Friends who participate in a program of deepening spirituality or other transforming experience often speak of the problem of taking what they’ve learned “back home” to the monthly meeting to which they belong. I’ve heard this discussed more or less explicitly for over thirty years, and it is coming up now with respect to the Deeper Roots program.
It has come to me as I’ve pondered this issue recently, that posing the question as it has usually been posed fragments the participants in a way that is not helpful to resolving the problem. It separates the individual participant, their learning or insights from their experience, and their faith community into three distinct objects. The matter becomes a transaction: I have had an objective experience (different from me), and apart from my faith community, which I believe my community needs or would benefit from, and I want to transfer it to them. (This is sometimes called the “banking theory” of education – I’m going to open thy skull and make a deposit, pouring in the learning thee needs.) This often raises defensive reactions from members of the meeting community, who by definition don’t know (yet) why they need such an experience themselves.
The matter thus becomes the reverse of a question I hear all the time: How can I get the meeting to better meet my spiritual needs? What the meeting community is offering is not necessarily what I think I need or want. In parallel fashion, the individual with a new experience is not necessarily offering what the meeting community believes it needs or wants.
Thinking about this in a more integrative way offers a resolution, if one changes the question from “How can the meeting community better meet my spiritual needs and wants?” to “How can I be more nearly the member of my faith community that it needs me to be?” This change in perspective implies a regular personal examen of two questions: “What can I offer my faith community?” and “Of the many things I could offer, which are the ones my faith community truly needs and can use helpfully at this time?” Asking these questions makes two assumptions: 1) that this special experience or learning has already changed who I am, and also what contributions I am able to make to my community, as needed; and 2) that I and my community are one entity, so that the experience or learning is already present inside the community, waiting for the right time and process to be more widely disseminated. This comes close to what our Latin American brothers and sisters call learning by conscientization.
As George Fox advised, we should let our lives speak, wherever we are, to reach for and respond to that of God in each one – including those in our faith community as well as strangers. When I’ve had a transformative experience, wherever and whenever it happened, I should spend time in reflection on how that experience has changed me, and how my outward life might or should change to reflect that. As I live into those new possibilities, my changed life will speak to my meeting, and it will be blessed and changed as a result. If no one in meeting recognizes or responds to the changes in me, then perhaps, as we say about vocal ministry, the message was for me and not for the meeting community at large. As our lives change to reflect the spiritual growth in us, we should always be prepared to give an account of the joy and hope in us – but let us also wait for the question to be asked.
(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the apprentice authors, and not official statements of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) or Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) of the Religious Society of Friends.)