The Praying Habit: Quaker Week!

My first encounter with the Religious Society of Friends was in history class. They’d usually crop up twice: once when we were leading up to the American Revolution (Pennsylvania was named for William Penn) and another time when the Civil War was discussed (many abolitionist leaders were Quaker). They sounded like a pretty great group of folks. Because of their own religious persecution in Europe they were often attuned to the persecution and injustices other Americans faced. They highly valued gender equality—women were writing and preaching in Quaker communities from the very beginning of the movement. There was also an emphasis on non-violence that continues to this day. I saw this in person when I attended my first anti-war rally. A number of Friends where there, making their opposition to a U.S. invasion of Iraq known.

So with the Friends we have a historical commitment to social activism and equality, something this lefty feminist woman is very much into. While it depends on the denomination, Quaker worship is often unprogrammed. Congregants wait in silence, and someone may or may not feel called to speak. There’s also a great deal of theological diversity amongst the Religious Society of Friends. The faith grew out of the Christian tradition, and while many Quakers consider themselves as such, others do not.

Given all of these factors, there isn’t really a defined prayer ritual for Friends (at least not that I could find—and some folks on Twitter helpfully chimed in and confirmed this). On paper this should be great for someone like me, one of those wishy-washy, unaffiliated millennial types. In practice? This was not the greatest week for me spiritually.

The best prayer guidance I was able to find was something about some Friends telling people that they would “hold them in the light.” Basically, the Quaker version of “I’ll pray for you/be thinking of you.” I liked this phrase. It seemed like a respectable hybrid between offering thoughts or prayers, though I could see someone giving me a weird look if I uttered the phrase out loud. But when I actually tried to do this it felt like I was mentally setting the people I was praying for on fire. Yes, I visualized these folks amidst a sea of yellow-orange light. I blame the transition from the formality and specificity of Mormon prayer protocol for this error. I was used to following very clear, literal directions about the right way to communicate with God. Quaker prayer is quite different.

After one or two night of toasting friends, family and strangers over my mental embers I opted to instead think deeply and intentionally about each person or group of people I was praying for. This was a bit more meaningful, and I could see myself using this practice in the future when I feel a desire to pray but am in a more skeptical or atheist phase of my faith cycle. However, I wasn’t sure how to transition this kind of deep thinking to when I needed to articulate my own needs. I ended up tacking some of my standard prayers on at the end of the holding-in-the-light component.

In retrospect, I think this week would have been more fruitful if I had actually attended a Meeting for Worship to observe and possibly get some tips from congregants. I also discovered later in the week (thanks to some readings referred to me by @LondonQuakers via @RobertaWedge) that for many Friends, prayer isn’t something that you do once or twice a day, as I am used to, but a constant awareness and awe of the holiness around you. To be sure, I’d come across this idea in some of the research I did earlier, but I was too focused on finding a specific set of praying instructions to realize this. Developing this kind of ongoing awe and appreciation would certainly take more than a week, but I feel a bit guilty for not making a good faith attempt at it. Perhaps I’ll give it a shot at the end of Lent, when I transition back to praying my “normal” way (whatever it will be at that point).

Next week is Catholic week! I’ve borrowed a rosary and have several suggestions for saints I should check in with, but would certainly welcome more. Leave any ideas in the comments, or tweet me.

Carolyn Browender is an activist and seeker living in Washington, D.C. She was raised Lutheran by a practicing Christian mother and secular Jewish father. You can also find her on Twitter.