A Gathered Meeting

The reader accustomed to my stories likely enjoys them (if she enjoys them) for my lack of personal presence in them, and because of this I apologize in advance for what I have to say now.  The fact of the matter is, in my line of work one travels occasionally, sometimes great distances, and sometimes one encounters something which is worth recording for posterity, even if it is part of the generally uneventful plot we know as reality.  These isolated events themselves are no more or less meaningful than those which constitute the grand tapestry and yet, as I see it, offer interesting moments where the embroidery of life, as it were, becomes tangled and strange, and so while it is no more or less meaningful than anything else it is at least interesting insofar as it is different, perhaps revealing some vagary in the process of construction.  But I am drifting.

About a year or so ago I was attending a conference at a university in the north of England.  The expense of the trip on a graduate student’s means was considerable but the theme of the conference matched some research I had done on the poems of Aemilia Lanyer and I was at the point in my career where the paucity of conference presentations on my curriculum vitae was beginning to gnaw at me.  In an attempt to offset the costs of travel from the States I ended up booking some fairly lengthy and circuitous flights there and back, which were offered at something of a discount for their inconvenience; one result of this, other than considerable jetlag, was that I overstayed past the actual length of the conference by a day, meaning I had an entire Sunday to spend on my own.

While that may sound luxurious, the fatigue of both travel and conference attendance meant that I would have been happier on my way back home to my own bed rather than spending another night in my hostel.  Still, rather than lying in my bed and listening to the comings and goings of a group of undergraduate Glaswegians, I decided to get out and do something this final day.

It was not an exciting event: Quaker meeting for worship.  I say this self-deprecatingly, as I personally find the traditional Quaker method of worship – silent waiting for an hour – rejuvenating and peaceful.  I run the double risk here of taking for granted that my reader knows about the peculiarity of Quakers or, on the other hand, that she cares to hear about it.  I will explain, then, what I think needs to be understood for what follows to make something like sense.

The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, traditionally interpret the common Protestant call for a “priesthood of all believers” as a rejection entirely of authoritative hierarchy and ordained clergy.  Meeting for worship traditionally consists of an hour of silence wherein some may be moved by the Spirit to speak messages; today individual Quakers will differ on the specific interpretation of the Spirit as a sign of Divinity or a more humanistic element, a lability that appealed to me when I first came to them some years ago.

The sect sprang up in the aftermath of the English Civil War, when Protestant fervor was given comparatively free reign in that country, and its historical proximity to and outgrowth from my scholarly field of the Reformation and Renaissance perhaps plays some part in my affinity for it.  The Quakers had a strong presence in the North and, since I was already there, I sought out the oldest established meetinghouse in the area for my attendance that morning.  The persecution of the Quakers (and all religious nonconformists in England) mean there are few structures that date originally from the time of the sect’s formation, but it happened that a short bus ride took me to one of a handful that had been established (quite boldly, and in defiance of the law) in the late 1670s.

Due to a misreading on my part, however, I took an early bus and arrived an hour before the time meeting was scheduled to begin.  It was early in the year and while not terribly cold, certainly not comfortable enough for me to wait outside.  Already a bit numb from walking a fourth of a mile up the road from the bus stop, I found myself faced with a handsome painted stone structure with a low wall out front, surrounded by a garden that was doing its best to wait for spring.

The meetinghouse had been expanded and refurbished a handful of times, according to its website, but it still maintained the simplicity that is customary of Quaker architecture, which is to say from the right angle it could have passed for a very old, though large, farmhouse.  Strolling through the front gate I knocked a few times at the front doors and received no answer (the parking lot to the side of the building was empty but I thought I might as well try).  Faced with the idea of walking all the way back to the town center to sit despondently in a café, I decided to wander the grounds for a bit.

Around back I discovered the first curious thing that day: a fire-pit, set twenty or thirty feet away from the meetinghouse, and piled high with gently burning timber.  I had caught the scent of wood smoke as I turned the corner and thought perhaps some nearby farmer was clearing brush, but it seemed singularly unlikely that a fire would be burning behind an empty meetinghouse.  I stood there a moment, confused but grateful for the warmth, and I gazed into the wooded area beyond the meetinghouse grounds, expecting to see someone – perhaps a caretaker tending to the small graveyard between myself and the trees – but there was no one.

Hands in my coat pockets, elbows tucked to my sides, I turned back to the building, thinking an early bird invested with the day’s care of meeting might be watching me through a window.  Again, I saw no one.  A knot of wood in the fire cracked and the structure that had been built of the fuel – an odd thing, I now saw, an delicate structure of ragged wood and twigs piled together in a cone with the fire coiling through the center – slumped to the side as bright dots of flame glittered up into the air.  Aside from that loud pop and the low crackling of the fire, I realized everything was quite silent, almost peaceful, and I recalled how in the old days Quakers met at no certain time, but rather congregated in their meetinghouses when and for as long as they felt called by God – which was often.

At that moment I understood something of that, I think, that desire to stay in silence for as long as possible, and I stood by the warmth of the fire and took in the smell of the smoke for a bit longer.  In the distance I heard a dog begin to howl – or bay, I suppose – and three or four more joined in.  The noise broke my concentration and I stood there, frowning, and trying to think of what situation I was overhearing.  Within a few seconds, however, the howls stopped, and I was left standing and listening to nothing except the fire.  I decided to move off around the house, completing my circuit.  Turning the corner, I discovered a bicycle tucked behind a shrub near the front door.  So there was someone present – they just hadn’t heard when I knocked the first time.

I knocked a bit more forcefully, and the door was a few seconds later opened by a middle-aged bespectacled man with long, graying hair.  I said I was visiting for meeting but had accidentally shown up a bit early, and he apologized for having missed me.  He explained that he was busy preparing for fellowship – a sort of short, after-meeting snack and coffee hour that occurs following meeting – and apparently hadn’t heard me from the kitchen when I knocked the first time.  His name was Terry and he’d been a member of the meeting for most of his life; he showed me where to hang my coat in the foyer, gestured to some pamphlets on the history of the meetinghouse piled on a small desk, and apologized for having to return to the kitchen to oversee his cinnamon rolls.

At this point I had some time before meeting began, so I grabbed one of the brochures to skim while I investigated.  Like most purpose-built meetinghouses, the center of the structure was a large square room with wooden benches arranged in rows (in this case, three) to face what was once a large black coal or woodstove but was now a less imposing gas unit, beside which stood a small table bearing a stack of books.  The information in the brochure was the same as what I’d read on the website regarding the building’s construction and refurbishments throughout the years, though it was interesting to compare the pictures with what I saw in front of me.

Again, like many old meetinghouses, this one had originally been built with a divider to demarcate men and women’s seating.  Despite the early Quakers’ radical views on the equality of the sexes, especially when it came to authority and revelation, they had still observed certain (to the modern mind) backward notions about the proper conduct of Christian worship as they understood it.  The separate sides (and, usually, separate entrances) for men and women worshipers was one of these.  The divider (a waist-high wall) had been taken down around the middle of the previous century and the hardwood refinished, but the line of discoloration was still visible running down the center of the meetinghouse floor.  The wood just didn’t quite match.

Above, a gallery offered seating for those times when the meeting was more fully attended (Quaker numbers have dwindled considerably), and I expected everyone who showed up that morning would fit on the ground floor.  Still, I went upstairs simply because I could, and while standing there I found myself catching the smell of the fire from the back of the building, and I closed my eyes and took a moment to appreciate the feeling of being simply where I was.

I was also, however, still a bit jetlagged, and I think I might have been falling asleep when I was startled from my reverie by the front doors opening and the sound of several people entering at once below.  After a moment, I descended to introduce myself.

The new company were all about the same age as Terry but less preoccupied and hence much more interested in me.  I didn’t catch all their names but two, Georgina and Fatima, were particularly interested in my presence as an American and as an academic.  Fatima, a tall but slight doctor, had been to Boston once or twice, and she shared with me her memories of the city (which I appreciated insofar as she also found it somewhat overwhelming) while Georgina, a shorter but rosy-cheeked woman, told me of her deep but unprofessional appreciation for Shakespeare (Midsummer was her favorite and she was desperate for my opinion on the matter; I told her I was most personally partial to Macbeth and she replied “At least it’s not Hamlet!”).  Other people I was introduced to included Fatima’s husband Greg and, when they arrived, Alice and Judith, a couple maybe a decade older than myself, and their two school-age children.

In short time things were more or less arranged for meeting to begin, and more and more people trickled in.  I was surprised to find the meeting more populous than I had imagined, with enough children to warrant a First Day School class separate from the larger group, though we were still not enough to take sensible advantage of the upper gallery.

Quakers are historically averse to rituals but, personally, most of them have small habits they perform when centering for meeting.  Mine involves, if I can manage it, sitting near enough a window that I can trace the edges of the light outside as it falls and is projected over the walls and floor.  It was cloudy that day so there was little opportunity for this, but I sat near a window anyway, at one of the benches on the outer edge of the room.  A few spaces away from me sat one very thin older man I hadn’t met, but other than that people tended to cluster near the center of the room in the first and second rows.  I saw Fatima and her husband off to my right, and Georgina and Terry not much further away.  Yet looking directly opposite (most meeting rooms of this type are laid out symmetrically) I saw the bench corresponding to mine on the far side of the meetinghouse was totally empty.  I felt keenly my own presence as the visitor here (was my companion on the marginal bench also a first-time attendee?) but as the meeting fell into silence, I pushed the thought away and closed my eyes.

I will spare the reader the particularities of what one does in silent meeting for worship and the substance of what occupied my thoughts that day.  I listened to the breathing of the few dozen people seated around me, the coughs, the creaks of benches, and waited.  When one is in meeting and able to center down into the deep meditative state that is the aim (or at least one aim) of Quaker worship, it bears noting that one sometimes loses track of time.  So I don’t know if it was five minutes later, or perhaps fifteen minutes later, when I opened my eyes and adjusted myself in my seat and noticed the bench on the far side of the room was no longer empty.

It’s not uncommon in any meeting for a few people to filter in a little after the beginning of meeting proper, since timeliness is not a renowned Quaker virtue.  So that someone was there was not the strange thing.  What was strange about him was how he was dressed, in a very dark red shirt of a very old style, and a broad-brimmed black hat.  This was, more or less, traditional Quaker clothing, dating back to certain habits of comportment immortalized in the packaging of oatmeal containers.  But that this man was dressed so, while surprising, was not terribly odd: I’ve been to meetings host to more traditional and conservative Friends who still observe, in moderated form, dress codes that really began to slip out of fashion in the late nineteenth century.  I wasn’t aware of this presence in Britain (where by and large Quakerism lean more liberal in comparison with some American elements) but it was not something that seemed outside the realm of possibility.

Still, because of his dress I fixated on him a moment, though he had his own eyes closed and his delicate face turned upward as if basking in an imaginary sunbeam.  He was a slight man, with only a hint of a beard, really almost feminine in some way I couldn’t quite articulate.  After this moment of taking stock, I closed my eyes again, and more time passed.

Later, someone near the center of the room felt moved to speak.  As is my habit, when I heard the tell-tale shifting on the bench, I opened my eyes to watch.  Fatima’s husband Greg, a large man with a kind face, began to speak about his concern over recent government actions against immigrant populations and what more the meeting could do to provide shelter, which was certainly a common enough anxiety back home.  As he spoke, however, I noticed that the man across the way had been joined by a second party.

It was a woman, also in old dress – black with a white bonnet.  She sat beside the man as if they had arrived together, and for all I knew, perhaps they had.  Their eyes were open now, like others in the room, and they were looking at Greg as he delivered his message.  When he had finished and sat down, they turned to look ahead once more, and as they did so (I think) they saw me staring at them.

I think but I am not sure.  I immediately glanced away, staring at the spot on the floor where the discolored plank split the floor of the room, and burning with embarrassment, closed my eyes.  I wasn’t sure if the couple would find what I did rude, but I felt terribly uncouth nevertheless.  The incident unsettled my equilibrium and I found myself unable to center down again, and so I simply kept my eyes closed for the remaining eternity of meeting.

The session ended, as they usually do, with a scattered shaking of hands and greetings.  I shook the hand of the man who shared my bench and the people seated before us and, glancing across the room again, saw the far bench was now vacant.  This unsettled me further, since I imagined I’d offended the man and woman, but I tried to put it out of my mind as a round of announcements of upcoming events began before the fellowship hour.

Later, the crust of a cinnamon roll in one hand and an empty coffee cup in the other, I excused myself from a conversation and slipped back through the building to the kitchen, where the coffee machine was hissing contentedly.  I tossed the crust of pastry in the bin but poured myself a second cup, and it was as I stood there in the empty kitchen, listening to the murmur of conversation down the hall, that I realized I could quite clearly see through the windows over the kitchen counter the back garden of the meetinghouse.

The firepit was there, but it was empty, and surrounding it was a stone terrace lined with three wrought iron benches that I did not remember seeing at all.  Beyond that, the woodland was still there, though perhaps – and here I am, if you excuse the phrasing, surely uncertain – it seemed thinner than it had before.  Between that and the back garden the graveyard was still in plain view, the simple headstones stuck up from the earth like uneven teeth, and I saw a figure rapidly moving away, over a small hill and out of my line of sight.

I say “figure” because that is about as well as I can describe it, based on the speed with which it moved and the view I had of it, though I suppose if pressed to be more specific, I’d say it might have been someone running.

It was also at about this point that I realized if Terry had been in the kitchen while I was standing by the firepit, he would have plainly seen me, and I him.

I stayed to help clean, since I had nothing else to do that day, and ended up washing plates and coffee mugs with Georgina while Alice and Judith’s children played with a few others in the back garden.  After some amount of small talk I decided to move orthogonally into what concerned me: “The yard is lovely,” I said.  “Very picturesque.”

“It is,” Georgina agreed.  “We all get together and go over the garden in the spring.”

“That firepit,” I said, “how often do you use that?”

“Summers, mostly,” she said.  “We have evening programs and it can get chilly.  Bonfire Night too, of course.  Sometimes Christmas if the weather’s not awful.”

I nodded.  “It must be very nice.”

“Oh, it is,” she said, passing me a mug, which I dried and then placed on a folded towel.  The look she gave me when she did so, however, was strange.  “See anything else interesting?” she asked, in a knowing way.

I still felt the need to be diplomatic.  “Do you have any attenders who wear old-style plain dress?”

She shook her head, smiling slightly.  “Not that I’m aware of.”  There was a beat of silence as she passed me another mug.  “So you saw them, then?”


“They come from time to time.  We give them their space.”

It was unreal to have this woman frankly admit to something that seemed to me so anomalous.  “Who are they?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” Georgina said, shrugging.  “Records aren’t always clear about this sort of thing.  Sometimes the records don’t even exist anymore.”

“There was a fire, too,” I said abruptly.  “In the firepit out there.  And earlier I saw something in the graveyard…”  I trailed off, not sure what I was even trying to convey.

Georgina continued to wash dishes and I continued to dry them, the sounds of the children’s laughter filtering through the glass of the windows.  I tried to detect any hint of wood smoke, and found none.  “My first visit,” I said, finally, “and I meet your local ghosts.”

Suddenly and loudly, Georgina laughed.  It startled me, so out of proportion it was to anything that had just transpired, but she turned to me and smiled with a gay indifference that, as I understood it, closed the matter for further discussion.

“Oh,” she said, beaming, “but Quakers don’t believe in ghosts.”

This post is funded by readers like you through Patreon.  If you like what you read, want to see me write more, and want to get a chance to choose what I write about, please consider pledging.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *