Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I'm feeling pretty bent out of shape after back-to-back yearly meetings and a trip to Alaska for my sister's wedding. I don't want to give the wrong impression. These were wonderful experiences overall, but I am tired after all the traveling.

I am also still pretty annoyed with God. I feel like God is stretching me in all sorts of ways that I don't want to stretch this summer.

One thing I noticed in both North Pacific Yearly Meeting and Northwest Yearly Meeting is how much more comfortable Quakers seem to be talking about things other than their own experience of God. I heard many Friends quote the Bible and early Quakers, and there was a lot of talk about service and politics, but I heard very few Friends describe their experience of God.

I can understand. It's hard for me too.

While we were visiting Northwest Yearly Meeting, I mentioned to Sarah P that I could feel the presence of God in the first business meeting there. She asked me what that felt like. The question seemed so personal!

Over the past several months, Sarah P and I have traveled together frequently. We eat together, pray together, and almost always share a room. Even so, I still felt shy describing my experience of God to her. But I gave it my best shot.

When I go to Quaker gatherings, at some point I usually have a moment where I feel the tangible presence of God around me. Usually this is early on, during silence or prayer, and it frequently occurs when I am feeling distracted and irritable.

All of a sudden, I feel God all around me like a mist and I also feel my chest expanding. I don't actually hear any words, but it is as if God is saying to me, "I am here. Pay attention. These people have something to say to you."

It certainly gets my attention.

I know that God is always there, but at particular times I am more aware of God. Other ways I have felt God is like a blanket over my shoulders, comforting me, and like a pair of hands holding me. At times when I am centered, I feel like I am disappearing into God. When I pray, sometimes my hands heat up and I feel like I am holding a ball of light.

I think we don't talk about this stuff because it is weird. It is so much easier to talk about the experiences of others than our own. And the Bible and early Quaker writings have the added benefit of the authors being dead. It isn't like we have to actually deal with a living Paul talking about his experience on the road to Damascus or George Fox saying that God is telling him stuff.

It is also hard to talk about God because words aren't enough. God is beyond description. But words are what we have. And sometimes the words of others help.

All of this is to say, I would like to hear about your experiences of God. If passages from the Bible, quotes from early Friends, or song lyrics speak to your condition, great. But please say why. I can read books, but I don't know what is happening to you unless you speak up.


  1. Bravo! Yes, you hit it on the head. We have such a tendency to over-intellectualize everything. Online forums are even worse. No, I don't care about your essay on the role of Christianity among Friends or your fairy-tale of a Quaker history or what you think U.S. policy in Iraq should be. Instead, share how you've experienced God and how Friends have helped you understand that experience.

    For me, God is often a comfort, especially at times where I feel I'm sticking my neck out. Sometimes God feels like a tap on the shoulder saying "look at that, consider it," similar to your "Pay attention" nudges.

    When I read old Quaker journals I often feel like it's a conversation with a colleague--not someone to bow down to or someone to neutralize with intellectual derring-do, but someone to converse with and maybe agree, maybe disagree. In general I find that the issues they struggle with are very familiar.

    I too wish we were willing to give up the protective cloak of knowledge and speak more vulnerably of our experience of God.

  2. Talking about our experiences of God is important - and too often neglected because it is hard.

    Still, I think it's also important to "quote the Bible and early Quakers" and even to write the occasional "essay on the role of Christianity among Friends", if only to make room in Quaker discourse for the recognition that having experiences of God and Christ is OK, even fundamental, for us. Otherwise, we who believe in God would have to leave the task of interpreting the Quaker faith tradition to the non-theists, anti-theists, poly-theists, deists, humanists and agnostics among us, thus impoverishing them as well as ourselves and any new seekers.

  3. A-men, sister!

    This was the impetus behind Western Friend/Friends Bulletin putting together "Enlivened by the Mystery: Quakers and God" (as you well know--and yes, it really is coming out this fall!) It is vital to the future of Quakerism that was not only share deeply and honestly our experiences of God, but also that we learn to create safe spaces into which we can share those stories. That dialectic between telling and listening, storyteller and audience, minister and flock, is the heart of spiritual transformation among Friends. And we are *all* simultaneously storytellers and audience. If we shy away from that truth, we turn our backs on our leadings, on God, and on one another.

  4. Hi Ashley,

    Thanks for sharing on what really is the most central topic of Friends--to "know" God intimately. And for sharing your own experiences with God.

    I'm even more bent out of shape than you;-) right now. Seriously, the last few days speaking with other persons, especially Quakers, about their own personal faith or lack there of has left me totally confused and deeply troubled..

    I, too, would love to hear more Friends sharing of their deep worship experiences.

    The reason I think many of us shy away from telling of our experiences with God is
    #1 "the experience of and in God is so beyond words--indeed, the closest I can get to my own experiences is in poetry.
    #2 We fear that others will think we are boasting--look what happened to me!
    #3 The experience is so intimate! Somehow the time will lose its wonder if we talk it a lot.
    #4 Others may doubt our experience (hopefully not)

    In meeting, when I experience God, I feel a sense of communion. My difficulties, tragedies, worries fade and I open to expectancy, hope, and at its best--communion. I suppose what a "gathered meeting" is.

    Strangely, several of my most powerful experiences with/in God weren't actually in Quaker worship but elsewhere. God gets around;-)

    In these ultimate times, not only did I experience hope and communion, but felt transported, indeed ecstatic (not in the emotional sense, but inwardly!)

    Here's two parts of my poems of such experiences with God:
    But now awash drowned in awe, the Personal

    Luminousness aware beyond words vivid bliss

    Blessed all encompassing exalting surpassing

    Great parabled One Pearl of Being.

    Artesian Well of Voice

    I can’t carry a tune

    Anymore than a bat can sing Hebrew

    Or see hieroglyphics,

    But once I welled up bursting

    Soon all melodious barriers

    Of sensuous fountaining,

    Songing the voice of all singing.

    Usually, I vocalize low

    And hesitantly with insecure effort

    But on that humid, crowded

    Saturday eve...

    In the midst of a thousand voiced praise

    I not only caroled the Keys but was mused

    One glorious open hosanna

    With so much climatic passion

    Like a human oboe in a great orchestra of tone

    Being Bached and Beethovened,

    Lava-hot harmonied,

    The Spirit’s artisan well bursting forth,

    Geysering up in adulation

    To God.

    In the Light,

    Daniel Wilcox

  5. Martin - Thanks for your encouragement and for sharing your experiences. I have found kindred spirits in Friends' writing too---mostly when they write about their personal experiences, as early Friends so often did.

    Rich - I think you are mostly responding to Martin's comment, but I wanted to note that I am not opposed to Friends writing about history or the Bible, I just want to hear about their experiences of God as well. I have also noticed how selectively Friends quote the Bible and other Friends (I hear the same verses and quotes all the time). There is a reason certain verses and quotes still speak to us and I would like the speaker to say why that particular passage still has life.

    Kathy - Yes, the book! I am very excited to see it when it comes out. When are you coming to Seattle? I don't want to miss your book party.

    Daniel - Thank you for sharing your experiences and your poems. I think your list of reasons for why we are shy is right. It is interesting that you say we worry "Somehow the time will lose its wonder if we talk it a lot." I do get nervous that talking about my experience of God will lessen the experiences I have, but so far, it seems to make God seem more real.

  6. ashley, it appears as if god keeps placing you in my path in order for you to change my life, again mind you! i don't know, twice in a month? that's a bit much isn't it?

    i'm needing to feel a little elastic. i need to center.

    i sit here and feel scared and sad and analytical and nauseous and so completely filled with the presence of god and the need to speak that it actually feels like birth, like the words of god are being delivered from my mouth and it hurts and it's scary and i don't know how my life will be after this experience.

    i cry. i bend my head and pray. i walk around. i cry some more. pray some more.

    i need to center again.

    to speak of god we need to know god, to believe in god, to be unafraid and out of control.

    there is a great sadness everywhere because the people don't believe, can't let themselves be swept away by the divine because...

    there is a long list of because. crazy. non-existent. scary. busy, busy, busy. in the past. to much work. risky. hard. contradictory. only a saint can...

    all excuses.

    we fear death. we fear life. we fear god.

    god is so big.

    it is better to exhale and be enveloped by loving arms than to fear the feeling of our beyond microscopic nature in the face of the vastness of god and remain always alone and in the dark.

    at the end of that exhale we find that we have survived the passage.

    people who experience god must speak even though words are totally inadequate. when we are filled to over flowing, this is how those who don't believe glimpse the truth.

    whew! o.k. is it nap time yet? nothing like an earth shattering mystical experience at your computer first thing in the morning.

    thanks ashley.

  7. Friend Ashley, please forgive RantWoman,especially after all the lovely mystical moments above for reducing God to footwear. RantWoman herself could quickly be baffled by the banality of it all. Nevertheless, if footwear is what is on RantWoman's mind, perhaps we are all supposed to be grateful that God can work with it.

    RantWoman's feet can hurt when old, and sometimes well-loved shoes are wearing out, falling apart. In that case, RantWoman must take the hurt as a goad to buy new footwear.

    On the other hand, no matter how carefully RantWoman buys footwear, sometimes shoes she will really like for a long time hurt a little somewhere at the beginning. RantWoman has no basis for knowing whether your life has something in either of these categories, but she is perfectly happy just to hold you in the Light during the stretches of transition.

  8. When I am most aware of and in touch with God, I feel "in the flow." My path is made easy; my struggles are simply "taken care of" and doors open and things fall into place. I am free of judgment and therefore connect more easily with strangers and with people of different background from my own. I am relaxed physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

    And I'm inwardly happy.

    Sometimes I feel a sense of physical Presence and I have an image of a gentle-but-firm Someone standing with me or behind me--not over me or unreachable. And I have known both the warm, all-encompassing sense of the Spirit as well as the sharp-tipped, piercing prick of the same Spirit.

    . . . . .

    If it is hard for some of us to speak about the experience of God in our lives, it may be because it hasn't been modeled for us, we haven't read enough of early Friends to take up the parts of their language that resonate for us, we haven't sought out the Quaker elders amongst us to ask them our questions about their own experience of God.

    In the worship group I attend, we continue to have the practice of staying in that tender place after we have broken worship, and then share out of the silence what our experience of worship and of God's presence was. That has "made it alright" to talk openly about God and about our experience of knowing God directly. It's a very different experience from that of sharing "afterthoughts" or those things that weigh on our hearts that didn't have the weight of vocal ministry.

    As others have already said, thanks for lifting this topic up.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  9. Rantwoman - I think the footwear analogy is apt. New shoes always give me blisters and for the first few times wearing them, I think I have made a terrible mistake. I resist change and when God makes me change, I resist God. I appreciate your willingness to hold me in the Light.

    Liz - One of the things I love about hearing others' experience of God is that they remind me of my own experiences. I know what you mean by being "in the flow," and even experienced it recently, but it's easy to forget when I am not there. I also think your worship group's practice of sharing your experience of worship sounds wonderful.

  10. Thank you Ashley, for your post. Describing my sense of God in my life almost requires a different kind of language. It's a little like trying to pick up jello: I can touch and feel it, but actually holding onto it is hard. In Quaker Meeting sometimes God's presence is like a thickening of the air around me: soft and warm and dense. Sometimes it is a quickening of my heartbeat. The place where I feel God's presence most often and most deeply is in my garden. I feel that I am on truly Sacred Ground//part of the Sacred Landscape//another of God's blessed, growing creatures at home with the hollyhocks and Rose of Sharon. And to all of this, I say: Blessed Be! Caroline

  11. I find that knowledge can be a beautiful and even life-changing experience in its own right, Friend Martin; not necessarily a "protective cloak" at all. With regard to knowledge-talk and God-experience-talk, could we see it as a "both/and" thing? I think that the RSoF is in need of both.

    Selfishly, I am particularly interested in stories of God-experience when the experience was life-changing -- for someone other than the writer. And stories that tell of a heart being blessed by being broken open. Those are the stories that most often minister to me.

  12. Caroline - Yes, picking up jello! Thank you for sharing your experience of God. Some neighbors of mine recently had a workshop on the spirituality of gardening. I didn't get to go, but I was glad to hear that they were celebrating God in the garden as well as in a church.

    George - I am confused by something in your comment. You say that you would like stories of life-changing God experiences "for someone other than the writer." Did you mean someone other than you, or an experience of God that one person had that changed another person's life?

  13. Ashley, I'm so glad you brought this up.

    I don't think it's hard to talk about our personal experience of God only in NPYM or NWYM. I think it's just plain hard. (There's a line from a Peter Gabriel song that often comes to mind for me: "My friends would think I was a nut.") As you say, it's intimate. It's deeply personal. And in general, we (Friends? society as a whole?) don't have a lot of practice staying present with each other and honoring each other's experience when it's different from ours. What if the person we're talking to dismisses us, thinks we're kind of kooky, for our experience? Worse yet, what if we talk about it, and we no longer feel like we're in spiritual communion with each other? What if our fear and others' judgment separates us from one another? What if the truth of our experience separates us from one another?

    And yet, by definition, every other person we talk to's experience of the Divine is going to be different from ours. So if we're going to be in true spiritual communion with each other, we do need to learn how to share the truth of our experience with each other.

    I love having these kinds of deep, rich, chewy conversations. They're a lot less scary when someone is able to meet me in the middle, when we can be present with and honest with each other. But they're still scary.

    One of the hardest and most rewarding things about my membership process was talking in depth and detail with my clearness committee about my experience of the Goddess. And yet it wasn't to "prove" to them that how I experience the Light is okay, acceptable somehow: the Friends on my clearness committee had a sincere and deep desire to understand my experience, well enough to explain it to someone else. It was pretty amazing. Finding words was challenging, but it was so worth the challenge -- b/c one of the places I experience the Goddess is in community.

    And the conversations with my clearness committee opened up conversations with other Friends which were also a gift.

    So, you asked about your readers' experiences of God.

    I don't experience what you, I think, call God; and what I experience, I can't call "God." I do experience the Goddess. I experience Her in the Earth we walk on and that grows our food, the creatures of the Earth, the plants and trees. I experience Her in the air I, and we all, breathe. I experience Her in the fire of the sun, the moon, the stars. I experience Her in the water all around -- the rain, Puget Sound, Lake Washington, the smaller lakes and bays, the marsh up the road from me. I experience Her in the changing of the seasons. I experience Her in community. I experience Her in Meeting for Worship. I experience Her in ways for which I have no words. I experience Her in song, some of which I've sung for you. I experience Her in dance. I experience Her in the cats who allow me to share their home (b/c we all know who's really in charge in our house), and in the arms of my beloved. I experience Her in those chewy conversations. I experience Her alone in the woods. I experience Her in the mountains. I experience Her in me. I experience Her in change and transformation, in magic. I experience Her when I'm riding the bus over the Montlake bridge and I see the Cascades on one side of the bridge and the bus and the Olympics on the other.

    I experience Her many other ways, but these are some.

    I have experienced the Goddess with you: in our discomfort with each other, in our comforting each other, in our recognizing something kindred in each other, in worshiping together, in singing together, in holding each other in the Light, in helping each other be faithful, in laughing together, in both of us being pissed off at the Goddess and God for asking us to stretch.

  14. Staśa, I am going to miss you when you move away! I am so glad that your application process for membership went so well. I am such a fan of clearness committees, though they are hard work! And I have no doubt that what you call the Goddess and what I call God are the same Divine Being. Thank you for sharing your experience of the Goddess here and with me in our community.

  15. Ashley... thanks so much for this question and initiating this conversation. I'm glad I had the chance to meet you at NWYM sessions, so that this feels more like a personal interaction. I think Daniel hits the nail on the head: it's tough to talk about this because it is intimate and beyond words. How do you describe the taste of an orange to someone who has never tasted one? There's just no adequate words!
    For me, I most often experience God in one of three ways: 1) I'm rationally wired, so God works with that and speaks through logical reasoning that flows and comes together with a sense of completeness. When I've uncovered God's leading, it feels like a puzzle piece fitting snuggly; 2) I'm very visual. Most of my prayers are images. God often communicates God's presence through images as well... a picture of sitting beside a river, knowing God is next to me; an image of sitting in the sun, being warmed and gently tanned with absolutely no effort on my part but being present; 3) I also experience God's presence physically (sometimes)with a buzzing ball of energy in my chest (feels similar to when I can't hold laughter in) or with a sudden sense of "space" before me, like I've been standing with my nose against a wall and the wall suddenly disappears and I am facing a meadow.

    Part of my call over the last few years has been to teach about discerning the presence and leading of God in our lives, corporately and personally. And what a joy it has been to help people unpack the very question you have posed, finding language for their experiences of God or finally labeling something as a result of God's presence in their lives! I believe each of us are wired/created uniquely, and God knows that wiring intimately, and therefore uses unique ways to communicate and be present to us. Once we break away from feeling like it has to be the same for each of us, we embark on a beautiful discovery of our own "discernment portfolio."

    What a great God!

    Bruce Bishop

  16. Bruce - it was great to meet you at NWYM and I am glad that you came here to comment. What a wonderful calling, to help people see how God is at work in their lives. I agree God speaks to us in ways that will make sense to each of us, so that would be different for everyone. Thank you for adding your experiences to the description of God here.

  17. I am thankful to you, Ashley, for this post and to those who have enriched the conversation with their comments. My hope is that more meetings and worship groups would enter into a practice of sharing as Liz Opp describes. After all, if we as Friends believe each has access to God/Goddess whether if it's when gathered together for meeting for worship or when we are alone, why do we rest on the words and experiences of others? Isn't this the place where the RSoF began? At times it seems incomprehensible to me that more Friends don't share with each other their experiences of God/Goddess. And yet I know and struggle with the barriers to sharing of self with others regardless of the topic. Also, if among Friends, we aren't sharing our experiences of God/Goddess, then what do we share with those unaccustomed to the manner of the RSoF?

    Immediately after attending my first meeting for worship, I recorded these words that described my experience of the Presence I had been gathered in with others: open. connection. wrestling. enveloped. powerful. tears fall for pain of others and self pain. emptiness. peeling away. comfort. inner "stuff" floating away.

    Of course, there is more. And that too, has been my experience of God/Goddess - there's abundance, there's more.
    Blessed be! Cindy L


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