I used to be a Quaker, a member of the religious organization also known as The Society of Friends.
I went to my first meeting when I was 13 years old, primarily to get out of British boarding school Sunday morning chores.
My headmaster John Lampen and his wife Diana were running the small independent school near Shrewsbury called Shotton Hall. They were both very enthusiastic Quakers. They radiated that peculiar peace for which Quakers are renowned.
When everything at school seemed chaotic John would provide, in retrospect, a different kind of solution. I was drawn to him yet baffled. Nothing seemed to annoy him…and he knows I tried.
His alternative Oxbridge way of thinking both irritated and inspired me. He was self-assured but never smug.
He had something I most definitely wanted.
I asked if I could go to their Quaker meetings.
Sunny Shrewsbury Sunday morning. The meeting was held in a regency building set off the High Street. Cobbled streets, plane trees, red sandstone peculiar to the region.
I was an unruly, difficult child. At my first Quaker meeting I felt immediately accepted. This was an inclusive church. One where a young gay boy might find solace rather than damnation.
I heard, “There is that of God in every man.” and I was sold. The God I knew existed. No longer dressed in extravagant robes, tradition, canticles or phony ritual. A simple room filled with love. No more priests or clergy to funnel God into me like a goose choking back the corn, but there I was a 13-year-old boy looking within to find God in my heart.
I started going to meetings regularly, sitting silently for an hour, attempting to find and nurture a God of my understanding. “Like a spec of gold.” Diana said. If moved to share, a Friend would stand and speak. Sharing whatever God Shot was on his or her mind.
This was revolutionary! We were all priests.
It was as evident to me then as it is now that this was how human beings, focused on a power greater than themselves connected with their ‘God’ and each other…found joy. Without the myths and tales and dogma of organized religion it was here that we set aside our differences and focused on thinking our way into right action.
I knew instinctively that when I sat quietly in a room of meditating humans I was probably doing something that we had learned to do millions of years before. On the tundra, in the shadow of Stone Henge.
Some of us.
Reflection and God-consciousness does not suit every man. It is apparent that not all men are created curious.
My years as an active Quaker were perhaps the happiest times of my life. I loved the room. I have never been frightened of old people, different people, sick people. Perhaps that’s why I get into so much trouble?
I left school, striking out on my own into the dramatic new world of my own creation. I left the tranquility of those Quaker meeting houses behind me. I left God behind me. Nearly twenty years later, smashed to pieces by my own bad choices I would once again seek out some fundamental truths and a relationship with a God I knew was indeed in every man….including me.
I did not return to The Society of Friends but to the rooms of AA where a healthy relationship with God is essential for an everyday peace.
Yesterday was my birthday and hundreds of you wished me well. One of the great benefits of Facebook: we can celebrate our lives with an extended community of friends and acquaintances. Amongst the notes Kevin Sessums wrote to me.
He said, “Happy b’day .. have a special day with special friends not just FB ones …”
I wondered if friends on Facebook were any less special than those I met in the real world. I have never met Kevin yet I enjoy our Facebook friendship. I don’t know if I would necessarily enjoy him more if I met him.
Pen Pals we used to call them when I was a child. People I wrote to in different countries who would tell me about their exotic lives and I would live vicariously through them. Facebook is no different. I like to engage as I do in the real world. I like my ‘friends’ to see what I am up to and like when they comment. I like when they share their holiday snaps, their location and trial and tribulations.
I have several real communities that I keep up with virtually. Whitstable, Sydney, New York. I have friends in all of those places (Jake cruelly called them my sycophants) and Facebook allows me the opportunity of enhancing and deepening my ties to those disparate people.
Real people disappoint me. Facebook friends rarely do. I have no expectations of those I meet on-line. Enter my world or my house and I may not know you for very long.
I had lunch with Jennie Ketcham in Venice. We hadn’t seen each other for an age. She looked great.
Later that night Toby threw an impromptu party for me at his house and many LA friends arrived to wish me well. Were they special friends? The ones I know from AA and SAA most certainly are. I have a deep connection with those friends with whom I sit quietly, go in peace and share a common interest in God.
I didn’t take any pictures.
Regardless of any drama that may or may not be unfolding in this real world I recognize at my core a stillness that I learned as a teenage boy from long dead Quakers on quiet Sunday mornings in Shrewsbury. It is to you that I give thanks this morning. Thank you Joyce, Priscilla, Raymond, Susan, Diana and John. Thank you.
If I hadn’t met you, if you hadn’t shared so humbly what you knew to be the truth about God I don’t think I would have celebrated this last birthday nor many, many before it.