Nov 29 2009
An advantage to the 52 Church project (more accurately the 52 Houses of Worship project) happening on Cape Cod is my proximity to relatively old churches and traditions. For example the oldest American synagogue is an hour away in Newport, Rhode Island; Plymouth is a mere 30 miles away, and the oldest Quaker meeting in the country is less than ten miles to the north in East Sandwich.
There are some significant churches on my mental list that I look forward to, either because of historical reasons or pure curiosity, and one of those is the Quaker meeting in Sandwich. This morning I went with great anticipation for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the historical importance of Quakerism to Cape Cod. I felt a bit guilty indulging in the Quaker meeting so soon in the project, but it was what I decided to do, so I did it.
“Quaker” is a perjorative term affixed to this particular practice of religious dissent and faith which began in 1650 in England when a judge dismissed the faithful as “quakers” because the power of their beliefs made them tremble before God. It arrived in Massachusetts shortly after the Mayflower, and its early adherents were severely punished, chastised, and even put to death for their beliefs, leading some to emigrate out of Plymouth to Sandwich, the oldest town on Cape Cod, where a meeting was founded in 1658. Other persecuted Quakers fled the North Shore of Massachusetts and founded the first white settlement on Nantucket. Over time many of the most prosperous whaling fortunes (Coffin, Howland, Folger) were Quaker fortunes. I strong recommend Peter Nichols “Final Voyage” and Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea” for a clear look at Massachusetts Quakers and their relationship to the seacoast, industry, and the first American fortunes. My whaling captain ancestor, Thomas Chatfield, was not a Quaker.
But I digress. To the meetinghouse and its remarkable service.
The meetinghouse was built in 1810 in Kennebec, Maine, dismantled, barged down the coast, and reassembled by the numbers on its present location north of the King’s Highway (Route 6A) in East Sandwich. It is on Quaker Meetinghouse Road and sits on a small hill in a wooded copse of locust and holly trees. The architecture is quite severe and ultra-New England, with weathered shingles and remarkably plain but beautiful detail work.
I arrived ten minutes early and entered the door as a woman stepped outside and declared “there’s a fire in the stove, make yourself at home.”
I stepped into the narthex/entryway, signed my name in the guest book, dropped some money into a box labelled the “building maintenance fund” and guessed at which closed door I should open. I stepped into a moderately sized room with rows of pews facing to the northwest and another set facing back towards the door. In the middle of the room was a woodstove and the chimney rose up to the ceiling and made a 90-degree turn to the chimney on the western wall. One woman sat in the pews. She did not turn when I entered. I found my place in the back row corner seat and made myself comfortable. It was so silent in the room that I didn’t dare snap a photo of the interior. This shot is from the Meeting’s website:
Not a word was said in the room for the next 70 minutes.
More people arrived and the only sounds in the room were the soft ticking of an old clock by the door, the rustling of one man’s synthetic jacket, an occasional airplane flying overhead unseen in the blue sky, the ticking of the woodstove as it slowly warmed up the chilly room, the shifting coals as the logs burned down, three sneezes that were unanswered with “gesundheits” or “god bless you’s,” the occasional rustling as someone shifted in their pew, the turning of a page as a man in the front pew read a Bible. This was not a place to have a cough, a rumbling stomach, or the hiccups.
No one preached. No hymns were sung. No prayers were said outloud.
I was attending an unprogrammed meeting. That means there was no minister or service, but instead a meeting of friends to contemplate God. I’ll quote from the Meeting pamphlet:
“We invite you to share the hospitality of our Meeting House and join in our unprogrammed Meeting. The Meeting asks that you listen attentively, both to the remarkable harmony of the silent waiting and to the minustry that may arise from the silence. We ask you to wait with patience and openness for an understanding of Friends Meeting.
Meeting really begins only when we are all joined in the silent waiting upon God that is known among Quakers as Centering Down.
Speaking, when there is any, arises from a deep religious experience and is preceded by the conviction that this experience must be shared. This is sometimes senses as an upwelling of the spirit, sometimes as an insight following study, meditation and prayer. It is always humble, always a result of the most earnest seeking. It is not casual or argumentative and seldom is humorous.”
The meeting ended around 11 am when the same woman who welcomed me stood up and shook hands with another person. I greeted the people around me, there were introductions by all, and some announcements of forthcoming meetings, food drives, and pot luck suppers.
- I was perhaps the youngest person there
- There were too few people to make any pithy sweeping demographic statement about the parking lot
- I want to return to this service more than any of the previous three experiences
What I thought about during the 70 minutes:
- Whaling and why Quakers dominated that industry (I have no idea).
- William Penn
- Quaker Oats
- Why such a silent, benign, pacifist gathering would be persecuted 350 years ago
- The branches of the bare locust tree through the antique glass windows and how that swirling effect is like my eyesight now
- How completely timeless the room was — nothing in it other than the clothing and eyeglasses we wore and the three electrical ceiling lights was from this century
- Richard M. Nixon (his mother was Quaker and his father converted)
- The overalls the bearded man who tended the woodstove wore
- Would someone speak?
- This was the quietest I have ever been for an extended period of time
- How much I enjoy this project
Here is the Wikipedia entry for the Religious Society of Friends. Next week, I may go Catholic.