On Centering

May 31, 2005

It’s rare that we arrive for meeting for worship ready to settle right into a deep communion with the Spirit.  Most of us come from busy lives, with lists of tasks to be done, conflicts that need resolution, relationships that call out for attention, etc.  Ideally the time before meeting can be a gradual withdrawal from all of this, so that we are somewhat prepared.  A period of spiritual reading, reflection, or contemplation can be helpful.  Listening to the news, or hurrying about with last minute tasks generally gets in the way.

Friends generally refer to the initial period of meeting for worship as a period of “centering down”.  Quaker writers from all periods of our history offer different descriptions of this process, which appears to be vary for each of us.  It’s been described as a process of “clearing”, of “getting the garbage out”, of “throwing away or putting aside the laundry lists”.  Some Friends draw on Eastern religious traditions or on meditation techniques.  Others worry that this may impart a foreign element into our worship.  But what matters is that we find an openness to listening, that we might hear and be led by a Spirit beyond ourselves, or, simply, that our time of silence is a time of connection and renewal.

M. C. Richards in her book, “Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person” draws on the metaphor of the potter centering a piece of clay.  The potter pushes against the clay but leaves space for it to move, until it is well centered on the wheel.  At that point the potter can touch one point of the pot and the whole moving piece of clay will respond.  But the potter must be careful — for if the clay gets off center a strong touch might pull it apart.  Instead, the potter will carefully lead the pot back on center, and then continue working it.  Of course there are limits to the strength of the clay, especially when it is wet and heavy. An understanding of this reality must moderate the potter’s touch.

Similarly, we may need to re-center ourselves in meeting for worship, if we drift or get pulled away from where we need to be.  We may note to ourselves that we’ve taken a wrong turn or gotten off the trail, and need to find it again.  This is not a sign that we are imperfect or inexperienced, but simply that we are human.  And when we are on center — everything is possible.

It should be noted that M.C. Richards is not a Quaker, and is not writing about Quakerism.  Still, her words seems particularly appropriate in discussing how we enter into meeting for worship.

Things don’t always go well.  Sometimes “centering down” seems impossible, as laundry lists of tasks and issues keep running through our minds.     Undone tasks, complex relationships, or other matters may loom large, and not let themselves be pushed aside even for an hour.  There are no rules, and there is no “right” way to be.  It can be okay to just be where you are, noticing that it’s not the settled place that may have been desired. It may help to revisit the most enriching moments of the past week, to lists those events that touched us, to catalog those feelings that have been with us.  Particular prayers or meditations might be brought to mind.  Withhold judgment, be prepared to let go, and wait.

Other times one may feel settled and centered, but not inspired.  And — perhaps just on rare occasions — there may be times of feeling absolutely inspired, with a Divine presence strongly felt.  This certainly doesn’t happen at every meeting, and for some people it may never seem to happen. When there is a shared feeling of such presence, Friends talk of a “gathered” or “covered” meeting.

Friends worship is a “come as you are” activity.  While coming with preparation, rest, some distance from daily concerns can be helpful, what is most important is the simple act of gathering, of waiting together in the silence, of hearing whatever vocal ministry may come forth (and it may or may not speak to our condition).

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