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Recently, I started attending Quaker Meetings in New York.  (The formal name given to Quakers is “The Religious Society of Friends,” and they refer to each other as “Friends.”)  I had long been interested in Quakerism; the value it places on authenticity, peacefulness, tolerance, justice, and equality not only appealed to me, but I actually felt that they were a part of me.  At my first Quaker Meeting, I informed the gathering that I never thought of myself as wanting to be like a Quaker.  So closely were their principles aligned with my own that I felt that I had always been a Quaker, even if I had never formally affiliated myself with them before.

Quakerism began in 17th century England as a Christian movement.  The Quakers distinguished themselves with several radical beliefs that led to their persecution.  More specifically, Quakers refused to doff their hats before magistrates or swear oaths, they opposed war, asserted the spiritual equality of men and women, and rejected the Calvinist notion of predestination.  Beginning in the late 17th century, large numbers of Quakers emigrated to America to escape their persecution.  Many Quakers took leading roles in the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. Today Quakers number approximately 500,000 worldwide.

For those of you who are not familiar with Quaker Meetings, the congregants sit in silence for a period of time (usually an hour), taking in the peaceful and meditative atmosphere.  Quakers believe in direct access to God without any intermediation necessary and that a part of God dwells within each of us.  They refer to this divine element as the “Inner Light” or “Spirit.”  (For this reason, when Quakers are praying for or are otherwise concerned about the well-being of another person, they say that they are holding that person “in the Light.”)  When someone’s Inner Light sparks a desire to share a “message” with the assembled, they rise and address the gathering, with the other participants silently taking in what the speaker has to say.  Messages, which may be on any topic, might take the form of an opinion on a political issue, a prayer, a musing on nature, or a personal challenge that the speaker is experiencing, to name just a few examples of what might be uttered by a speaker.

The “Houses” at which meetings take place are typically simple rectangular structures with wooden benches or chairs arranged along each of the sides of the rectangle or in a circle and facing inward.   There is no ornamentation in the chamber, and the walls are painted flat white.  As you can imagine, this creates an atmosphere very different from that of a church, synagogue, or mosque.  But it is very much in keeping with the modesty and simplicity that Quakers value and allows the congregants to focus on the assemblage rather than on some religious structure or artwork.

Interestingly, at least for most meetings in the UK and North America, there are no rituals, clergy, or sermons.  Quakerism is more a philosophical or ethical system than a faith.  Indeed, Quakers welcome those of all or no religious background, and their meetings and other activities may include individuals from all different faiths, though Christians are certainly the most numerous among them.  The meetings are very welcoming, and a calm and peaceful spirit pervades the assemblage.  Attendees dress casually and comfortably.

The extended silence that occupies the Meeting provides an opportunity for deep contemplation, and for some reason, unlike the 15-minute individual meditations I have tried doing at home in the past, I did not find the Quaker silence at all boring.  There was one aspect of the Meetings I have attended that was a bit troubling, and that is that the Meetings only attract some 25 to 30 attendees.  I was utterly shocked at this, as I could not believe that in a city the size of New York, a Quaker Meeting could not draw a considerably larger turnout.

As most attendees are relatively older, I could not help but worry that the Quakers of New York City might be a dying breed.  That is a sad thought, as the Quaker credo is a beautiful one and very reflective of the very best that faiths that claim many more adherents have to offer.  I don’t know if I will continue to attend Meetings, but I will say that my experience with Quakerism and the Quaker community has touched me deeply and that I very much hope that we will see its principles spread to others.