Spark, January 2009
15 Rutherford Place
New York, NY 10003
|New York Yearly Meeting News|
|The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)||January 2009|
|Editor, Paul Busby|
Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord
Quakers in the Arts
For much of the history of the Religious Society of Friends, being an artist as well as a Quaker has been a troubled path. While many Friends today see the arts as spiritual gifts bestowed by the Creator and as forms of expression that spring from Quaker spirituality and help to deepen it, this was not always the case.
Esther Greenleaf Mürer, Frederick J. Nicholson, and others have written deeply of historic Quaker antagonism to the arts. In “Beyond Uneasy Tolerance,” Mürer notes that Friends have been hostile to music, the visual arts, performance, poetry, and literature “perhaps longer and more consistently than any other religious group.”
In this pamphlet, published by the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts, Mürer documents this hostility impressively with three centuries’ worth of quotations. Beginning with George Fox, past Friends condemned artistic expression because they believed it focused attention on the world of the senses instead of on God. At various times, Fox took aim at painters, musicians, actors, poets, and songwriters for being “the undoing of many poor souls.” He urged God-fearing people to “pluck down your images . . . that none of you be found imitators of his Creator, whom you should serve and worship.”
Though early Friends did practice fine craftsmanship in practical arts such as architecture, carpentry, quilting, glassblowing, garden design, and botanical drawing, many prominent Quakers (among them Robert Barclay, William Penn, and John Woolman) urged their brothers and sisters to shun the creative arts as “vain imaginings…untruthful, frivolous, idle and sensual.”
Over many decades, this position moderated very slightly. An example can be found in the early epistles and documents of practice of London Yearly Meeting; in the 18th and 19th centuries, these warned believers away from the theater and scorned music as “unfavourable to the health of the soul.” As late as 1925, that body reminded its members that the beauties of the creative arts, though valued by many, must be “subordinated to the service of the Highest, and sometimes in that service they must be given up.” By 1959, however, the Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice finally softened its position on the arts, stating that “[m]usic and drama, painting and sculpture all help to develop our perception, our enjoyment of life and our search for truth and fulfillment.”
As the 20th century progressed, many Friends, though not all, accepted the arts as a promising path of spiritual expression and experience. The artist’s witness has remained a challenge. As Mürer observed, “The Society of Friends, while it has always recognized the importance of both the active and contemplative facets of spirituality, has not done well at extending this insight to the arts. Since in God’s realm significance hinges not on worldly success but on faithfulness, we must find ways to support holy obedience in all its forms, including the way of the artist.”
Today, Friends drawn to the arts challenge the censure and ambivalence previously aimed at those who would express their God-given creativity. Numerous Friends now feel led to witness their faith through deep listening and creative self-expression, declaring that spirituality and art reinforce each other and can strengthen the spiritual health of the Religious Society of Friends.
Friends in the creative spirit have formed organizations like the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts (www.quaker.org/fqa/) to support their ministry. FQA has as its mission “to nurture and showcase the literary, visual, musical, and performing arts within the Religious Society of Friends, for purposes of Quaker expression, ministry, witness, and outreach.”
In a similar spirit of celebration, this issue of Spark focuses on spirituality and the arts among Friends. It shares the testimony of Friends in the arts—people who give witness to their faith through writing, music, painting, sculpture, quilting, and other creative arts—as Quakers celebrating and giving voice to their relationship with the Artist who made us all.
A Theology of Muse
I. Free Improvisation October 11, 2001. Mercer University, Macon, Georgia
I close my eyes, breathe, and center and listen to the rustle of the audience as they wonder what’s going on and wait for something to happen. I hear the soft hum of lights and air moving ... and there, ever so faintly, a low bass thrumming—a truck going by outside? It is this sound which spurs me to respond and my hands begin to move. The first sound from my drum echoes through the hall and I follow it to find out what comes next. Gently, I hear the soft bowing of a cello in the back of the hall as a friend pulses the pitch of my drum into an otherworldly echo. Soft footsteps cross in front of me and I open my eyes to see another friend carrying a viola. She listens and begins to play. My hands respond as much to the creaking of the floor under her feet as to the bow over her strings. A soprano voice haunts us all from the balcony. Music becomes.
Our ensemble is complete.1 We have no plan but to listen and follow where we are led, to cross over from the known to the unknown. We trust one another to be faithful in our listening. If we do that, the music we make tonight will be alive and beautiful and surprising.
The energy grows, the music becomes more complex and wild. Our quartet becomes one body, seeking truth, expressing what we find. We are bound together in this moment. It is exactly one month since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Though we are all still swimming in the current of this tragedy, we are led to answer violence with a bubbling joy.
II. Convincement April 22, 2002, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida
“If you want to work with people of faith,” I tell these people of no faith, “you’ve got to stop projecting that you think faith is stupid. It’s necessary to be open to the idea that there is more to faith than blindly believing something that you have no evidence for. Maybe people of faith have had experiences that you haven’t had, or maybe they’ve interpreted common experiences through a different lens. Maybe there is evidence that we Humanists just haven’t seen yet.”
I am diverging from the notes I had prepared, but I can’t seem to stop. “For example, go visit one of the art museums across town. There you will find visible evidence of the experience of inspiration—the movement of spirit. As an artist myself, I am very clear that my best work does not come out of me. It moves through me. I don’t know where it comes from exactly, so I call that source ‘the Muse,’ but if I’m really honest with myself, I realize that my experience of seeking relationship with and following the guidance of this ‘Muse’ is no different from the relationship that some people of faith have with the entity that they call ‘God.’ ”
My ears cannot believe the words that have just come out of my mouth. I have just lost my atheism and come out about it at the same time, in front of a group whose reason for being is to celebrate a lack of faith.
III. Among Friends March 9, 2003, St Petersburg Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, St. Petersburg, Florida
My practice of listening and following the Muse has left me with a deeper empathy for those affected by violence and a commitment to work for peace. After the war started, I felt so alone that I knew I needed to be in community with people who share my concern and who understand that working for peace is different from being violently against the war. Some of these Quakers seem to get that. This Quaker practice of prayer as a listening spirituality and vocal ministry—rising and speaking as led—translates directly into my experience of listening improvisation.
I close my eyes and breathe and center and listen.
I hear the shifting of bodies in the room, the creaking of the old chairs. My awareness expands and I hear traffic a few blocks away; sirens and helicopters downtown; a boat passing in the bay. I pull my attention closer; a bee is foraging in flowers outside the open window behind me. My body remembers walking into this room a few minutes ago, stepping over the pink, hexagonal paving stones that are so distinctive in this part of town. I imagine walking a meditation over these stones in sync with my breathing and fall into a rhythm of six slow beats, repeated.
A man stands to my right and says, “I am watching the Valencias2 ripen in the sun and hearing the bees in the garden and it seems that the kingdom of God is all around us.” This abundance of beauty, if only we become quiet enough to notice, is a scripture of the senses that speaks to Spirit’s abundance of love and guidance, if only we accept it.
The rhythms and sounds take shape in my head. They become music. My metabolism rises and my body becomes aroused in the way I have heard some Friends describe in their discernment to offer vocal ministry. I have a message, but it is not words. It is not a song that I can stand and sing. It is a composition3 that I must hold on to and take from here and birth with the tools that I have in my studio.
Someone shakes my hand as the meeting breaks. I sneak out the door, avoiding the assault of talking that always comes at the rise of meeting. I don’t want to lose the music. I have work to do.
Epilogue—What Canst Thou Play?
I am still making music from a state of worshipful listening—always with elements of improvisation so that I allow plenty of room for the movement of Spirit. In 2005, I released my first solo CD, Experiments in Truth, which was largely inspired by meetings for worship in St Petersburg Meeting. Earlier this year, my new meeting allowed me to use a spare room in the meetinghouse as a recording studio and I recorded “Listening in Tongues” which was released this summer. The biggest gift in being able to use this space was that, after I got all my gear set up and ready, I could go into our worship space and find that center from which I play.
Friends seem to have a hunger for music and nonverbal ways to express our experience of the divine. I am called to a ministry of facilitating Meetings for Listening4—a form of unprogrammed worship that invites messages in the form of improvised music and movement in addition to spoken words.
My spiritual life has been greatly enriched by being in community with Friends who use other names for the Divine: God, Christ, the Light, Spirit, Jesus. I have learned to open myself to the Truth in their experiences. The name which continues to speak to my condition is “the Muse.”
1. The quartet: Bonnie Miksch, voice & gadgets; Norman Adams, cello; LaDonna Smith, viola; Vonn New, percussion.
Vonn New is a member of Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting. Her ministry of music and worship has been endorsed in a minute of travel by New York Yearly Meeting. Her music can be heard at www.vonnnew.com.
Am I Being Faithful to My Art?
Do I schedule myself to paint daily? Do I think of it as a job just like any other person’s job? In my experience, the discipline of getting into the studio and just plain being present is key. Showing up at the easel! For me that often is the hardest part. My routine is to sit quietly facing the easel— often with my cup of coffee. I like the idea of “having a cup of coffee with God.”
Daily spiritual guidance sometimes comes as a hunch, in a conversation I’ve recently had with others, as something I have dreamed, or even a still, small voice. On the other hand it quite often happens when I am actually standing up there painting, and something I thought I was painting changes and becomes something else. That is what I welcome, because I know it came from somewhere else rather than from me. I want it to become something I had not quite expected!
Color is where I truly live. I began painting seriously by attempting landscapes in watercolor, while painting with a friend who was very good. My pieces that whole first year all turned to mud(!) But watching her paint was an inspiration. Later after taking classes, I painted clothed as well as nude people in watercolor for about ten years. The colors in the skin really fascinated me! Particularly black skin where I saw purples, deep blues, and maroons. After that came many years of abstract work, both pastel and then later oil on canvas—first soft and dreamy, then hard-edged, and then a combination. The last six years have been landscapes in pastel. But no matter what the subject, my great passion for color is the constant.
How do I do this? I can paint, but I can’t do it alone. It’s only with divine guidance, leaving myself empty to be filled. In making art, I feel connected. It’s a sense of expansion. I feel we are somehow partnered in ways that we cannot see. There is something that “calls us to work.” I love to think of it as just playing with the colors. Sometimes something magical happens when I can do this. I recently finished a large pastel landscape and had a mat made. Only when I taped the painting behind the mat and looked at it from a distance did I notice a huge wolf face staring out of the woods at me. It must have been there some time, but I hadn’t seen it. I don’t know what the message to me is, but I recall playing with the colors in that section. I thought they were just the shadows from trees. Many people won’t notice him. They’ll bring their own personal story to it, which is wonderful. I left him there.
Classical music helps me to create—and sometimes jazz does. It’s become part of my painting routine, and mornings are when I’m at my best. But with all that said, I can paint only what truly inspires me. Right now it has to be nature. Nature is a great influence. At least, that is the subject I start with. I never tire of trees, such magnificent beings. They can be so delicate, or hold such quiet power or even burst with energy. I notice the way bare trees thin out and beckon one to walk through the space. Water, mist, and mountains are also favorite starting points for me.
My adventure is in the work itself. When not painting, I feel disconnected from the core of my being. What I now want to paint is “the mystery.” I now prefer to bring into form something just beyond my reach. What exactly do I hear? What do I see? I am just a channel to what wishes to be born. Can I be open to the painting that wants to happen? Can I trust the painting as it grows? Can I open myself to Spirit? I’m looking for what’s invisible to the eye, something more than I’ve ever painted in the past. That is my wish.
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within youself that you have built against it.
Prayerfulness: Life as Art
In a journal, George Fox writes, “All creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.” Here, a unitive abiding presence awakened within, widened his awareness, and opened into a vital experience of prayerfulness. In one of the beautiful love poems inspired by his devotion to God, 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi gently chides: “Listen. Make a way for yourself inside yourself. Stop looking in the other way of looking.”
Each of us may recall a time when we stood in the presence of a brilliant color-streaked sky at sunset as our hearts opened and our spiritual senses perceived with new eyes and vibrancy imbued with meaning. Even now, when pondering such an encounter, we may once again experience a memory of that presence and wonder, a similar presence and wonder that permeated every cell at that time. We may recall how the magnificence of the sunset radiated through us. The drenching awe may have left us feeling minuscule in comparison to the transcendence being shared. This momentary encounter may have impacted or changed our lives in a way bathed in mystery to this day.
When we are mindful—aware of what we are doing in the present moment—and also simultaneously experience wonderment, we are in a space of open awareness that George Fox describes. Our hearts respond with gratitude. Biblically, we awaken and see with the inner eye of love. When we are filled with clear seeing and wonderment, whether the encounter is in the experience of an ordinary daily interaction with a coworker or family member or a dramatic one as in the immersion experience of a magnificent sunset, we all qualify as artists. Rumi says in another poem, “Inside there is an artist you don’t know about. Say yes, quickly, if you know…”
As artists sharing in God’s prayer for us and our prayer for God, we sense a longing to manifest God’s dream into the world in a prayerful way that activates our artist within. The tools for delivery may take different forms. Some of us paint, weave, sing, garden, create music, write, cook, and/or raise families. We are potters. We work. We are peacemakers and activists. No matter how varied the tools of our art, our art often arises from an experience of prayerfulness. We realize that one way for us to grow in love and in meaning may be to develop clear seeing and subtle listening as artists in life. Then we can rightly claim that we are all artists, one with the Spirit of God, desiring to be lived in the world.
In the poem, “I Thank You,” poet e. e. cummings describes this inner experience of prayerfulness, “now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.” As we sit in meeting for worship waiting in silent expectation, we open to a tending space that widens into a deeper way of listening. If we are ready, a message may arise. It may be in words, symbol, or song. The boundaries between giver and receiver dissolve and ordinary resistances vanish. We may be called further to witness our message into the world. George Fox, Jesus, Gandhi, and biblical prophets followed callings from the depth of prayerful readiness. And yes, many unrecognized saints in our families and communities have been witnesses so imbued by the vibrancy of God’s love that their actions and presence have changed people and situations, large and small.
Artist Vincent Van Gogh was an individual consumed with an intensity of Spirit that poured out onto his canvases, capturing something of the eternal. The power of his work broke through convention and threatened the status quo at the time. In a letter to his beloved brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote, “I want to paint men and women with something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize and which we confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our colorizing.” Several years ago, I attended a retrospective of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. As I stepped into the gallery where a theophany of his paintings lined the walls, the fire of Spirit ignited my own. The power of that experience left me quaking for some time. The luminosity expressed in his paintings still changes hearts and calls us to clear seeing and deeper listening to this day. American 20th-century painter and teacher Robert Henri described paintings as “sign-posts on the way to what may be…sign-posts toward greater wisdom.” Expressions of our art in various forms and in the activity of our lives may be sign-posts. As artists, we share sign-posts with others and hope to notice the sign-posts that are gifts from others to us.
George Fox writes, “There is a living God that made all things.” We are invited to awaken and become vitally aware in the present moment, prayerfully sharing in the bounty and wonderment of our living God who made all things. May our lives be our art, and our art be our lives.
Diane-Ellen McCarron is an attender at Poughkeepsie Friends Meeting. She is a visionary watercolorist, spiritual companion, and poet.
Poetry and Prayer
I have been a practicing Quaker for 12 years, and for more than 20 I have been a practicing poet. Because I believe that artistic work is spiritual work, the similarities are not accidental or merely curious. And the implications of these similarities can be profound.
Both involve a discipline, a craft, a process, and a listening. While there are many dry and distracting meetings for worship, we stay with it; the query is not “Are we attending when we feel good, feel close to our community, etc.?” The query is simple: “Are we regular and punctual in attendance?” The discipline of showing up cannot be overemphasized, in either our spiritual or our creative life. I not only carry a notebook with me and have a larger one for poem drafts at hand, but I try to keep work at various levels of completion so that I can be working regardless if I “feel creative” or not. We return to the inner life when sad, angry, blah, weary, whatever. We make time.
This work is partly a matter of craft, of honing skill and developing a variety of techniques that can express effectively. Artists practice facility with their materials. Privileged to observe potters working and speaking about their craft, I’m consistently impressed by their intimate knowledge of various clay bodies and glazes, of firing methods and heat sources. They delight in their materials. For poets, joy involves exploring the language to create imagery, rhythms and music, and tones. The fun is in the doing; the process itself is the reward, which is an essential aspect to the spiritual life as well. The reign of God, to use one of Jesus’ metaphors, is at hand. The disciples walked all the way to Emmaus with the Risen Christ, unawares. Buddhists say Original Mind is always present; we wake up to it, not arrive at it later.
Some people are surprised by my emphasis on discipline and craft when I speak of writing poetry because artistic inspiration seems instantaneous and entirely presented to us. To work for it seems to betray the gift. I am no actor or musician, but I’m sure the hours of rehearsal prepare for the performance. Remarkable athletes, too, don’t put off practice until they feel “in the zone.” Likewise, settling into the Unknown when we need comfort or direction, when life’s unexpected and difficult gifts arrive, and when we are moved by beauty and gratitude is certainly easier, but we should also cultivate that ease. Every devotional text I know of counsels setting aside time each day, even designating a place for it. Progress in the spiritual life depends on it. It enacts the reality we believe in.
All artists have experienced that when the moment of inspiration arrives all the elements of craft are then available to them, and they create without thought or intention. However, I have also experienced the paradox that practicing the craft can produce that moment as well. As the poet Denise Levertov puts it, “I believe in inspiration, to which intelligent craft serves as midwife.” In both art and prayer, these are two sides of the same hand.
However, I should note that all my talk about production and revision, and submission of work to editors are all the outward forms of an inward motion. The process is a way of being free, of listening to and responding fully to the ripples of meaning in our lives. I hope to become more finely tuned to what Levertov calls “constellations of experience”: arrangements of memories, impressions, images, or whatever is at hand—inner and outer—that could produce a poem. The process is a means of engaging my life as completely as I am able.
When creating art, it is easy to misplace means for ends, to go in search of those experiences of flow and to pursue dramatic life experiences for inspiration. Remarkable art can be made through great struggle and deliberate effort, while terrible studies can be created effortlessly as if “inspired.” Process does not determine the outcome. For example, moving paintings have been made of the most mundane objects, like Harold Weston’s Stone Series. Therefore, it is critical to keep our purpose in mind.
I spent years in meeting for worship hoping to have an opening, of experiencing something powerful and profound, but my hopes were misplaced. The goal of the spiritual life is not to accumulate experiences of grace—as lovely and awe-inspiring as they are—but to live a unified, authentic life of love. As Douglas Steere has written, prayer is our response to the love at the heart of the world. And our prayer can be silent and solitary, communal and vocal, or acts of peace and love in the world. Or poems.
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.
Confessions of a Singing Quaker
In a world that seems to move increasingly toward principles of individualism and solitary pursuits, I am blessed to have two communities to draw strength from—my meeting, which I grew up in, got married in, and am now raising my children in, and my choir, which I have been a part of since just after college. Both groups provide me with needed interactions and relationships that I would not find anywhere else. Both groups are demanding in their measure of what they require at different times. And although each group bears the other no overt ill-will, there have been times when navigating the two has felt like negotiating a peace treaty between the Hatfields and the McCoys.
As we planned our unprogrammed Quaker wedding, my soon-to-be husband and I were sternly eldered about our desire to have singing and other music in the service (we did it anyway), and I have read more than one piece of modern Quaker writing that warns against the frivolity of engaging in “music for music’s sake.” Likewise, I’ve endured much ribbing from my singing friends about why I “bother” to go to a church without music, and in fact have a standing invitation to go take up with the Episcopalians, who, according to my one friend, “have the best music,” if at any time Quaker process gets to be too much for me (and don’t think I haven’t been tempted!).
But the more time I spend with each group, the more I find they have in common—and rather than seeing each on the opposite side of some imaginary divide (either/or), perhaps a better way to view them is as two parts of the same entity (both/and). Below are some of my observations from a lifetime of straddling two seemingly separate worlds:
Singing, like silent worship, is based on listening: In expectant worship, we sit silently so we can hear what God may ask of us. In choral settings, we sing with one ear tuned to ourselves, and the other tuned to those around us. If you can’t hear what the person next to you is singing, you have a problem. If you can’t quiet your inner censor and editor as you are sitting in meeting for worship, you also have a problem.
Singing, like silent worship, is restorative, and can be transformative: How many of us have at one time or another gone to meeting for worship out of a sense of obligation, rather than sheer desire? One Friend tells me that that is his sign that he most needs to be there. Likewise, there have been many times when I have dragged myself unwillingly to choir practice, only to be completely opened up and mended. Some of this is the physical act of singing—I’m firmly convinced that the deep breathing (inspiration) we do as we sing produces a natural “high.” But there is more to it than mere physics. When we come together to create art, in this case, something beautiful and highly transient, we allow ourselves to be transformed.
Sometimes, singing is just noise—and silence is just silence: The flip side of the above is when, try as we might, the “magic” just isn’t there. This has nothing to do with how accomplished one is as a singer, or how weighty one is as a Friend. Sometimes, despite our efforts, it is impossible to get out of our own heads—while singing, we spend too much time looking down at the music, rather than watching our director, or trusting ourselves. In meeting for worship we are busy critiquing the vocal ministry of others, or focusing on the latecomers, or the children, or the person across the room reading, rather than allowing ourselves to be cracked open. Singing, like silent worship, involves taking some risks. But with the risks, come the rewards.
For me, singing and music are pathways to the Divine, no less worthy than my beloved silent worship, and the rewards I have found through them have been manifold. Twice when I have been under the weight of a concern to speak for our meeting through epistles to other Quaker groups, I have been led to the right words through musical texts that came to me when I most needed them. When a dear friend attempted suicide, I found no comfort in merely reading the Scriptures. But I practically wore out my CD of Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet during that time. When my daughter fractured her skull and lay in the pediatric intensive-care unit, I couldn’t pray in words—but the old song “Jesus on the Main Line” came through when I needed to hear it, and showed me through experience what Christ’s sacrifice means for us today. And when my husband gathers with a group of men who meet periodically to sing Russian choral music, I am reminded of the earthiness and sheer joy of those cultures like Georgia’s that still place singing in the center of their lives.
A voice to sing with is a gift I have received from God—what I choose to do with it is my gift back to God. I realize that my ability to sing well is a blessing, but I do not use it to set myself apart from others who do not share this talent. I find comments about “the right kind of singing” to be subjective and hurtful. Just as there is no need for everyone who sings to have a polished, professional voice, there is also no need for Quakers to elder those who are blessed with the gift of a good voice to “keep low.” I have had moving choral experiences singing next to members of the elite Voices of Ascension, a New York City based professional ensemble, and with a group of Quakers who gather around the Powell House ball room to sing through Part Two of Handel’s Messiah after a hard day’s work on Easter Saturday. Each is moving in its own way, and each matters in its own way. And, as the Bill Staines song goes, “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir.” Amen!
Finding Grounding in the Natural World
I have been stretching the photographic frame since 1988. Initially I found a way to combine all four directions (from where I was standing in a landscape) into one composite photograph. This approach led to contemplating the sky before and after sunset. What a surprise this was! From the top of the Empire State Building, I photographed a narrow strip of sky above the horizon while facing each of the four directions. It was always exciting to look at my proofs, because the actual experience in no way prepared me for the richness and the variety of color on this film taken over time and space.
I found that these visual stretching “exercises” put me in touch with the places that I visited. They forced me to slow down and notice light, shadow, movement of the wind, textures of rock, earth, and foliage, and changes in the atmosphere. The result for me was a deeper bond with the natural world, which was what I sought.
One evening I took a standard sunset scene across a lake in the Adirondacks. Then, for some reason, I kept going up, one frame at a time, until I ended up looking at the view behind me. (This did not require a “backbend!” I was using an old-fashioned twin-lens reflex camera with a viewfinder that I looked down into).
This vertical composite photograph was the beginning of my “Earthbound” series. It became standard procedure to take these vertical panoramas everywhere I went. (See my view taken at the New York Botanical Garden opposite.) They were a spiritual discipline as well as an art form. These pictures recorded the gesture of my body through space. I could go up, up into the heavens with my camera, but always ended the sequence with a scene back on the ground.
Perhaps there was a meaning for me in this: The Earth is always the boundary of my vision. This planet is my home. It always comes back to this.
I have continued to stretch my photographic vision into the present time, but now I look up into the trees. I am grateful for this approach. I can get closer to nature and ground myself wherever I might be on this sacred Earth.
To see more of my “Earthbounds,” go to my newly finished Web site at: www.janetsoderberg.com.
Art Feeds the Soul
I love art. I have always cherished the interplay of colors, lines, and shapes in the pursuit of creating. My large acrylic paintings are explosions of color in intricate mathematical designs that express the beauty and orderliness of God’s creation. They evoke the mystical spirit residing within every molecule to the infinite universe. These paintings represent black holes in outer space to protons and neutrons. They celebrate the earth in all its magnificence.
I also work extensively from the human figure, preferring short one- to five-minute poses, so that I must draw quickly and spontaneously, preventing me from thinking as I draw, thus allowing for more Spirit-led guidance. These renderings come out curiously comical, as each figure is made up of many different poses combined into a humorous twisted and contorted being that rarely has a head. I wonder about these images. Do they represent my deep concern that the human race is destroying the planet while going nowhere on an endless quest to improve their lives?
Lately I have been combining these figures in geometric patterns with flowers and ancient mythical Celtic type designs. Is this my way of accepting that we humans are an integral part of the orderliness of God’s creation? Even as we destroy, we build; as we poison, we heal; as we grow, we kill. We are part of the Universe, part of God’s creation. We will continue to evolve, changing the environment as environmental forces cause us to change our ways.
Sometimes I feel selfishly indulgent in my pursuit of painting and drawing. It is a very introspective and solitary activity that nurtures my soul. But what of these works of art? What is art? Something excessive and beyond the Quaker testimony of Simplicity? Am I contributing in a substantial and meaningful way to my community as I work alone in my studio, enraptured in the process of creating? The planet is warming, wars are raging, people are starving, and species are going extinct as I sit comfortably in my studio. I am creating something that neither feeds the hungry, saves the wilderness, nor stops the wars. If I continue on this path of thought, I get myself into a real funk. I must remind myself that God blessed me with a place in this world and a talent to use. To heed the Quaker testimony on Integrity, I should use my special gifts. I am creating something that feeds the soul. I create my best work when I ignore that nagging voice telling me I am not supposed to have fun, and let the Spirit within guide me as I work and play in my studio.
Spirituality and the Arts in Prison Meetings
I felt moved to write on this subject and share some of my experiences with spirituality and the arts among Friends in prison meetings. For 19 years I have attended prison worship groups from Attica Correctional Facility, under the care of Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting, to Eastern Correctional Facility’s Eastern Prison Preparative Meeting, under the care of Nine Partners Quarterly Meeting. In all this time, we Friends on the inside, with the help of Friends from meetings across New York state, have included the arts in some part of our meetings for worship, and always during special events such as retreats. In dealing with community there has always been a sense of the meeting that we encourage and embrace the talents of our members, and share them as a group.
Over the years I have seen, heard, and felt many wonderful examples of the arts that through my spiritual journey the Light within has become very clear to me. The joy of this experience for me has been very profound. My heart and soul have been opened in so many ways. Early in my journey I would find it hard to sit still or to center, and a Friend would give me a reading before silent worship, and I would be at peace. Other times a picture of a loved one would be a focus, or a painting or a tree or a bird outside the window. Then, as time moved on, we would come out of silent worship with a song or afterthoughts that were always our time to share news “good or bad,” and in these stories, too, I felt a true kinship between spirituality and the arts. We would listen and wonder and care, and most of all, work together to help.
Most prison meetings that I have attended are allowed two hours. The first half for silent worship, afterthoughts, and check-ins. The second half is most often a time for gathering in an activity where all members take part to share the Light more vocally or visually. We would do skits, or all take part in a play and read it to each other. We have done many AVP exercises and sung songs of praise. All these activities have helped to keep spirituality strong in the prison meeting, and for most volunteer Friends that visit prison meetings, just another good reason to wake up early and drive to the prison meeting to worship. It’s a place where you will witness a real and profound transformation. A place where I find the Light in every dark corner.
Erling Hope, Peconic Bay Meeting
People who know me well understand that most of my personality comes from 70s TV shows. Having absorbed and assembled myself from persistent and devout spectating, I sometimes feel like an endless medley of quips, puns and one-liners pinched from The Rockford Files, What’s Happening, Welcome Back Kotter, etc. What I rarely acknowledge, and few people know, is that many of my most sustaining epiphanies involve media somehow or another, as well. It is as if technology, the inventions of our age, has filled the role liturgy has served for those of other generations.
I was raised in the Secular Consumerist branch of Long Island Protestantism, and was a fairly devout practitioner of it. This involved the generous and attentive television watching I mentioned, vague subscription to the self-actualizing ethos and obsessive mate-seeking of the evangelized Hollywood pedagogy, and general obeisance to the marketplace it serves. Clouds roll out in flat sheets over the Island, like a great dropped ceiling; trees are rarely grand in the sandy, well-worked soil; and the highest point of land around is generally the landfill. Even the ocean—when you see it you’re close to it and down near its level—speaks of the human scale. It is, from one end of the LIE (that is, the Long Island Expressway) to the other, Man’s Country.
As sometimes happens when the traditions of our youth turn stale and empty over time, I fell away from this tradition later in life, exploring the currents, as we Americans are uniquely free to do, of the free market of religion and ontology, of conviction and doubt. I was well into this process when I first encountered the vervet monkey on a nature program about Sub-Saharan Africa.
People who know me well will also attest that I am more closely related to monkeys than most. And so it was with especially familiar ease that I slipped into the old discipline, and watched these distant kin ply their way.
The narrator’s narcotic baritone induced a kind of gentle trance as he described and interpreted the events unfolding. I watched this lively, tenuous colony navigate a wilderness that seems to have created it for comic relief, and for being eaten. They are a popular meal for savvy carnivores.
But they’ve got a couple of things worked out. When one of their number sees a snake with monkey on its mind, he stands upright and directs a distinctive chortling bark at the still-concealed intruder. On hearing this signal, the other vervet monkeys in the vicinity bolt upright and scan the ground until they see the offender as well, all the while repeating this initial alarm call. Eventually repulsed by this wall of monkey chatter, the snake creeps off with his ears back and his tail between his legs. Survival of the most annoying, it would seem.
Interestingly, the response of the vervet monkeys is very different when, as the television camera observes, one of their number spies a martial eagle approaching in lazy, purposeful arcs overhead. A different call issues from the alert sentry, and, in an instant, the entire troupe dashes for the dense inner branches of a nearby tree. Here they are safe from the hunting bird, which would damage its wings if it attempted to pluck a monkey from the thicket. Clearly they’re responding in very different ways to these audibly distinct alarm calls.
As I watched, as I absorbed this, something perceptibly shifted inside of me. I became aware that I was watching something larger than a nature program, larger than entertainment, larger even than Public Television. This was no longer natural phenomena or slapstick drama. I became aware that what I was seeing was a form of biblical archaeology, of theological inquiry. What I was watching was the very first proto-words. What I was watching was the book of Genesis. Wherein: “Man gave names to all the animals...” as Dylan sang it. “Man,” once again, a beguiling and neurotic group of schmucks, stuck between the serpent and the raptor...
...right there on my tele.
Snakes, of course, have neither legs nor ears to speak of. Not any longer, at least. Not since, well, you know. But the rest of this is what is called True. Three vervet monkey alarm calls can be heard at www.wjh.harvard.edu/~mnkylab/media/vervetcalls.html, including another call for jaguar.
According some, they have other calls for hyena and crocodile. According to some, they have another call for humans. According to some, they have named us.
Singing à la Nightingales
Singing à la Nightingales is about singing from the heart. It is not about being a great singer. It is about being in a community singing with love. If your kindergarten teacher told you to “just mouth the words” because “you can't sing”—you can sing. If you can talk, you can sing. We sing from Rise Up Singing and Worship in Song, but we often bring our own songs as well. Dates: April 17–19, 2009. Place: Mohawk Valley Meeting and Liseli Haines’s house. Suggested fee: $10. See www.nyym.org/events/saln17-19apr09.html for details.
Weaving Sacred Wholeness
Embracing Diversity among Friends
Weaving Sacred Wholeness is an intergenerational conference that provides an opportunity for all Friends to explore diversity through deep conversation and experiential activities. Come to worship, listen, share, have fun, and envision change! The conference will be held March 6–8, 2009, at Penn Center on St. Helena Island, S.C.
This conference is a new, fun and exciting endeavor for FGC’s Committee for Ministry on Racism and Youth Ministries Program. Our conference will be cocreated by the Friends who attend. We will meet as a whole community for group activities, games, worship, and dialogue. The weekend will include intentional small worship sharing groups. We will explore our personal spiritual journeys and how they connect us to or isolate us from our Quaker communities. Niyonu Spann will be the featured speaker.
We hope to provide a space for people to share their experiences with difficult issues such as racism, classism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia to begin our process of healing from these hurts.
We will delve into queries challenging us to examine our relationship with our meetings. We hope these queries will provide opportunities to listen deeply to each other's experiences.
Together we will envision what a more inclusive Religious Society of Friends would look like and brainstorm ways we can individually begin living into this vision.
We welcome Friends ages 16 and older to participate in this conference.
Discounts on registration are available through January 19. For further information and to register, visit www.fgcquaker.org/weaving-sacred-wholeness/ or call FGC at 215-561-1700.
Contribute to the Quaker Youth Book Project
The deadline is fast approaching! Friends from 15 to 35 are reminded to submit their creative nonfiction writing and visual art to the Quaker Youth Book Project by February 28, 2009. The QYBP is an anthology of creative work by teenage and young-adult Friends from around the world and across all theological branches of the Religious Society of Friends.
Friends may submit up to five pieces of writing and/or art, and should include their name, age, postal address, e-mail, telephone number, and Friends affiliation with each piece. Submissions can be e-mailed to QuipYouthBook [at] gmail.com or sent to 1216 Arch St. #2, Philadelphia PA 19107.
The QYBP is dedicated to lifting up the voices of young Friends for broader consideration by Friends young and old, to fostering cross-branch dialogue among Friends, and to empowering the next generation of Quaker writers, artists, ministers, and leaders. QUIP envisions a book that will spark discussion and dialogue, speak to and lift up a growing youth movement in Quakerism, and act as a catalyst for growth and renewal within the Religious Society of Friends.
Want to get involved? Read the Call for Submissions (www.quakeryouth.org/quipbook), send your writing or art before February 28, 2009, and encourage other young Friends to submit their work!
Send all questions, concerns, joys/, ideas, etc. to QuipYouthBook [at] gmail.com.
Around Our Yearly Meeting
The Cayuga Prison Worship Group, under the care of Poplar Ridge Monthly Meeting, has received approval from the New York State Department of Corrections to begin convening, pending approval by the Department of Corrections of the applications submitted by volunteer facilitators. At least five prisoners are eager to participate in the worship group.
From January 20–29, 2009, Greta Mickey, of Central Finger Lakes Meeting, who has a strong leading to work on peace and social-justice issues, will represent NYYM and the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the Republic of Georgia on a mission to support the Tbilisi Friends Worship Group, primarily in its efforts to aid refugees from areas affected by the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. The Tiblisi Worship Group was formed in 2000 under the care of FWCC and has seven Friends and seven attenders.
December 7, 2008, on the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Chatham-Summit Monthly Meeting invited the public to a community reading and discussion of the award-winning play Little Men by N.J. Quaker playwright Erin Sanders. Based on the experience of his Quaker parents and drawing upon the life stories of many other conscientious objectors, Sanders’s play goes beyond the public moral debate in newspapers and courtrooms into the private homes of individuals and the remote forced labor camps of the Civilian Public Service.
“Peacebuilding Through Conflict”: Nine Partners Quarter was the venue on November 1, 2008, for this day-long workshop organized by Vonn New (Bulls Head-Oswego) and Anne Pomeroy (New Paltz), and clerked by Greta Mickey (Central Finger Lakes). The genesis of the workshop came out a desire to discern how Friends might be led in regard to FUM personnel policy. With an emphasis on peacemaking, the workshop asked participants to think more globally and experientially by sharing real-life experiences when they themselves felt persecuted or sensed dearly values were under attack, and then consider how effective peacemaking can come out of such conflict. Two members of the NYYM Task Group on FUM participated, and FUM board members were invited but unable to attend. “I think it was a very successful day,” says Vonn. Study materials in preparation for the workshop were plentiful including the thought-provoking film The Bible Tells Me So. The next workshop presentation will be January 24 at Purchase Quarterly Meeting. Contact Vonn New at vonnnew [at] gmail.com.
We look forward to learning the outcome of “Heeding God’s Call: A Gathering on Peace,” a convening of North American Christian communions in Philadelphia January 12–17, 2009, at the 4th and Arch Street meetinghouse, called to strengthen the witness and the work toward peace. Hosted by the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonite Central Committee, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the convocation expects over 50 Christian denominations to participate and will include dialogue with the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Friends and all participating denominations are being asked to hold this gathering in their prayers as it “explores ways that Jesus’ call to peacemaking can be made more manifest in our suffering world.” For more information go to www.peacegathering2009.org.
Three Friends from NYYM, Robin Alpern, Norma Ellis, and Helen Garay Toppins, attended FGC’s facilitator training workshop “Fit For Freedom” January 9–11, 2009, at the Burlington Meetinghouse Conference Center in Burlington, NJ. FGC’s Committee on Racism will be training facilitators to assist monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings to engage on the issues examined in FGC’s recently released and extremely challenging publication Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans and the Myth of Racial Justice.
Rochester MM member and Morningside MM attender Angel Ramos continues to share his real-life story of incarceration and reentry into society in The Castle, a unique and powerful theatrical event featuring four formerly incarcerated New Yorkers. Since its first performance in March 2008, The Castle has played off-Broadway and in many venues, including Rikers Island, Queensboro,, Fishkill, and Green Haven Prisons, various colleges, the NY State Legislature in Albany, and in front of the NY Department of Parole. According to Angel, who first met Quakers while in prison, Quakerism, with its message of love, belief in redemption, and that of God in each person, was his “vehicle for awakening.” Every chance he gets, he shares that message saying “Let’s try love for a change.”
We will be eager to hear more from our teens about their “Winter Session” in Washington, timed to coincide with the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president. A group of NYYM teens will be spending Sunday and Monday nights before the inauguration at the Washington Avenue meetinghouse, participating in a soup kitchen run by the Youth Service Opportunities Project (YSOP) and visiting both the FCNL office and the William Penn House.
Phase One of the Anna Curtis Center renovation project at Powell House is nearly complete, and the building, more versatile and welcoming than ever, is now open for use. ACC is now wheelchair accessible on the first floor, with the Bugg House, common room and dining room all at the same level and a ramp up to the game room and library. Other improvements include a building-wide sprinkler system, better ventilation, an efficient new boiler, solar thermal panels, new and reconfigured rooms on the second floor, and a delightfully renovated Bugg House with an expanded deck and sun room. Hundreds of hours of volunteer effort helped finish this phase in a timely fashion and saved significant funds. Contact Chris de Roller or Mike Clark at 518-794-8811 for more information or to make a donation.
The Young Friends in Residence Program continues to take shape. Perry City Monthly Meeting will be the host meeting for this pilot project in which three or four Young Adult Friend interns will live in community and create meaningful outreach programs for youth, grades 6–9. The programs will be aimed at benefiting the local community as well as at strengthening and nurturing the spiritual development and leadership skills of young Friends living and working in close concert with their host meeting. Contact Amy Obermayer or Chris DeRoller at yfirwg [at] gmail.com.
NYYM Meeting for Discernment
March 14, 2009 Poughkeepsie Meeting
The third gathering of the Meetings for Discernment will take place at Poughkeepsie Friends Meeting on Saturday, March 14, from 9 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. These day-long meetings of extended worship are described by Heather Cook, clerk of the Steering Committee for Meetings of Discernment, as an “experiment in faithfulness” aimed at giving Friends “opportunities to share what is vital in the Life of our meetings, to name what might be tenderly emerging, to worship for an extended period around queries or around that which rises in our gathered worship, to labor over issues that require greater time… and to know one another’s meetings in that which is Eternal.”
To register, please complete the registration form in this issue and mail it before March 1st to Viola Hathaway, whose address is on the form. Do not mail it to the meetinghouse or to the Yearly Meeting office. A registration fee of $10 per person, to be paid on-site, covers the cost of childcare and a simple lunch.
The Poughkeepsie Friends meetinghouse is at 249 Hooker Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY, 12603. For directions, go to poughkeepsiequakers.org.
All of these are along South Road (Route 9). Quoted rates are per night and, except for the Super 8, are from the motel chain’s Web site.
Courtyard by Marriott
Holiday Inn Express
This column is prepared from information about membership received from the local meeting recorders.