Eldering From the Body
by Heidi Kelly
Old Chatham Meeting
Before we ended the initial session of my first weekend as a member of the Powell House Committee, the clerk suggested that we each consider what gifts we had to contribute. After a cool visit to the pond, I came back to the common room and pondered what I could offer. The first thing which came to mind was how I listen to rooms full of people, not only to their words, but their meanings, the feelings and energies associated with the words, and what the room “feels” like as words are spoken and processed.
Another thing I realized I bring are the energies which move through me when I participate in worship. Though it made me feel awkward, others had been connecting my name to the word "elder" for a while. If anything, I was a “younger” because my elder work has a bit of youthful spring in its step. Spring, the season of rebirth, birth, and youth, because even as I am aware of my aging, I see myself as young with more to learn than teach. Springs are also one of the many moving forms of water which sustain life and ground me in loving energy. And, springs store energy until it is needed to help get work done. As I contemplated these offerings to the committee, I saw the clerk’s table and I mumbled something like “oh no” to myself.
Much discernment and a year later I was sitting not really at, but crossed legged in a big comfy chair next to, the clerks’ table. The first few weekends I served as clerk were a bit rough for us all. My clerking style would obviously be different from the previous clerk’s, as everyone has their own way of serving in that role, and I struggle with convention. My biggest concern was that while I was more likely to have something that wants to be said regarding specific agenda items, I’d never been prone to speaking from worship—something which was now a required part of my role.
I can still feel the delicious silence we were sharing during that first session I clerked, and the terror I felt when I suddenly realized that the room was feeling antsy because we’d been quiet overly long—and I was expected to be saying some official committee meeting welcoming-type words. I felt sad and disoriented at being wrenched from deep and beautiful worship. The committee members and staff were extremely generous with their promptings and other assistance, and together we made it through the night and weekend. Over the next four years I got a better feel for how a group can do joyous and challenging work together. I started to find balance within myself regarding how deeply and long I could melt into the communal worship, what parts of me needed to stay aware of clock time, agendas, what was being said, and what needed to be heard and held. With practice I also gained a better feel for when and how to state my impression of the group’s developing Sense of the Meeting. On a few occasions I was even able to name out loud things like fear or excitement which I sometimes sensed were affecting our worshipful work together.
Just as I can not fathom how to give or receive a massage without noticing the interplay of energy between myself and another person, I can’t imagine serving as clerk without my elder tendencies informing the work. I hope to continue learning how to sense and use the flow of the dance between the two in service of our corporate decision making process. And maybe someday I’ll even manage to remember to use "accept" and "approve" in their proper contexts!
What I “do” during worship
My personal theology consists of two parts: from second grade Sunday school class, “God is love,” and from time spent sitting on my own for 3 days in a river in Utah, “God is everywhere in everything.” I tend to identify as a non-theistic Friend not because the label is a perfect fit, but because my philosophy feels different to me than the text and deity-based theologies I am familiar with. During my first retreat at Powell House we were asked to organise ourselves in a line by how we identified our beliefs, from non-theistic to theistic. I requested to make the line a circle as I fit best in the place where non-theism meets poly-theism. I don’t think of God as an entity but rather as a force of life and love, an energy which flows within and between all life, so my concept of God is simultaneously no one/nowhere and everything/everywhere.
How does this relate to my experience of eldership? Well, at that first Powell House conference almost 15 years ago, a Christian Friend asked me what it is that I did during worship if not pray or listen for the voice of God within. I told them that I smile. It took me a couple of years and attendance at another conference to start to put more words to this concept of smiling worship. In a small group discussion, someone described part of their eldering gift as radiating God’s love. The image of a steam radiator helped me to understand that while what I “do” during worship looks on the outside like smiling, inside what it feels like is letting myself trickle down into the earth to the water which sustains and connects all life, and invite the energy to flow through me, allowing love to radiate.
Sometimes the energy flowing through me calls for a little direction and I send it into the room (or across the state) with a gesture of my hands or an invitation to find its way to where it belongs, but more often there is the comforting, and sometimes a wee bit scary, radiator feeling. If I have been asked by an individual to hold them in eldership, I may think of how that person “feels” to me at that time (often this feeling appears to me as a plant or animal of some sort, though occasionally people have felt like forms of fire or boats on water), open myself to loving them as I see them in that moment, and invite the energy moving through me to support them as it sees fit since it is far wiser than I.
Thoughts on, or rather not on, the facing bench
A few years ago I was invited by some seasoned elders to sit on the facing “bench” at sessions if I felt led to do so. Despite having a sense of my experience as an elder for a few years, I had never considered perching on those chairs near the clerks’ table, but being encouraged to do so made me wonder why not.
While I have been asked by people who know they will be presenting to the body in different sorts of Meetings for Worship with Concern for Business, proximity to that individual is not critical. Since my general practice is to welcome loving energy into the process of worshipful business, my physical location is irrelevant, and sitting in the midst of the group feels central and comfortable. I acknowledge and respect that elders and those they serve have many different experiences and needs, so for some sitting on a facing bench is the perfect fit. I also wonder if seeing elders in that traditional position puts people at ease as they worship? Knowing that the people and the process is being held in the light can help the group enter more fully into worship whether or not everyone is consciously aware of the interplay of energies in the room.
It is probably a good thing that I don’t feel drawn to sit on facing benches. I prefer to sit on the floor, or even lie down, during worship as this helps me remain grounded—literally. Also, sometimes I find that I get extra wiggly during worship. For instance, I’ll start feeling a pattern of spaces around me where the energy needs a bit of help moving, so my hands go to those places and give small tugs or pushes. Sometimes a ball of energy will collect in my hands and I’ll invite it to go where it is needed or dance free. To others this can look like I’m playing a strange harp, conducting a piece of chaotic music, or perhaps juggling feathers. I think I might feel self-conscious if everyone could watch this, and these sorts of motions would likely be visually distracting if I were sitting in the front of the room facing the group, which isn’t exactly the intention.