by Terence P. Ward
New Paltz Meeting


This is a piece of fiction inspired by the experience of worship.


It was about half an hour into the silence when the thought entered his mind, and when it did, his blood felt like it stopped flowing for just a moment.
The conflict was obvious, of course: he was supposed to say something according to the rules, but there was another set of rules operating here, and it wasn't at all clear under those rules what the protocol for this kind of situation would be.


Had this ever even happened before?


He was sure that an experienced friend would know, but this wasn't the time to ask. They were right in the middle of the worship meeting ­—the weekly gathering in silence to wait, to listen, to be in the light. He'd come to find this comforting since the first time he had quietly slipped in, just a few minutes after the meeting had begun, and then just as quietly tiptoed out about twenty minutes later, far short of when the meeting had concluded. Although light on his feet, he'd felt like his every movement was a deafening crash as he'd left the building that morning.


A few weeks later, he'd come back. That time he'd been early, and when he poked his head in the door, no one was in the meeting room. The benches were as he'd remembered them, arranged four deep in a lozenge shape, so that every person seated in the room was facing the same central area. Cushions were scattered two and three to each of the hard, wooden benches, so those with bonier derrieres would not be distracted by the inevitable aches. There was nothing in the center of the room, which was fine, since the people who would be seated on the benches would spend most of the time with their eyes closed.


But the benches were completely empty, and he wasn't entirely sure what to do, so he went back to his car and sat. He'd been brought up Catholic, after all, and in the Roman Catholic church there was a long tradition of taking cues from the person seated in front of you: when to stand, or sit, or pull out the kneeler, or find the page for the next hymn. Quakers didn't exactly stand on ceremony, but he was much more comfortable not being the first one to enter the building. He went back to sit in his car, and act like he wasn't there to participate, while of course waiting for an opportunity to do that very thing.


This was his sixth meeting for worship, and he'd actually gotten up the courage to stay until the end the time before last. This was his second meeting in a row, in fact, which was made much easier by their convention of sharing names afterwards. He could fix on a friendly face (they really all had friendly faces, so it wasn't so hard to do that part), and pay attention to that person's name. It always made it easier to have a conversation, knowing the other person's name.


By now he knew some of the rules, or expected behaviors, at meetings. One did not simply blurt out whatever comes to mind. However, he also knew that integrity was valued, and did that not mean complying with the rules of the game? When one thinks of the game, one announces that one has lost the game. Anyone in earshot would thus be reminded of the game—which is the only way to lose it—and have to in turn announce their own loss. It sends a briefly disruptive ripple of memory through a group. Was that itself a message? How does one know when something rises to the level of a message?


What would a Quaker do? He looked around at them. Some appeared lost in thought, others swept up in rapture, a few seemed bored and one older person was definitely sleeping. Were they all in worship? What they would do, he realized, was to worship. He settled body and mind, the weight of his body seeming to press a bit more on the cushion beneath him, and his mind quieting in response. He sat with the understanding that he had lost the game. Gradually, he was able to release that conscious thought and settle more deeply into worship, with awareness of the little sounds of bodies shifting, withdrawing, along with the sense of time passing. An awareness of something deep in the body—perhaps in the spirit—became manifest. It was something like a thrum or a buzz, but without sound or vibration. It excited his spirit, but did not move his body.


The thrum grew within, expanding to complete him, radiate from him. With the intensity came the understanding of it as words. He felt his heart surge. He felt his breath quicken. He felt his leg muscles tense, and suddenly he was standing, eyes wide, mouth opening to draw breath, and then to speak.


"If losing means surrendering to spirit," he heard himself say, "then we should all strive to lose the game." He sat down, heart pounding, as the message released his body and the bench welcomed its return.