is a steady article of faith for Quakers. They recite no creed, and they have little use for theology, but they do believe that every person may experience direct contact with God. They also believe we are most likely to achieve that contact in stillness, either alone or in the gathered meeting, which is why they use no ministers or music, no readings or formal prayers, no script at all, but merely wait in silence for inward promptings. Quakers are mystics, in other words, but homely and practical ones, less concerned with escaping to heaven than with living responsibly on earth.
The pattern was set in the seventeenth century by their founder, George Fox, who journeyed around England amid civil and ecclesiastical wars, searching for true religion. He did not find it in cathedrals or churches, did not hear it from the lips of priests, did not discover it in art or books. Near despair, he finally encountered what he was seeking within his own depths: “When all my hopes in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”
My heart was too heavy for leaping, weighed down by thoughts of the unmet miseries all around me. The homeless man shuffled past the House of Pancakes with his trash bag, right down the main street of my brain. I leaned forward on the bench, elbows on knees, listening. By and by there came a flurry of sirens from Meridian, and the sudden ruckus made me twitch. I opened my eyes and took in more of the room. There were twelve of us now, eight women and four men, ranging in age from twenty or so to upwards of seventy. No suits or ties, no skirts, no lipstick or mascara. Instead of dress-up clothes, the Friends wore sweaters or wool shirts in earth colors, jeans or corduroys, boots or running shoes or sandals with wool socks. The wooden benches, buffed and scarred from long use, were cushionless except for a few rectangular scraps of carpet, only one of which had been claimed. A pair of toy metal cars lay nose-to-nose on one bench, a baby’s bib and a Bible lay on another, and here and there lay boxes of Kleenex.
Except for those few objects and the benches and people, the room was bare. There was no crucifix hanging on the walls, no saint’s portrait, no tapestry, no decoration whatsoever. No candles flickered in shadowy alcoves. The only relief from the white paint were three raised-panel doors that led into closets or other rooms. The only movement, aside from an occasional shifting of hands or legs, was the sashay of lace curtains beside the bay windows when the furnace puffed warm air, and those windows of clear glass provided the only light.
To anyone glancing in from outside, we would have offered a dull spectacle: a dozen grown people sitting on benches, hands clasped in laps or lying open on knees, eyes closed, bodies upright or hunched over, utterly quiet. “And your strength is, to stand still,” Fox wrote in one of his epistles, “that ye may receive refreshings; that ye may know, how to wait, and how to walk before God, by the Spirit of God within you.” When the refreshing comes, when the Spirit stirs within, one is supposed to rise in the meeting and proclaim what God has whispered or roared. It might be a prayer, a few lines from the Bible or another holy book, a testimony about suffering in the world, a moral concern, or a vision. If the words are truly spoken, they are understood to flow not from the person but from the divine source that upholds and unites all of Creation.
In the early days, when hundreds and then thousands of people harkened to the message of George Fox as he traveled through England, there was often so much fervent speaking in the meetings for worship, so much shaking and shouting under the pressure of the Spirit, that hostile observers mocked these trembling Christians by calling them “Quakers.” The humble followers of Fox, indifferent to the world’s judgment, accepted the name. They also called themselves Seekers, Children of the Light, Friends in the Truth, and, eventually, the Society of Friends.
Most of these names, along with much of their religious philosophy, derived from the Gospel according to John. There in the first chapter of the recently-translated King James version they could read that Jesus “was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” In the fifteenth chapter they could read Christ’s assurance to his followers: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”
There was no outward sign of fervor on the morning of my visit to the North Meadow Circle of Friends. I sneezed once, and that was the loudest noise in the room for a long while. In the early years, meetings might go on for half a day, but in our less patient era they usually last about an hour. There is no set ending time. Instead, one of the elders, sensing when the silence has done its work, will signal the conclusion by shaking hands with a neighbor. Without looking at my watch, I guessed that most of an hour had passed, and still no one had spoken.
It would have been rare in Fox’s day for an entire meeting to pass without any vocal ministry, as the Quakers call it. But it is not at all rare in our own time, judging from my reading and from my visits to meetings around the country. Indeed, Quaker historians acknowledge that over the past three centuries the Society has experienced a gradual decline in spiritual energy, broken by occasional periods of revival, and graced by many vigorous, God-centered individuals. Quakerism itself arose in reaction to a lackluster Church of England, just as the Protestant Reformation challenged a corrupt and listless Catholic Church, just as Jesus challenged the hidebound Judaism of his day. It seems to be the fate of religious movements to lose energy over time, as direct encounters with the Spirit give way to secondhand rituals and creeds, as prophets give way to priests, as living insight hardens into words and glass and stone.
The Quakers have resisted this fate better than most, but they have not escaped it entirely. Last century, when groups of disgruntled Friends despaired of reviving what they took to be a moribund Society, they split off to form congregations that would eventually hire ministers, sing hymns, read scriptures aloud, and behave for all the world like other low-temperature Protestant churches. In Midwestern states such as Indiana, in fact, these so-called “programmed” Quaker churches have come to outnumber the traditional silent meetings.
I could have gone to a Friends’ Church in Indianapolis that Sunday morning, but I was in no mood to sit through anybody’s program, no matter how artful or uplifting it might be. What I craved was silence—not absolute silence, for I welcomed the ruckus of doves and finches, but rather the absence of human noise. I spend nearly all of my waking hours immersed in language, bound to machines, following streets, obeying schedules, seeing and hearing and touching only what my clever species has made. I often yearn, as I did that morning, to withdraw from all our schemes and formulas, to escape from the obsessive human story, to slip out of my own small self and meet the great Self, the nameless mystery at the core of being. I had a better chance of doing that here among the silent Quakers, I felt, than anywhere else I might have gone.
A chance is not a guarantee, of course. I had spent hundreds of hours in Quaker meetings over the years, and only rarely had I felt myself dissolved away into the Light. More often, I had sat on hard benches rummaging through my past, counting my breaths, worrying about chores, reciting verses in my head, thinking about the pleasures and evils of the day, half hoping and half fearing that some voice not my own would break through to command my attention. It’s no wonder that most religions put on a show, anything to fence in the wandering mind and fence out the terror. It’s no wonder that only a dozen people would seek out this Quaker meeting on a Sunday morning, while tens of thousands of people were sitting through scripted performances in other churches all across Indianapolis.
Carrying on one’s own spiritual search, without maps or guide, can be scary. When I sink into meditation, I often remember the words of Pascal: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” What I take him to mean is that the universe is bewilderingly large and enigmatic; it does not speak to us in any clear way; and yet we feel, in our brief spell of life, an urgent desire to learn where we are and why we are and who we are. The silence reminds us that we may well be all on our own in a universe empty of meaning, each of us an accidental bundle of molecules, forever cut off from the truth. If that is roughly what Pascal meant, then I suspect that most people who have thought much about our condition would share his dread. Why else do we surround ourselves with so much noise? We plug in, tune in, cruise around, talk, read, run, as though determined to drown out the terrifying silence of those infinite spaces. The louder this human racket becomes, the more I value those who are willing, like Buddhists and Benedictines and Quakers, to brave the silence.
In the quiet of worship on that snowy First Day, I gradually sank into stillness, down below the babble of thought. Deep in that stillness time let go its grip, the weight of muscle and bone slid away, the empty husk of self broke open and filled with a pure listening.
A car in need of a muffler roared down Talbott Street past the meeting house, and the racket hauled me back to the surface of my mind. Only when I surfaced did I realize how far down I had dived. Had I touched bottom? Was there a bottom at all, and if so, was it only the floor of my private psyche, or was it the ground of being?
As I pondered, someone stood up heavily from a bench across the room from me. Although Quakers are not supposed to care who speaks, I opened my eyes, squinting against the somber snowlight. The one standing was the portly man whom I had asked the way to the meeting house. A ruff of pearl-gray hair fell to his shoulders, a row of pens weighted the breast pocket of his flannel shirt, and the cuffs of his jeans were neatly rolled. He cleared his throat. In times of prayer, he said, he often feels overwhelmed by a sense of the violence and cruelty and waste in the world. Everywhere he looks, he sees more grief. When he complains to God that he’s fed up with problems and would like some solutions for a change, God answers that the solutions are for humans to devise. If we make our best effort, God will help. But God isn’t going to shoulder the burden for us. We’re called not to save the world but to carry on the work of love.
All of this was said intimately, affectionately, in the tone of a person reporting a conversation with a close friend. Having uttered his few words, the speaker sat down. The silence flowed back over us. A few minutes later, he grasped the hand of the woman sitting next to him, and with a rustle of limbs greetings were exchanged all around the room. We blinked at one another, returned from wherever it was we had gone together, separated once more into our twelve bodies. Refreshed, I took up the sack of my self, which seemed lighter than when I had carried it into this room. I looked about, gazing with tenderness at each face, even though I was a stranger to all of them.
A guest book was passed around for signatures. The only visitor besides myself was a man freshly arrived from Louisiana, who laughed about needing to buy a heavier coat for this Yankee weather. An elder mentioned that donations could be placed in a small box on the mantle, if anyone felt moved to contribute. People rose to announce social concerns and upcoming events. After an hour and a half of nearly unbroken silence, suddenly the air filled with talk. It was as though someone had released into our midst a chattering flock of birds.
Following their custom, the Friends took turns introducing themselves and recounting some noteworthy event from the past week. A woman told about lunching with her daughter-in-law, trying to overcome some hard feelings, and about spilling a milkshake in the midst of the meal. A man told how his son’s high school basketball coach took the boy out of a game for being too polite toward the opponents. The father jokingly advised his son to scowl and threaten, like the professional athletes whom the coach evidently wished for him to emulate. This prompted a woman to remark that her colleagues at work sometimes complained that she was too honest: “Lie a little, they tell me. It greases the wheels.” The only student in the group, a young woman with a face as clear as spring water, told of an English assignment that required her to write about losing a friend. “And I’ve spent the whole week in memory,” she said. A man reported on his children’s troubled move to a new school. A woman told of her conversation with a prisoner on death-row. Another told of meeting with a union organizer while visiting Mexico. “They’re so poor,” she said, “we can’t even imagine how poor.” A woman explained that she and her husband, who cared nothing for football, would watch the Super Bowl that afternoon, because the husband’s estranged son from an earlier marriage was playing for the Green Bay Packers. When my turn came, I described hiking one afternoon that week with my daughter, Eva, how we studied the snow for animal tracks, how her voice lit up the woods. Others spoke about cleaning house, going to a concert, losing a job, caring for grandchildren, suffering pain, hearing a crucial story: small griefs, small celebrations.
After all twelve of us had spoken, we sat for one final moment in silence, to mark the end of our time together. Then we rose from those unforgiving benches, pulled on coats, and said our good-byes. On my way to the door, I was approached by several Friends who urged me to come again, and I thanked them for their company.
As I walked outside into the sharp wind, I recalled how George Fox had urged his followers to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” There were still no footprints leading to the doors of the art school, no lights burning in the studios. I brushed snow from the windows of my car with gloved hands. To go home, I should have turned south on Meridian, but instead I turned north. I drove slowly, peering into alleys and doorways, looking for the man in the torn jacket with the bulging gray sack over his shoulder. I never saw him, and I did not know what I would have done if I had seen him. Give him a few dollars? Offer him a meal at the International House of Pancakes? Take him home?
Eventually I turned around and headed south, right through the heart of the city. In spite of the snow, traffic was picking up, for the stores recognized no Sabbath. I thought of the eighteenth-century Quaker, John Woolman, who gave up shop-keeping and worked modestly as a tailor, so that he would have time for seeking and serving God. “So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world,” he wrote in 1772, “that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the creation at this day doth loudly groan.”
In my Quakerly mood, much of what I saw in the capitol was distressing—the trash on curbs, the bars and girlie clubs, the war memorials, the sheer weight of buildings, the smear of pavement, the shop windows filled with trinkets, the homeless men and women plodding along through the snow, the endless ads. I had forgotten that today was Super Bowl Sunday until the woman at meeting spoke of it, and now I could see that half the billboards and marquees and window displays in the city referred to this national festival, a day set aside for devotion by more people, and with more fervor, than any date on the Christian calendar.
“The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God,” wrote Thomas Merton. I have certainly found it so. The hectic activity imposed on us by jobs and families and avocations and amusements, the accelerating pace of technology, the flood of information, the proliferation of noise, all combine to keep us from that inward stillness where meaning is to be found. How can we grasp the nature of things, how can we lead gathered lives, if we are forever dashing about like water-striders on the moving surface of a creek?
By the time I reached the highway outside of Indianapolis, snow was falling steadily and blowing lustily, whiting out the way ahead. Headlights did no good. I should have pulled over until the sky cleared, as the more sensible drivers did. But the snow held me. Rolling on into the whiteness, I lost all sense of motion, lost awareness of road and car. I seemed to be floating in the whirl of flakes, caught up in silence, alone yet not alone, as though I had slipped by accident into the state that a medieval mystic had called the cloud of unknowing. Memory fled, words flew away, and there was only the brightness, here and everywhere.