A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it... We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive... And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us try then what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
William Penn

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone...
George Fox

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Quakers of Congénies, Part 1

Libby, a Quaker since 1985 who is a member of Congénies Meeting, and my very generous  host.
One of the aims I had set for this peace walk was to visit Quaker meetings, few though they be, from Portugal to Egypt. The Quaker Meeting at Congénies was one of those at the top of my list. Not only was it  along my route, it is also a well attended and historical meeting.

While there is no formal creed among the Quakers, or The Religious Society of Friends as it is more formally known, its roots are in Christianity; and while there is now a diversity of beliefs among Quakers, all Quakers (I presume) have in common a belief in a universal 'Inner Light' which, if we mind it, leads us to live our lives in simplicity, peace, integrity and equality.
Like the original Quakers of the 17th century, the Quakers in Congénies ( and in all of Europe, generally), worship in a reflective, hopefully gathered silence, speaking only if moved by the Spirit to do so. Quakers abolished the laity and established a 'priesthood of all believers', making even non-Quakers who are attending a meeting into 'priests' if they are genuinely moved by the Spirit to deliver a message.
Quakers generally try to live all aspects of their lives under an ordering of this 'Inner Light', and Quakers are well known for being active in peacemaking and social justice.The Congénies Quakers, for example,  have recently protested immigrant holding camps in France.

I had been in contact with the Resident Friends of the meeting in Congénies, Bonnie and David Parsons, so I knew I was welcome there. However, I hadn't nailed down the details of my arrival, so I wasn't sure, when I entered Congénies sometime around 9 p.m., that I would find anybody around to host me for the evening. 'No matter,' I thought; 'I've got my tent,' and I was so overjoyed to see 'Avenue des Quakers' and then 'La Maison Quaker de Congénies' that I would have willingly and happily slept inside a hollow tree that night.
As it happened, there were several Quakers sitting at the table beside the meeting house, having a little conversation after dinner. I was promptly greeted and fed, and of course, asked a lot of questions. It may have been in response to a question regarding my monthly meeting (Winona Monthly Meeting, Ohio Yearly Meeting) when I had to confess that, though I unreservedly consider myself a Quaker, they may not consider me to be one, as I had not ever attended a meeting with other Quakers! Furthermore, I have never been to Winona, Ohio! I quickly explained my long-distance affiliation with and acceptance by OYM, my isolation from other Quakers, and my experience in Portalegre with a group (well, there were two of us) which worshiped in the manner of Friends with the approval and nurturing of the Friends World Committee for Consultation. I also mentioned that the original Friends had simply declared themselves to be Quakers, and I was doing the same. And to the best of my knowledge, none of the Quakers I met in Congénies considered me to be anything other than a Quaker.
After dinner Bonnie brought me to the other side of the village, where I met Libby, who was to provide me with material and moral support the whole time I was in Congénies. Libby has been a Quaker since 1985, and when I asked what had drawn her to the Quakers, she said the Quakers permitted one to doubt. Indeed, there are Quakers ranging in doubt from the doubt of non-theism to the doubt of the agonizing father in the New Testament who said, 'I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!'. The meeting at Congénies is a Liberal meeting, having a broad range of spiritual beliefs, while my own meeting in Winona is a Christian meeting; but no matter to me, for as William Penn said:

The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.

I believe it is our task to know this truth now, and, whether as Quakers among our own diverse Society, or as believers in a particular faith among a diverse world of faiths, it is our task to know one another, not as strangers but as friends.

The meeting house for the Religious Society of Friends in Congénies. It is the only Quaker meeting house in France that was originally built to serve that purpose.

The grounds of the meeting house.

The Quaker cemetery behind the meeting house.
The day after my arrival, Saturday, was meeting for worship. Though it was my first meeting with Quakers, I wasn't very surprised by much, as I had been worshiping in this manner for a good year back in Portugal. I may have been a bit surprised by the relaxed manner of those sitting in silence; Quaker worship is not zazen, and while I didn't stir much for that hour of silent waiting, there were others who did quite a bit of shifting, sighing, or even yawning. But rather than put me off , I was pleased to find a way into a gathered silence that is not forced by our own efforts, but is instead submissive to the Spirit that blows like the wind.
Nevertheless, while I didn't stir much physically, I spent most of that hour not at all 'centered down', and thinking about how glad I was to be sitting with Quakers. I prayed a bit, listened to my breathing a bit, tried to be receptive to the Spirit, but mostly I listened to those sighs, wondering what was happening in the others to bring the sighs about. The meeting went the hour without any ministry, but afterwards there was quite a lot of sharing of those reflections we had had which we had not regarded as coming purely from the Spirit.
After the meeting there was more food; there is always food, it seems, at the Congénies meeting (and I always enjoyed it immensely). I got to know some of the Quakers visiting at Congénies, including David from a meeting in North Carolina, and Jez Smith from England.
I had more of an opportunity to speak with Jez than with the others, so I was able to learn that Jez works at Friend's House in London, and attends Peckham Meeting. He discovered Christ while at university, though he does not call himself a Christian (as, according to his blog, that is for God to judge). Jez was at first a lawyer working for the marginalized, and in particular for asylum seekers, but after he'd found the Quakers-- he has been a Quaker for 12 years-- he became a fundraiser for Quakers in Britain. He's got a quality blog: Nayler.org, which should be of interest not only to Quakers. If you search a bit, you can, ahem,  find a piece on a Quaker pilgrim visiting Congénies.

Congénies Quakers and visitors enjoying lunch at the meeting house.

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