The Public Lecture: 1999
REFLECTIONS FROM A MEETING
B. Alan Haughton
Friends, I would prefer not to use the rather austere word ‘lecture’ this evening, but to call it ‘The Cork Talk’, in which three Cork Friends from differing backgrounds talk about the impact which The Society of Friends, through Cork Meeting, have had on them and of their personal beliefs. I am afraid that my contribution is a bit of a mixture between parochial Cork reminiscences and theological speculations with a dollop of poetry thrown in.
Coming from a family who have been Friends since the 17th century, I shall give some account of my experience of Cork Meeting over some 75 years.
My early recollections of Cork Meeting were of the old Meeting House in Grattan Street, built in 1830 and replacing older buildings of 1678 and 1731.
In fact, the first meetings in Cork date from 1655 but these would have been in Friends houses and it would have been in one such that William Penn became convinced after listening to the preaching of Thomas Loe.
The Grattan Street Meeting House comprised a large hall with meeting rooms to left and right, one for meeting for worship and one for monthly meeting. At the end of the hall there was a very large meeting room with a big gallery which could probably seat up to 500 but which was never used, certainly not in my time. Up stairs there was the Dorcus room and the Sunday school room. We were a small Sunday school, about seven or eight, presided over by my Aunt Marjorie Haughton, who was in charge of the Sunday school for at least thirty years.
I’m rather ashamed to say after some seventy years that I’ve no recollection whatsoever of what she taught us, but no doubt, it was very edifying.
I guess the numbers in meeting for worship would have been much the same as they are now, that is to say, perhaps about thirty or forty, and prominent Friends at that time would have included my grandfather, Senator Benjamin Haughton, Samuel Henry Newsom, Herbert Clibborn, Charles Henry Newsom, Tom and Joe Jacob, Isaac Swain and my father Benjamin Haughton. Since we were too small a company to occupy so large a building and especially with the shortage of young people, it appeared inevitable that we were going to dwindle further. So Friends decided to build a smaller meeting house in the grounds of the burial ground.
This was done and we moved there in 1938. The Friends responsible for building the new meeting house seemed to have assumed that we were on the way out and planned the new building accordingly. And indeed that view seemed to be confirmed during the ensuing thirty years or so, when our numbers had dwindled so much that we seldom had more than ten to twelve in meeting for worship.
Since we now have some thirty to forty, how does one account for this increase? I don’t think any single factor was responsible. Probably the main one was increased openness, more openness on our part and more openness on the part of the general public. More people prepared to think for themselves and look beyond more authoritarian confines. All we did was to provide a friendly and welcoming atmosphere which some of the seeking public could relate to.
Being enclosed behind a high wall our meeting house always had the rather forbidding aura of the unknown and exclusive. My wife Betty always wished that a bus would come along and knock down the wall. That didn’t happen, but we did replace the big solid wooden gate with an open iron one so that people could at least see in and we put up welcoming notices.
The now practically universal practice of coffee after meeting was introduced some twenty years ago and has proved of great assistance in making friends among perhaps casual attenders. Another change sometime in the last twenty years was the replacement of front-facing benches by centre-facing ones around a table with flowers.
Attenders increased gradually. Some didn’t stay, some did. Some became members, some didn’t. But whether they became members or not they were and are part of the meeting and Friends whatever the size of the f. The increasing numbers put a strain on facilities designed for a falling population and we had to add a portable building for the teenagers, Sunday school and for coffee.
When I was growing up and indeed for many years afterwards everyone wore their ‘Sunday go to meeting’ suits, and I remember the shock horror, combined perhaps with a covert admiration when Christy Bell of Lurgan meeting come to Quarterly Meeting in an open necked shirt!
Things are certainly very much more informal today, but I would stress that all these changes are exterior ones and that the core of the meeting for worship hasn’t really changed during my experience of three generations of worshipers. A testament to its validity.
I have an old manuscript diary dating from the 1770’s and written by a Cork Friend, although a diarist does not usually put his name to his diary, Richard Harrison is convinced it was Joshua Beal. His daily concerns seemed to have been the weather and his bowel movements, but there were various interesting items such as the assembly of soldiers at Cobh who were dispatched to deal with trouble in the American colonies, which sounds like the Boston Tea Party. He used to travel to meeting either by horse or by chair, which I presume must have meant a Sedan chair. He gives no indication of the numbers at meeting but they would have been at that time fairly substantial, which makes it all the more surprising that there was very little if any ministry in meeting. Occasionally Sam Neil or perhaps a visiting Friend spoke, but usually the silence was unbroken.
This contrasts with the position in my lifetime when I suppose there are usually some three or four spoken contributions. As one of the chief culprits in this regard I’m conscious that not all ministry is inspired, that words are only signals, the finger pointing at the moon but not the moon itself, and however well arranged words are they are only a bridge for the spirit to cross and if the spirit isn’t there they are barren.
So, these have been some recollections of a lifelong Friend.
Most of our current members and attenders have joined us later in life and so provide a more varied approach which lends breadth to the meeting.
And now for a complete change of scenery, to some personal groping after truth, and with an advance warning that I will be incorporating some poetry, both mine and others where it seems relevant.
We all know George Fox’s challenge, ‘the Bible says this and the Fathers say that, but what can’st thou say?’ and this is an attempt to answer that question for my part.
I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning, with the primal question which is at the root of all religion, ‘why is there anything?’ Why is there anything? Ideas on the lesser question of ‘how is there anything?’ have advanced and crystallised immensely during my lifetime. In my youth the idea of the big bang and Fred Hoyle’s ‘steady state’ theory, both had their advocates, but the big bang has triumphed, and scientists have recently been able to actually home in on some of its echoes.
So the universe began at a finite time some twenty thousand million years ago with an unimaginably dense ball of matter which exploded and has been expanding ever since with all its stars and galaxies moving farther away from each other like spots on an expanding balloon and our sun is just one of billions of suns in our galaxy and our galaxy is just one of uncounted billions of galaxies. We’re only just beginning to unlock the physical secrets of the creation and its probable that as J. B. S. Halldane has said, the universe is not only queerer than we imagined but queerer than we’re capable of imagining. And the chance of our planet being the only one in the universe to sustain intelligent life is inconceivably remote, much more fanciful than the medieval idea that the earth was the centre of the universe which got Gallileo into so much trouble. The statistical likelihood is that there are literally billions of planets that sustain life in one form or another, many probably much more advanced that homo sapiens.
But what was there before the big bang? How did that inconceivably dense little ball of matter come into being, and why? Really there are only two alternatives to consider, both of which seem highly improbable. Firstly: that there is a supreme intelligence which has imagined, conceived, planned and physically put in place this whole colossal expanding cosmos with its building blocks of minute particles and forces and energy and light and time. Surely this is scarcely conceivable? And yet the alternative is that the whole thing just appeared with no cause out of nothing, with no reason, or conceivable explanation, and that’s certainly even more unbelievable. So, even in intellectual terms we’re forced willy nilly and whether we like it or not to believe in a creator, whether we call him, her, it, God or one of the many other names that have been used over the centuries. Perhaps this is an appropriate point to read a poem, equally appropriately entitled "God".
A stone word, crude and squat
as the hacked hulk of rock ten thousand years ago,
menacing in the desert,
and men kneeling sweaty and afraid.
Nowadays an intonation in cool vaults
and measured metronomic assonances our dill and cumin.
Your God is too small!
Open your mind a little to the suns uncounted and uncountable, the whole
gargantuan sprawl of matter,
expanding and exploding - pullulating
with shivering spawn of uncreated stars.
The crunch of suns in behemoths collision;
the sprawling nebulae
in millions upon millions, reaching out
beyond the measuring stick of light
forever and forever.
Mind stammers. Who can absorb the enormity
as the night sky leans down on us, reeling,
rotten with stars.
Perhaps John Mespil in the small back room in Ealing,
moving in immense darknesses,
reaching along the shelves of silences
for pieces of reality.
Or Kim Dae Gering on the lotus stone near Agra,
leaving his neatly folded self outside
and entering peace. Has he been host
to the Simplicity?
Or Sister Clare in the religious house in Lima,
body forgotten on the floor,
shaken with seraphim.
Or Gunther Hochheimer in Zurich, sitting
marigold~quiet in his chair,
full of effulgence.
And life in other worlds
to which ours is amoebal?
Have they not seen in clearer focus,
finding tools to hand
hidden in the interstices of time,
the delicate equations.
Oh, to whose dream?
So to whose dream and to what purpose? One can only speculate.
It’s possible to think of this gigantic act of creation is just that, a created masterpiece by God the composer, the scientist, the painter, the poet. Or to see God as the great gardener sowing the seeds of life on myriads of planets and watching and nurturing its spiritual growth and eventual flowering. Or perhaps the universe was created as a home for his own spirit and perhaps it’s only through the eyes and ears of living creatures that he can see and hear the beauty and majesty of his creation.
Perhaps in a few million years we ourselves may grow to be godlike companions and perhaps some other planets’ beings have already done so. You may remember the speech in King Lear, which says ‘and so we’ll live and love and tell old tales and laugh at gilded butterflies and take upon us the mystery of things as if we were God’s spies’.
One can speculate endlessly but these are all mere intellectual speculations and I don’t believe the best way of coming at the truth. As Dame Julian of Norwich said in the 13th century, ‘by love make He be gotten and holden but by thought never’ and it’s by the intuitive part of our brain rather than the analytical that we are likely to get nearer to the truth.
From the earliest times men have felt the need to worship. In historical times all ancient religions were polytheistic usually with one chief god and various subsidiary or specialist gods. The Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Scandinavian and Maya all follow this pattern. Hinduism remains the only current polytheistic main stream religion and is also the oldest, dating back to 1500 BC. 300 years later Moses received the laws on Mount Sinai, and 700 years after that Buddhism and Confucianism both originated. Another 500 years saw the birth of Jesus and Christianity and 500 years later the birth of Islam.
So while we acknowledge that there may be many ways to worship the divine, we are Christians, and the way of Jesus is our way. Personally, I’m more inclined to the Unitarian viewpoint than the Trinitarian. I believe that there is one holy spirit of God and that everyone in the world whatever his or her beliefs has a spark of that spirit within him or her however heavily overlaid by self-interest. The inner light, that of God. A spirit which exists independently of any human mind, but which also operates with and through the mind, so that sometimes the mind seems to be reaching out to the spirit, and sometimes the spirit seems to be penetrating and infusing the mind.
And that Jesus was a full man, begotten and born as other men but having to a unique extent the power and clarity of that light, that holy spirit within him. It seems just short of miraculous that after 2000 years of passing on by word of mouth of variant texts, missing texts, misunderstandings, where the winners wrote the story, mistranslations and a hundred opportunities for error, the picture of Jesus that emerges is strong, coherent and believable.
The essence of his personality is etched on all the parables, rooted as they are in day to day experience and in the Sermon on the Mount. Although it only appears in St. Luke’s Gospel, we can take the story of the woman taken in adultery (needless to say, the man isn’t mentioned), as an example undoubtedly related by someone who was present. The little details, like Jesus writing in the dust as the vengeful men tried to trap him with the law, then raising his eyes and saying calmly, ‘let him amongst you who is without sin cast the first stone’, and the sudden silence, the shuffling of feet and the dropping of stones as he bent down again to write in the dust. Pure drama, but self authenticating, it happened, just like that, and it illustrates two of his constant characteristics, his compassion and his hatred of hypocrisy.
One tends to forget that Jesus spent nine tenths of his life at home in Nazareth with his family. After Joseph’s death, as the eldest son he would have been responsible for putting bread on the table for his mother, his four brothers and his sisters. No doubt, he would have spent many evenings in thought and prayer and the realisation and consciousness of his mission would have gathered momentum.
Personally I don’t believe that Jesus come to shed his blood to redeem the sins of the world. I believe that he came to fulfil a destiny, to show us what God is like, and how the Holy Spirit in man can fulfil it’s full potential in our day to day living, so that both the phrases, ‘son of God’ and ‘son of man’ are appropriate.
The totality of God is too vast for our partially developed minds to comprehend, but we can grasp his essence in Jesus as we can grasp the essence of the vast ocean in a cup of water.
And the potential of that spirit which was so strong in Jesus is in all of us, though weaker and clogged by self interest.
One example of its manifestation is what happened to a young Irish doctor about a hundred years ago. He was walking over Westminster Bridge in London when he became aware of a small ragged boy who was standing in front of him and asking him ‘please Sir, are you God?’ so he smiled and said ‘no sonny, I’m not God, why do you ask?’ and the boy answered, ‘well my mummy has just died and she told me that God would look after me’. And the doctor had compassion, and took him home with him, the first of many. His name was doctor Bernardo. The boy had found God indeed.
Such stories could be multiplied millions of times. Such people are Christians. Most of us are would-be Christians. Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it’s been found difficult and not tried.
As Friends the central focus of our corporate existence is the meeting for worship, which is exactly what it says on the tin. A meeting. For worship. Not for the pursuit of intellectual speculation, either in speech or silence but for self-emptying in the deepest reverence and humility. As Thomas Merton says, ‘The eye which opens to his presence is in the very centre of our humility’.
We have all had those occasional moments when we seem to get behind the façade of space and time. Usually it happens in meeting but not always. Here is a poem, which tries to describe such an indescribable moment.
CHURCH STREET SUNDAY.
A straw-pale morning stretching itself
round neat white windows.
A Mona Lisa morning but with outstretched hands
All is so still.
My small clean footfalls print the air
with a precise inscription, with a code
neatly tapped out upon the stretched drum of the morning.
But disciplined, civilised enough
for these Ming silences.
Diffused light, pared bone fine
irradiates the street's façade
until the backdrop waxes wafer thin,
so tenuous, so threadbare that the truth
can all but tremble through.
In crucial quiet the world waits,
most priestlike, most profoundly still, that not the smallest folded drop
escape the chalice.
Only sparrows embroider so fine a silence.
Time was always an illusion.
the clean stone drops,
bringing the world to death again.
the footsteps of another man.
Such moments are rare because we’re usually too close to the picture, too involved in it to step back. Now just for a change, a funny story, from Rabbi Lionel Blue, which does have a little relevance to what I’ve been saying. Apparently this Jew had fallen over a hundred-foot cliff and managed to cling on to a small tree near the top. In desperation he called out ‘is there anyone up there who can help me?’ And a strong voice replied, ‘let go of the tree and I will catch you in my hand and bear you up to safety’ A long pause, then ‘is there anyone else up there?’
The relevance here is that if you want to let God you have to let yourself go first. It is only the empty cup, which is filled, and this was beautifully expressed by George Herbert over three hundred years ago,
‘If thou could empty all thyself of self
like to a shell dishabited
then might He find thee on the ocean shelf
and say ‘this is not dead’
and fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd concern
That when He comes He said this is enow
Unto itself, t’were better let it be
It is so small and full there is no room for me.
One more poem and I have finished. Not mine this time but my son, David’s, it’s called
How the gulls are free
can be remembered here
In this habitual assembly
of untouching friends:
this man like a crab
encrusted with a life-time of opinions
limps sideways on the sticks of silence;
this girl like a candle with its eyes closed
studies music and dissolves It here unaware
of girls long dead who sat upright
on the same hard sonata;
this woman is a family
and muses transcendentally on lunches
and babies spilling out of her like leaves;
this child-like wife mumbles her lifelong lullaby
to a baby smiling forever in its frozen cot of earth;
this father among his vanished sons
perceives the softness of his father’s eyes
in the whispering of trees through frosted glass
and wonders what illusion is it that makes time pass……
…….all remain themselves,
and yet their strings quiver visibly with the tug
of the various kites of silence that they fly,
how the gulls are free
can be remembered here where suddenly
many silences swoop upwards in one thrill of flight.
So these have been some rather wandering attempts to answer George Fox’s question, ‘What can’st thou say?’ I’m aware that much of it may well be quite different from what other Friends would say but surely that was the point of Fox’s question.
And as epilogue, a quotation from the Irish of the 9th. Century;
To go to Rome; much the trouble; little the gain.
You will not find there the king you seek – unless you bring him with you.
And now, another angle, Larry Southard will speak of his experience and his search in the context of Cork Meeting.
As a boy brought up in the foothills of rural North Carolina—a part of the country commonly called the Bible Belt—I would go with my family on Sunday mornings to preaching. Attendance was important. I managed to amass 16 years of perfect attendance pins. But I was only second in line having most pins. Gladys Ledford was first having twenty-something. Not even sickness could keep us away. I remember being wrapped in an old scratchy army blanket by my mother and being bundled into the back seat of the car and driven out to New Bethel Church’s car park. My Sunday school teacher would come out to the car and sit in the passenger’s side and deliver to me over the back of the seat that week’s Bible lesson. I never found out how Gladys managed. She lived only just across the road from the church so maybe she had the lesson delivered to her in the comfort of her bed.
But most Sundays I was well, and I would sit with my parents in the usual pew listening to the sermon quietly—or not so quietly if I could manage to sit with my buddies in the back of the church. But either way I was present for some powerful sermons through the years delivered by some good preachers: Preacher Green, Preacher Fitz, Preacher McKinney, Preacher Borders—men who each had their own style, each their own emphasis, who knew the Bible and could draw faithfully from its texts. But mostly I remember their friendship and kindness. It was my mother’s dream that I too would someday become a preacher. I even for a short while served as youth pastor at New Bethel.
By the time I had received my 16th pin, I was in my first year of college. One Saturday night a buddy and I double dated a couple of girls who were going to an all women’s’ college about 50 miles down the road. At the end of the evening we dropped the girls off at their dorms and began the drive back. On the way I found out why the little red light on the dashboard had been flashing all evening—20 miles from school at 3am in the morning the car engine seized. No oil. Not a soul would stop at that hour of the morning, so there was nothing for it except to walk the whole 20 miles back to campus. By the time we straggled into the dormitory the next morning, church services were well and truly over. It was the first Sunday I had missed—and the last Sunday I considered going until I walked through the doors of Friends Meeting House in Cork 15 years later a somewhat different Larry.
But in the end my mother has got what she wanted—a preacher of sorts, but probably not in a guise she could have imagined. Tonight I would like to return to my southern roots and preach you a sermon. I draw my text not from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but from the Gospel of Thomas—a gospel that has been for others and for me, quiet literally, a Godsend.
I will say no more about its background other than it was excluded from the New Testament during negotiations leading up to the closing of the Canon. Suppressed, then lost for centuries, it was unearthed in Egypt in 1945 having survived since shortly after the dramatic events in Palestine 2000 years earlier. Some churches had used it as their sacred text before the imposition of the New Testament. Thomas contains 114 somewhat enigmatic saying attributed to Jesus, about 2/5 of them reflected in the New Testament and 3/5 of them entirely new.
I draw from the first 40 saying, using them in consecutive order to render what I hear the Gospel of Thomas saying to me.
Questing for Life (1-10)
The Living Jesus teaches and demonstrates the true nature of our being. As heirs of an Eternal Dimension, our essence stands independent of space-time. The more we come to resonate with the divine truth we here encounter, the more we experience within us the eternal life of God being lived in human terms. We live divine truth by engaging in a process that allows spiritual understanding to unfold: because answers hide, we seek; because Truth manifests, we find; because reality disturbs, we are changed; because perspective shifts, we marvel; because Truth orders, we reign over the all.
The Eternal Dimension predicates and permeates the whole of space-time. It is the over-arching context in which we have our being. To fail to understand what we are as human beings is to live as prodigals out of context. The Eternal Dimension dwells within us as we dwell within it. To live within our Eternal Context is to experience the world’s dualities unified and transcended. Our birthdeath becomes the ensemble in which we experience atonement with creation as we sense the life within us flowing from a living and timeless font. As we come alive to our divine lineage, we begin to realise that for us to know ourselves is a way for God to know us.
Our guidance within space-time comes by knowing God as manifested in the immediate circumstances; for within that which we are experiencing lies revealed the response to our seeking. Our quest’s methodology we derive not from observing traditional forms of piety, but by practising what works best for us as we submit to Truth’s discipline. We allow Truth to lead and order our inward lives and outward practices, not because we know the Truth, but because It knows us. By choosing to make Gospel Order incarnate, we answer humanity’s high evolutionary calling to act as agents for transformation, liberation, and resurrection. To make incarnate that which inverts Gospel Order debases our being and precludes the joy we experience as we evolve into the fully human. As human beings who practice being Human, we are able to distinguish in our experience what is most good and valuable, and choose without difficulty the wise option. We choose without difficulty because we create environments that allow wisdo m and understanding to order our lives. We protect seminal possibilities from exposure to influences that can plunder and dissipate. We remain sensitive to new promptings so that leadings can take root and burgeon. We curtail busyness that absorbs energy and chokes response. And we cultivate activities that maximise the Spirit’s yield.
Jesus has seen his ministry as helping humankind to realise its filial kinship to the Godhead. By thinking eternally, by acting timely, and by following through, he has shown how to spread a ministry of fire that purges ignorance and nurtures enlightenment.
Wielding the Discipline (10-20)
Jesus’ discipline can be uncomfortable; but as we learn to inhabit the space he has made accessible, we recognise ourselves as agents of an Eternal Dimension wielding a creative, transforming and unifying light within space-time. In making practical choices about how and where to use this light, we make righteousness our guide. No matter what situation we have come to, by making righteousness our point of departure we can get started; by making it our destination we can steer a course. As we travel our course within space-time, for us to glean along the way the lessons of eternal truth requires that we desist from substituting time-bound models as if they were authentic reality. Even our most cherished models are irrelevant, inadequate, and inappropriate in capturing the immediacy, vitality, and integrity of the Eternal Dimension’s seamless reality. Nor does our participation in traditional modes of religious behaviour stand synonymous with participation in our Eternal Context. By meeting people where they are—free of preconceived ideas about what guise the Totally Other must take—we increase our chances of recognising the Eternal within the moment. When God is well met, our natural and proper response is worship.
Through his discipline Jesus has made it possible for us to engage in the here/now the glories of the Eternal Dimension. Through that same discipline, he has made it inevitable that we also engage division and strife. By taking responsibility for our choices and dealing with their consequences, we gain valuable experience of this paradoxical universe and of the Eternal Dimension in which it is embedded. Jesus has given us through his discipline the opportunity to claim within space-time our stake in the Eternal Dimension. By owning that stake, our anxieties about death disappear. Freed of mortality’s virtual shackle, we rejoice in our true context and understand our basis for action within space-time. No longer anxious about our place within the universe, we experience the whole of creation as our Minister. We can see within it the Eternal Dimension burgeoning from the smallest of beginnings to become a nurturing and protective environment in an often perilous world to which ultimately we are not nat ive.
Living the Wholeness (20-30)
Jesus is adamant that he chooses us that we might learn how to create wholeness from that which is partial. By living the wholeness, we process the world as raw material from which to fashion our place within the Eternal Dimension. We fashion that place within us and about us, and it houses the world made whole. There, in the Eternal Dimension’s unified reality, we all share the one soul. To love our neighbour and to love ourselves are the same act. To guard our own ability to see and to guard the vision of others amount to the same thing. But in order to see effectively that others might see, we remove the impediments and hindrances that blind us.
Abundant life is not found, however, through preoccupation with the world per se, but through adventurously exploring the unified reality in which it is imbedded and of which it is a part. Our worldly context presents to us an awesome marvel of debilitating poverty mixed with immense spiritual wealth. Within this context of broken symmetry Jesus asserts that he himself is present to us as we seek wholeness.
Broadcasting Truth (30-40)
To benefit from Jesus’ teaching and care, we recognise amidst mundane routine and familiarity Truth’s workings. By taking advantage of Truth’s opportunities, we establish our lives within a secure but visibly open setting. By manifesting what we learn, we illuminate the way for others. But whether engaged in leading or following, we minimise danger by taking into account the inherent blindness within us all. To counter situations that threaten to inhibit Truth’s effect, we gather courage to meet the problem where it lies; we take practical measures to limit its capacity to harm; and we use appropriate force to reorder relationships for the better. The resources available to us to meet these challenges are not our primary concern; but rather, to remove the sources of shame in our lives that prevent us from seeing God’s manifestations.
Jesus does not seek to create dependency upon himself. His discipline is meant to empower our living by helping us to realise the wholeness that our close kinship with God allows. Life abundant comes from profoundly knowing this kinship. By acting with prudence and innocence we make it possible to learn from Eternity’s agenda. By following that agenda, our endeavours achieve their full worth.
I would like to thank the clerk and Alan for extending me the invitation to reflect on the Cork Meting and what it means to me. It has been a very rewarding process reviewing my path to the Cork Meeting.
I differ from the previous two speakers in that I come from an Irish Catholic tradition. In the Ireland of my youth during the 1950/60s it was hard not to be a Catholic. It was natural, ordinary; like rain and the GAA. It permeated all aspects of my life as a child.
I grew up with a bewildering array of religious iconography and structures. Wearing miraculous medals and scapulars, saying the stations of the cross and the angelus, eating fish on Fridays, plenary indulgences, Sacred Heart pictures with their own special red lamps, pictures of patron saints and statues of special ones, sending mass cards, attending benediction, the smell of incense, novenas, the Latin Mass, fighting for the honour of holding banners during May processions, later as a teenager walking in Corpus Christi processions, attending early morning masses on the nine first Fridays. Confession every Saturday evening. Mass and Holy Communion the following Sunday morning at 9. At home the family rosary was recited every night.
I sang in the choir of a church dominated by a patronising parish priest and a series of fresh looking callow curates.
I was a member of the Legion of Mary, we visited the sick, the elderly and delivered Catholic newspapers. Later I joined the Vincent de Paul Society and the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.
Misbehaviour was categorised into and limited by venal sins, mortal sins, the fear of purgatory or worse hell and a strange place called "limbo".
At the Christian Brothers school I attended, prayers were recited before every lesson. There was a statue of the Blessed Virgin in every classroom. The regime was strict where I witnessed a lot of unpredictable violence. We learned a catechism of belief off by heart. Everybody, the whole class, made their First Confession, Holy Communion and Confirmation together at the appropriate age. None of us thought much about religion. It was something that was done to you. I didn’t own it. It had the dreamlike quality of something distant. The subliminal propaganda of enforced belief repressed us boys into compliant numbness.
Protestants, along with horse riding, golf, sailing and foreign holidays belonged to distant places. It happened to other people and never entered into our consciousness. Quakers where even more remote. There was a general overall perception that they were harmless "good folk" who had organised soup kitchens long ago during the Famine.
On graduating from UCC in 1972 I worked as a science teacher at a mission in Africa for three years. This period was a pivotal experience in my life. I was on my own, away from the sheltering bosom of my family, out of Ireland and the all embracing womblike culture of my upbringing. The climate was so totally different. Rain was something to be valued and celebrated, not avoided. I thrived in the heat and grew as an individual.
Slowly my awareness developed as I became aware of the environmental issues that faced the planet, the disastrous effects of Third World debt and the unequal trading conditions endemic in the world economy.
I came into contact with volunteer workers of differing beliefs and none, working selflessly trying to develop services for the local tribal people of Zambia. I met young Germans of no religious belief who had volunteered to work in Africa on engineering projects rather than do military service. They worked without the underpinning of thinking of the next world’s "account". I travelled to South Africa and witnessed the apartheid regime at first hand. Europe drifted slowly away held by the umbilical chord of a crackley BBC World Service late at night.
My first doubts about my religious practice had begun whilst at college at UCC and later grew so that I gradually became a non-practising or lapsed Catholic. I began to realise that I was profoundly unhappy in my practice and had become increasingly unwilling to participate in the liturgy. Being a Catholic in Ireland had never been a conscious decision but now I was making the conscious decision to stop practising.
Unlike my friends I wasn’t satisfied to remain as a non-practising disgruntled Catholic. I needed some structure for my spiritual belief but was unsure as to where to go looking or what I expected to find. Whilst at UCC I had taken up meditation and through it had come into contact with Buddhism which I found interesting but a bit too eastern for me.
Around 1979 an old classmate of mine from school introduced me to the idea of attending a Friends meeting in Cork. He had attended some, and had found them interesting. He outlined briefly what went on, where the meeting house was and when the meetings were held. Some time later I went alone and liked what I saw and heard. I was engaged in "religious sniffing about" but I had a strong sense of being at ease, of being in the right place.
I was greatly taken by the lack of ritual, the absence of patronising priests. There was no compulsion. No shoulds or "have to’s". There wasn’t a statue in sight. I felt respected and valued as a human being. I would go occasionally, maybe for three Sundays in a row and then I might not attend again for months. On my next visit to the meeting nobody said anything or inquired as to where I had been or how they had missed me. I liked that. Any hint of push and I would have scampered off into the bushes.
Throughout the 1980s I attended more and more. I became an attender and was happy to leave it at that. I enjoyed the experience of sitting on a Sunday morning and reflecting on some deeper aspects of life. I liked "the vibe" that was present at the meeting and the quiet manner in which considered decisions were taken and business was carefully conducted. Slowly the indefinable essence of what it is to be a Quaker began to rub off on me and I began to see myself more and more as a Friend. Finally in November 1994, quiet suddenly, I made a decision, applied for membership and was accepted into Cork meeting.
There are three types of members at the Cork meeting:
- Birthright members, such as Alan who were born and reared as members of the Society.
- "Blow Ins" like Larry from abroad, i.e., members of UK or US meetings who are now living in Cork.
- Lastly, native Irish such as myself who, having become disillusioned with the orthodoxies of their inherited belief system, come to the Meeting seeking a meaningful response to their questing.
For this last group the key word to describe the Cork meeting is its "accessibility". There is a particular quality at the Cork meeting, which makes strangers welcome, and at ease when they come to meeting for the first time. This quality is a function of the leadership shown by our elders and overseers, the influence of the more cosmopolitan "blow ins" and the active involvement of new "native" members in the meeting. The meeting has grown steadily in the last thirty years. The average weekly attendance has increased from 5 in the 1970s to about 35 in the late 1990s.
Becoming a Friend has added meaning to my life in ways that as yet I do not understand.
- I would like to think that I am becoming more honest as a person in my dealing with others.
- To undertake only commitments that I know I can fulfil.
- I am beginning to learn to accept life as it is; to be less judgmental of others and to be content with less.
- I find myself keeping a diary, recording things. I find that these practices are helpful in keeping me in the present moment and in being clearer in my own thinking and in my communication with others.
Why do I come to meeting? I don’t rightly know. If I don’t attend for a few weeks I feel the lack of something, that something is amiss. I am clearer at noting the absence of meeting than in defining its meaning for me. All I know is that it is an important element of my life. It provides me with structure and enables me to live in the present and approach the future with a degree of equanimity.
In my lifetime since I was born in 1950 our society has entered a new age. Irish society has made the transition from the certainty of the homogenous pattern of living of the past—with its religion of ritual—to an age of uncertainty where a bewildering variety of lifestyles are unfolding as possibilities. The rigidity of the past has melted and a vacuum has developed in Irish society.
The role I would like to see Friends playing at the beginning of a new millennium is that of a yeast in the dough of Irish society. Though small in comparative numbers Friends can contribute very effectively as they have done in the past by example, service and speech.
I would like to see Friends take a more pro-active role in Irish society.
I would like to see Friends speak out collectively and in a considered manner on such issues as:
- The exploitation of young people through the soaring uncontrolled rise in the cost of renting and purchase of housing;
- The emotional strain and physical exhaustion experienced by these young couples trying to keep two jobs going to pay for ever increasing mortgages and look after their children;
- The widespread pervasive use of alcohol in our society;
- The accumulation of waste and profligate use of energy;
- The rampant greed that pervades our economic relations;
- The lack of even an expectation of honesty in tax affairs;
- The increasing marginalisation of the old, the disabled, the chronically ill and the sick poor;
- The moral degeneration of a whole generation of our youth;
- The unquestioned influence of virtual reality as conveyed by electronic media. Relationships with electronic media being more real than human relationship—Nintendo, TV, multi-channel, video, Internet, etc.
John Gotto, the "New York City—Teacher of the Year 1991", highlighted this point when, in his acceptance speech on being presented with his award as the best teacher in New York, he castigated the Mayor, the School Boards, the Department of Education and hundreds of city officials present at the ceremony for an educational system that
….leads to the soul murder of over a million children in one generation…. Think of the things that are killing us as a nation: drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol; and the worst pornography of all, lives devoted to buying things, accumulation for meaning. All are addictions of dependant personalities and that is what our brand of schooling is inevitably producing in the next generation.
Gotto also referred to the trend whereby the predominant child-rearing practices in North America and Europe (and, presumably, inevitably in Ireland), "….have gone from extended family, to nuclear family, to ‘atomic’ (one parent) family; where most children are not even raised by two parents. They are raised by day care and multi-media". "What," Gotto asks, "will happen when we have a generation of children who are unbonded and unconnected, who will grow up with a hole in their soul? "
As we approach the second millennium my wish for the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland is
- To continue to demonstrate a meaningful spiritual Christian response to the personal and spiritual needs of its members living in the twenty first century.
- To facilitate the spiritual development of its members to enable them to make some meaning of their lives.
- To provide guidance, comfort and support to one another in our confusion, sorrow, and pain.
- And finally, to offer relevance and enlightenment to whomsoever comes knocking on the doors of our Meetings seeking the company of fellow pilgrims on the road.
I would like to finish by reading a poem by a friend of mine, the Waterford poet, the late Sean Dunne, in which he describes his sense impressions on attending meeting in Cork.
Silence takes over the room.
As if gathered for a sign, they dispatch
Business and let the moments pass.
On tables, in bowls, flowers bud
Like phrases about to be said.
Outside, their acre of graves
Shows the names and dates like the flat
Cover of shut files. Terraces close
Around them, dogs restless in yards,
Children at windows catapulting birds.
From his collection of poems "Against the Storm".