I have been enjoying sharing spiritual stories and journey with Dick this summer, and I am sure that you will savor this fine piece of prose. I have printed it here with his permission:
Meets My Five
One man’s intersection with the Religious Society of Friends
And Hopewell Centre meeting
R. Dixon Bell
August 8, 2009
It looms above the interstate, a white, steel truss symbol towering in the daylight, reflecting a rainbow of rolling colors broadcast upon it at night. One of the world’s great icons, it shocks the traveler with its suddenness and its immensity. It occupies a rough construction site where closer attention reveals a faded sign promising a future home for believers. Activity there is sporadic and rare. The icon, white, steel, and illuminated, is a cross.
A scant mile away to the southwest lies Hopewell Centre meeting house, hard off the left shoulder of a traveler going west on Hopewell Road. One could easily miss it. I did for years. There is no cross. The meeting has sustained the spiritual needs of its attenders and members for 275 years. For all that time, continually in use, Hopewell has been the home of the northern Shenandoah Valley’s alternately ebbing and growing, always changing population of the members of the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers. In addition to no cross, inside there are no copes or chasubles, no creeds. There is no altar, only oyster white uneven walls, enclosing a square of numerous, plain wooden pews. A large, canted gallery of benches, now abandoned, occupies the southern and western walls, recalling days when Hopewell was the hub of a widespread scattering of Quaker meetings, which have largely disappeared as the pulses of Friends they sheltered moved south and then west to carry the dream and witness of Quaker worship across a continent.
--- * ---
As is customary after meetings for worship, the presider rose and asked if there were any visitors. I rose even though it was not my first visit to Olympia meeting in Washington State. I gave my name and added, “…and I carry greetings from Hopewell Centre meeting in Clearbrook, Virginia.” I was answered with a chorus of attentive smiles and nods, a few quiet ‘ohs,’ and the sporadic rustlings of attenders turning to their neighbors, clarifying in whispers what they thought I had said. The presider boomed in response, “And carry our greetings back to Hopewell.” I acknowledged him with a smile and sat down. The announcements ended, and I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning, I was met by a woman with a large, white shock of hair surrounding a broad, bespectacled face of the type I associate with successful and wise pioneers. “I’m Dolly Yates,” she asked, “and did you say you were from Hopewell?”
“My family went through Hopewell on their way west. We settled in North Dakota. I met my husband, who is from Montana. We ended up here in Olympia.” The short biography finished, Dolly got right to the main reason she had tapped my shoulder, “Have you read the Hopewell history? The one they wrote for their bicentennial?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t really know they had one.”
Dolly promised she’d get it to me, and I experienced a short time later the irony of reading the entire history of Hopewell for the first time a continent away. The 1934 history contained all of the story of how Quakers from Pennsylvania moved to establish a meeting close to Opequon creek. Where the boundaries were. Some of the cast of characters. Therein I found my distant ancestor ‘Elder’ John Gerrard, after whom a nearby village was named. The book left me with an overarching sense of endurance and action: Hopewell from its start was full of activity, a refuge for the faithful, a continual home where all of the Friends attending gathered in worship.
One of my favorite persons in the world, 95-year old Harold Carson, whom I met through Barb Leedy, fellow Quaker and dearest of friends, lives in an assisted living facility near Olympia. I once remarked to poet Jean Loman, another Olympian, that Harold epitomized for me the definition of ‘weighty Quaker.’ She laughed in agreement when I said, “You can almost see the Light bend around him when he speaks.” Harold, so wise and so grounded, lives in that delicious spot, almost Eden, that is both heaven and earth. He speaks in stories, stories that flag reality and our lives in it through metaphor. I am always tired after I’ve listened to Harold’s careful stories. It takes real work to process his meaning; four to five levels is par for each delightful course. I always feel when I leave him that I have just sat at the feet of Jesus. Harold charged me to search the Hopewell history for record of his family names of Carson and Walton and report back.
I did. After I told him what I had found, I mentioned how surprised I was to see two Quakers in Olympia who knew so much about Hopewell a continent away. He said, “The name of Hopewell is well known to us. It is one of the mother meetings of all Friends.” Not for the first time I left Harold with shivers in my spine.
--- * ---
It must have been a hard climb. Hundreds of meters up a hill. If my research is correct, sometime June or after, 1652. The famous suit of leather. A figure never referred to as svelte—or athletic. Still a young man though, again if research is correct, at 28. A young man who realized, as Robert Griswold so beautifully said in Pendle Hill pamphlet “Creeds and Quakers,” that “…Faith is ‘the spiritual apprehension of divine truth or intangible realities.’ It is founded on the experience of Divine reality.” The experience that each Quaker seeks in the silence. The Light that lit George Fox so intently that day that he saw a great vision unfold before him. The vision of multitudes, vast and stretching to the end of sight and the end of time. And so, there on Pendle Hill, the world opened before the eyes of George Fox. The children of God as one with the Light Within. No words could name it. No words could find it. It is that most comfortable and wonderful condition that can only be found in silence. These times, all times, are sacred times. The then defiant notion that our portion is (again from Griswold) “the Divine Within that speaks to us: ‘Truth,’ ‘Word,’ ‘Seed,’ ‘Power of God,’ ‘Witness of God,’ ‘Spirit,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Wisdom of God,’ ‘Light Within’ and ‘Light of Christ,’ ‘that which is Pure,’ ‘Measure.’”
A host of terms. One truth. Not unlike the Buddhists 999,999 names of God.
--- * ---
My students love the story. I often use it to illustrate the philosophy underlining the Age of Transcendentalism. It’s after the Compromise of 1850. Congress has enacted the toughest iteration of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allows ‘independent agents’ to act for ‘property owners’ (slaveholders) and for ‘local authorities’ (deputies, constables, and sheriffs) in conducting reasonable searches for runaway slaves. In fact these ‘agents’ were most often the worst kind of thug, commonly called a ‘Paddy roller,’ referring to another of America’s then lesser classes (I don’t think the name in any way meant that the ‘agents’ were pushing the Irish around for pleasant rides in strollers). Numerous accounts show these ‘rollers’ picking up any black they could get their hands on and dragging that person off to a life of slavery—all with the protection and blessing of federal law. The other part of the cast is Quakers. The kids know that Quakers don’t lie. Ever. That they mostly stand up and protect the slaves, that most are outraged by the notion of slavery.
So the scene is set for a ride on America’s Underground Railroad. Fugitive slaves reach a ‘station’ north of the Ohio River. They are ushered to a hidden refuge.
A thunderous pounding on the door.
The mistress of the house.
Answers the door.
“Ma’am, lookin’ for runaway slaves.” Picture the men on the panting horses. Their aspects.
And the Quaker woman, unarmed, filling her doorway, with a forthright and truthful light, looks right at the lead ‘roller,’ and says, “Sir, there are no slaves in this house.”
I’d like to think that the discussion that ensues is exactly what Jefferson had in mind when he advocated a thorough education for every citizen of the republic. The consensus always is that the Quaker woman did not lie, that she served the ‘highest’ law, and that technically she may have been a criminal, but she was not a ‘law-breaker’ in the eyes of the world.
The history teacher part of me hungers for a name, a place, a time that I could ground the story. But the Quaker part of me knows the story is true, that it was repeated numerous times, with numerous actors, in numerous places.
How many times do we look at American history, at the great moments, and find standing there a Quaker? Or Quaker practice? Or Quaker ideals?
I look at Hopewell cemetery and wonder how many of those simple stones honor the graves of those who were called slaves, immutable testament to the fact that every Quaker knew there was that of God in everyone. That the then law was wrong. That one day the law would be like her. Or him.
Another part of Foxe’s vast multitude.
--- * ---
Be no more than God hath made thee.
Give over thine own willing;
Give over thine own running;
Give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing,
And sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart,
And let that grow in thee, and be in thee,
And breathe in thee, and act in thee,
And thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord
Knows that, and loves and owns that,
And will lead it to the inheritance of life,
Which is his portion.
When I first heard Pennington’s words, I was electrified. My friend Barb tried gainfully to recite them but quickly bogged down. “Why can’t I memorize them?” she blurted in exasperation.
I could well sympathize with her. I can’t memorize them either. Like Harold’s stories, they girdle heaven and earth and strain the mere meanings of words, flouting their small origins. I have read these words hundreds of times now and humbly submit that I am just glimpsing the fullness of their meaning, these words captured and configured like a constellation in the genius of Pennington’s poetic mind, words that speak to our deepest selves.
Words that came from the Light.
--- * ---
Some of my happiest moments have been in the silence. From the first times I have experienced Quaker worship, I have experienced the silence as majestic, alive, personal and universal, my portal to the Light. I am always amazed at how swiftly the hour flies and how richly that hour seems spent. I eagerly anticipate it and profoundly miss it when circumstances and schedules lead to me missing meeting. For me the gathered silence is palpable, as deeply part of life as breath. The confluences during worship often amaze me. Once when I was thinking about the delight of humor, another worshipper arose and said, “I’ve been thinking that surely Jesus had a great sense of humor, a hearty laugh…” Sometimes an image appears. At others a voice. I have had messages ring into my head in iambic pentameter. One so moved me with its surpassing beauty I asked the ‘Voice’ if I should stand and share it.
“It was for thee alone.”
Though I could easily type the message (for I have never forgotten it), I feel that that would be the surest way to trivialize it, to move it to a less sacred realm, to not honor that which gave it to me. I’m sure there are those who would explain these moments as a peculiar psychological condition with its own Latinate name. Biologists would explain it through a specific segment of the genome. Neurologists would cite a mixture of certain neuro-transmitters. Of course, there are those who would snort and merely mouth, “Whacked.” Margaret Fells knew right where it came from.
Every Quaker does too.
For me it takes real courage to speak in meeting. It’s not easy. That’s the test: if I can overcome my own immense fears of speaking in public, I know I’ve got a job to do and do it. While the manufacturing of the words is a labor and the breath to say them bought dearly, the satisfaction I feel when finished is felt in the foundation of my being.
Having practiced meditation for much of my life, I find it easy to slip into a deep state and often do so at home. I always profit from these times. But they do not compare with the presence and intensity of the silence of worship. I’m convinced that it is the gathering of all of us, our energy, which adds so much force to the moment.
When two or three are gathered in my name…
Once years ago after vacuuming the front room, I turned off the vacuum cleaner to find the television playing. PBS was airing a documentary on an order of nuns, Catholic, which had survived hundreds of years in the wilds of, all places, Wales. There were three left: two ancient nuns and one young novice. The film showed the novice tending their garden with the elder sisters sitting and watching. The announcer was trying to interview them, asking them questions like, “How old is your order?” “Are you self-sufficient?” “How have your numbers changed?” The novice answered each query patiently. The two elder sisters smiled and adopted a distinct air of being tickled. They’d put handkerchiefs to their mouths from time to time to mask a laugh. The novice with her body language finally indicated that she needed to get back to her weeding. The announcer was losing his interview. So he upped the ante. “What do you do?”
The elder sisters laughed out loud, so tickled they dare not look at each other. The novice rose, looked him squarely in the eye, and said, “We pray.” A dramatic pause. “For the whole world.” The elder sisters, now past being charmed, were wide-eyed in affirmation.
Mistaking the tittering as an invitation to humor, the announcer followed up with the most sarcastic voice he could muster as the camera panned in on the faces of the three, “The whole world?”
The elder sisters practically fell from their chairs in renewed laughter. The novice stifled a look that said, “That is the silliest question I’ve ever heard.”
She barked, “The whole world.
You. Me. The Russians. The children who are hungry. Northern Ireland. The arms race. Peace.
We have more than enough to keep us busy.”
The announcer was totally out of their sphere of communication. “But just the three of you?”
The elder sisters adopted an “Oh, poor dear” look. The novice smiled and with a nod ended the interview.
Days later Gorbachev and Reagan emerged from a room in Iceland and announced that they nearly had reached an accord to eliminate nuclear weapons. Talking Heads quickly cited things like Pershing missiles, cruise missiles, and SDI for the now evident super power thaw. I could think of nothing but the three sisters in Wales. Not for the first time I felt that prayer had changed the world.
You can take your 11 trillion dollar buildup of arms; I’ll take the three sisters any day.
So I see meetings on First Days around the world where a few or many are gathered as spiritual engines fed by the Light, doing God’s business, seeing to the world’s needs.
--- * ---
James Cosby stood at the rise of meeting and said, “I hate to say this, but I’ve been looking at the two trees outside the building and they are rotten.” A discussion ensued. A bit of discovery took place. The sense of the meeting was let’s trim out the bad for now, investigate a bit further, and take down the trees when it’s clear they’re dangerous. Not that much later Linda Wilk noticed after the first trimming more sagging and movement. “It’s worse than I thought,” she said. Initially I had felt how sad it was that these lovely trees were dying.
Then I had a dream.
And in the dream I saw us sitting in a beautiful circle; our heads were still with the silence of worship. The circle was at Hopewell, right at the heart of where we sit now. Except we were outside. The building was gone. We were surrounded by sunlight, green grass, and the sheltering of ordinary trees.
“The trees are rotten,” James had said.
Of course they are. We had planted them. Though I was not alive when they were planted I’m sure I would have dug the holes to do so and accounted my deed very good. Ash trees are notorious for inner rot and breakage.
And I reexamined my love of the building, of the stone and wood of Hopewell, and saw that that too was vain.
The temples of Hopewell meeting have been and are her people, the vessels which hold the Light and its memory, the voices which broadcast it out to the world, and the beings that witness it with their deeds.
That has been her past. That is her present. That will be her future.
--- * ---
I could name dozens of Hopewell members and attenders. To me, each one is extraordinary. They are men and women, girls and boys I am honored to acknowledge as Friends. If I undertake the vanity of naming them, I shall forget some I’m sure, offending them and doing the named a disservice. So I will pay homage to all with a story of one.
Her name was Virginia…
…I had been ‘clerk’ of the Peace and Social Justice committee. We had never had a meeting because the three of us lived so far apart and had such conflicting schedules. Every business meeting I would intone, “No report.”
Until finally my own pride got the better of me: I was ashamed I had had ‘nothing’ to report. So I decided one business meeting I would share a correspondence I had had with Senator Rockefeller over the Downing Street memo, a record of a British cabinet meeting that seemed to say ‘the Americans promise if we join up, they’ll supply the reason for war with Iraq.’ The actual wording is much more indirect and inconclusive, but the senator who then sat on the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller, seemed more than happy to share my concern and give voice to some of his very own. His answer to my letter ran over four pages. I was quite impressed with the senator as a responsive public servant and gratified that both of us seemed on the same side of the peace debate.
So when the time came for Peace and Social Justice to report I jumped up, said we had not met, but that I had had this correspondence. I gave a brief report and sat down, at first feeling quite satisfied. Then my conscience began to gnaw on me. Why was I representing a private correspondence as something to note in the meeting’s minutes? How had I advanced the business of the meeting? Why was the sound of my own voice more important than the simple, plain truth? Before I had completely hoisted myself on my own petard, the meeting ended.
Virginia Riley rose and worked her cane hurriedly as she came to my side.
By that time I could barely bring myself to look at her.
“Dick Bell!” Her smile and beatific demeanor immediately connected with me, dispelling my anxiety.
“I am so proud of you.”
An abashed smile then an animated breath. The kind of loving smile the elder nuns had had. “Writing a senator and all.”
Virginia had redeemed me.
She had ignored my intent and heard the message on a deeper level, a level she wanted to share with me.
I cannot tell you what her sincere kindness has come to mean to me.
Elkanah Fawcett, Carol Melby’s ancestor, every First Day rode his horse across Frederick County so that he could attend meeting. Households along the way claimed that you could set your clock by Elkanah’s passage. He was that true to his practice. I’m sure he never drew attention to himself, just concentrating on his journey ahead, but everybody knew about him and who he was.
I take part of his route every day to work. Because when I worked out the best way to go to meeting, I found that I had also discovered the best way to work. Now I travel the interstate for the shortest possible time, and enter it with the white truss cross behind me.
I often pause in my journey and detour around Hopewell. For a few moments I sit in the driveway. The silence there is lovely. I invariably smile.
I am at peace.
All of the words ever spoken have died, their echoes faded at last to silence. They are momentary things.
The silence endures.