I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
(T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”)
I read these words sometime in early 1991, and eventually they helped to change my life.
I was brought up Catholic; but in 1986 at the age of 21 I had decided that for the time being I couldn’t carry on with it, and that I didn’t really know what I believed about God. What followed was a great deal of perplexity, confusion, and mental strain. Four years later, at the age of 25, I started seeing a Jesuit priest in Oxford to try to to make sense of it all.
His name was Ted Yarnold. We talked, and he suggested books for me to read, and he arranged for me to spend a few days staying at a Jesuit retreat house in Birmingham. Ted was kind and generous with his time, and I liked him - but our interactions were very wordy. And while all of this was going on, I stumbled across the passage I’ve set out above, and it came to me that what I really wanted to do was to find God through silence. My first thought was that I had heard of something called Julian Meetings (named after Mother Julian of Norwich), where people met for silent contemplative prayer. But, I thought, don’t be silly, you can’t have an entire religious practice based on Julian Meetings. And then I thought, what about the Quakers - isn’t their worship based on silence? At the time, that was pretty much the only thing I knew about Quakers, but it was enough to make me want to explore further.
When I said this to Ted he was baffled, and not a little exasperated - he had worked hard on my case. But I persisted, and in early 1991 I went to my first Quaker meeting, at Westminster Meeting House in London.
I stayed with the Quakers for about a year, but I wasn’t ready to make a permanent commitment. Nevertheless, I found my experience of Quaker worship very powerful; I experienced quite a lot of insomnia at that time, not because of anxiety, but because of a sense of being churned up inwardly. My experience in 1991 planted a seed; many years later, it sprouted again.
In 2014 a series of small, unspectacular prompts and nudges made me start looking at Quakerism once more. A couple of years later, I started regularly attending Meeting for Worship at Lewes.
And yesterday I was accepted into membership.