The Quaker meetinghouse I attended as a child had four rooms. The large, boxy room in the middle was for worship and held rows of padded black folding chairs as well as a small library with saddle-stitched books about peace and the importance of silence in worship. The kitchen was pale and smelled of powdered dates, and the food made there was never good. There was a side room reserved for people who needed a place to stay for a while; the door to this room was glass, and though there was a cloth curtain over it, I could sometimes see the silhouette of a person sitting on the bed. The playroom for us kids was oblong and filled with old school supplies like glass bottles of rubber cement and patterns for paper dolls. On the wall was a poster with the lyrics to “The George Fox Song,” which began:
There’s a light that is shining in the heart of a man,
It’s the light that was shining when the world began.
The Flame on a White Candle
George Fox was one of the founders of Quakerism. His belief that there is in everyone that of God, or the Inner Light, is the part of Quakerism I have thought about the hardest, and it has come to make the same sort of sense to me as the need to put on shoes before I walk across our gravel driveway to the car. I first sang “The George Fox Song” at my first Quaker retreat. There was a picture of a candle on the songbook’s cover, and I used to imagine the Inner Light as a flame on a white candle buried deep inside everyone’s belly.
The Quaker retreats that my family went to twice a year were very simple occasions held at a state park a few hours away. We stayed in a cabin, under thick quilts, until we were smart enough to borrow electric blankets from the families who were nice enough to pack extras. We helped make bread for the evening meal, learned to use a lathe, sang songs in big circles, and played games on a bridge that extended across a slow-moving brown river. We learned about how Quakers helped to end slavery, and we talked about things like what the world would be like without money, and how to be careful with our words. We were taught that, in the past, Quakers couldn’t wear any jewelry to meeting, with the exception of wristwatches. I’ve since come to believe that all of that simplicity, and all the silence, was to make the light in people easier to see, but I think at the time I was pretty horrified by the idea, having just received a heart-shaped birthstone ring as a Christmas present. I wore that ring every day until the band cracked a few years later.
Listening for God
My younger brother, James, died when he was sixteen and I was eighteen. About two months later we had a Quaker memorial service at that same four-roomed meetinghouse. What happens at a Quaker memorial service is similar to what happens every Sunday in a meetinghouse. The members of the meeting come together in silence, waiting for God to share with them a message that they, in turn, can stand up and share with everyone else. I wasn’t able to pay much attention to the things that people said that day, but I remember very clearly the words of an older man named Ken Leibman. Ken was one of the oldest members present, a sturdy man with thick white hair and thick black glasses. He said that his clearest image of my brother was from an annual Christmas party when James was five years old. The Quaker Christmas parties were very different than anything else that happened all year; they were held at a fancy home, and the food was good, and people got mildly dressed up for them and made lots of noise. Ken Leibman’s memory took place during the part of the evening when all the children sang Christmas songs to everyone else at the party. During the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” he said he heard my brother’s five-year-old tenor voice raise above all the others like a flute. He said that it was one of the purest, happiest things that he had ever heard. And I think what Ken Leibman saw in my brother that night, in the middle of a loud party, was that of God, Light, the kind on the cover of the songbook, and knowing this helps me to understand why Quakers believe that the way to worship God is to listen for him.
I like to imagine that I can share in this memory with Ken Leibman. In my version, the party is much quieter, and the only voice is my brother’s. After the song is finished, everyone breaks out in a round of Quaker applause, raising their palms and wiggling their fingers in the air, and for a few seconds the entire room is close to silent.