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Montreal Quakers

In the Beginning, the Circle

A Personal Portrait of Montreal Monthly Meeting in 2023

Wendy Sturton — January 14, 2024

Black circle

After two years of solitary silence following my partner’s death in 2015, I attended a Quaker meeting for the first time. In the silent circle, I felt I had come home.

My first emotion was gratitude. There I could be silent and explore that great, dark, interior room with those beside me. Over time, the shared darkness would reveal spiritual movement and light. Eventually, I would see love at its centre. But at the very beginning, simple silence in the darkness, with others in the circle so habituated and composed, was balm to grief and fear.

The group was small and puzzling to me. They expressed acceptance, but little curiosity about me. This left the interactive space open for my huge curiosity about them. So began my journey towards membership in the Religious Society of Friends.

The Meeting was in a process of renewal, after shrinking to an occasional attendance as low as two or three. New attenders such as I were unfamiliar with Quaker values and traditions. Some newcomers immersed ourselves in reading and videos to gain understanding. We listened to those with long experience in Quakerism. We tried various directions which often petered out to nothing. I struggled with Quaker identity, trying to enact everything at once: activism. The five testimonies. New practices and traditions.

The pandemic brought an abrupt end to these tentative steps. We turned to one another on our screens, and for a while I mourned the loss of direct contact. The circle was replaced by a many-tiled screen with seeking, hungry faces looking out at me. I adapted. We innovated with virtual silent worship and ministry, with a Quaker zoom Christmas party, with meditative walks “together” in the virtual space, and gradually with distant visitors who suddenly had access to us. I visited Quaker events in other places across North America.

A small group of francophone worshipers had begun meeting in Quebec City. During the pandemic, the retreat to zoom enabled francophone participation across the province. Montreal Monthly Meeting committed to translating all our messages, our newsletter, and oral communication whenever we could. New faces, new names, new personal ministries in French illuminated our common space. My longing to interact with the mysterious culture living next to mine, so frustrated in some periods of my life, so warm at other times, was gradually being fulfilled in a Quaker context. I hoped for peace, for enrichment, for new insight.

Post-pandemic return to the Greene Community Centre was gradual. At first I resisted. It took time to gather courage to venture out, time to habituate to the physical presence of others, time to distinguish between the irreplaceable directness of personal presence and contrasting advantages offered by on-screen encounters.

We wondered: who will be the ones to live in the central core of our Meeting? Who will participate in most First Day and business meetings, put out the chairs, usher newcomers in welcomingly, set up the computer and camera for hybrid meetings, bring milk for tea and small food items, help clean up afterwards? All this was unclear for a while. At first the work lay heavily on the shoulders of a few. Gradually others stepped in. Numbers increased. The Meeting became diverse, interesting, spiritually nourishing.

In Montreal a spirit of post-pandemic experimentation and seeking took hold. Because Montreal Meeting has a well-developed website, we have welcomed a steady stream of newcomers. In the past months ten to twenty meet together. The core members hold the familiar circle of silent worship, while newcomers sit with their thoughts, explorations and observations. During the period of “Joys and Sorrows” at the end, newcomers often participate. Then we introduce ourselves briefly and chat over a cup of tea. Again and again, friends and strangers share their lives so deeply that many stay to the end, and don’t want to leave.

Our ties to the Quebec francophone group are deep. But they are standing on their own now, and visiting takes place back and forth. French is spoken often at the Greene Centre meeting, but we know the centre of worship in French is gaining strength in the other meeting. We rejoice in our mutual spiritual growth.

In our Meeting as it is presently, Friends are required above all to listen. Some explanations of Quakerism are requested, but for the most part our tradition of deep listening is called on, listening often to those in trouble or confused, sometimes to those passing through and curious, occasionally to dancing spirits of sheer delight.

A young scientist doing research at the University of Montreal arrives with some of his family. I ask him how he became interested in spiritual matters. He replies that it started when he began reading about quantum physics as a teen.

A woman who has attended periodically, who lives in England but comes to visit her mother in a senior’s residence nearby, gives ministry that her mother has died in the previous week. Sorrow chokes her voice but she has great insight and recognizes the timeliness of this death. Afterwards she thanks us for accompanying her through her visits and now at the end. We are her spiritual home, she says. She will not be back as often (maybe never, I wonder to myself) but she will not forget us. Nor will we forget her.

An intense young woman seizes on our silent worship to share an urgent spiritual life. She stands and speaks in a mixture of French and Spanish in a tone so low, no one can hear. Her eyes shine, her hands clasp tightly, she shifts from foot to foot. After speaking far longer than most would, she sits down. In about five minutes she stands again to repeat her outpouring. And then, again. At the end of the meeting we discover she is living in a refugee shelter. She returns several times and repeats the pattern. Finally two of us sit with her before the meeting and tell her how much we want to hear and understand her, and explain our speaking practices. She tries, she struggles with them, and we accept the outcome.

Out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of two young women outside the building passing before the window on their way to the door of the Greene Centre. Even in that brief moment I notice their beautifully colored organdy dresses and smiles as they talk laughingly with each other. Evidently they go astray within the Greene Centre after they enter. Ten minutes later they join our assembled silent worship and walk through the circle to sit down. At the end of the worship I open my eyes to find their eyes roving curiously over us. Our chat groups assemble. I ask them, what brought you to us? They exhale with giggles of pleasure, look at each other and confess they have known each other for only three weeks; that they have been daring each other to undertake unusual things; that this is one of the unusual things they decided to do. It’s clear from loving glances and caresses that these two are lovers in the first flush of their relationship. Are you going somewhere after? I ask, gesturing at their fine dresses. More giggles. No, they just weren’t sure how to dress so they dressed up. They have made themselves beautiful, for us, in their colorful finery. So, asks one of them of me, how was your silence today? I am so surprised by the extraordinary question that my meditation on the discipline of living a single day tumbles out: this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. I was inspired by my sister, whose mighty serenity today belies the fact that she expects to receive news on a cancer biopsy tomorrow. I had given no vocal ministry. To share in this manner is a great relief.

Three of us visit an African Quaker meeting in a cavernous, seemingly deserted Catholic church. Two of us have loving links with them as we tried to help on their arrival from the Congo. We trek through empty rooms with high, airy dimensions and stone walls, mostly in the dark, before opening the door of a central room filled with bright light, decorated chairs and walls, men dressed in suits of exotic colors and women clothed in luxuriant, glowing drapery. Beautifully dressed and unmistakably cherished children are scattered throughout. Our meetings are culturally and linguistically different from this, and it is an immense honor to be invited into that hidden room. When the service starts, music and movement fill the space: all sing, all stand, all move, and that includes us because it is impossible not to be carried on that wave of joyous chant and physical movement. I close my eyes and meet another face of God. The sermon is delivered long and loud, and completely counter in content to the Testimonies we cherish in our meeting. One of us three, a queer young woman, becomes terrified but hides it well. We sit with their elders afterwards and the elder among us expresses that although we worship the same God, our meeting cannot agree with the views expressed in the sermon. We give our thanks for their welcome and prepare to take our leave. As we return to the larger meeting to pick up coats, one young woman turns to me with an open face of pure joy and welcome. I regret we aren’t staying. I know we are connected. But it’s time to go, and then to comfort and soothe our shattered third.

Two young women arrive at the beginning of meeting with curiosity and sharpened powers of observation. We sink into silent worship. As we chat afterwards, they talk for a long time with one of us who has a special gift in communicating our Quaker ways to young people. They emerge from that into the larger group. Now we learn they are students taking a course in religious beliefs and practices; they have received an assignment to visit our meeting. They talk about their impressions. One of them says at first she was puzzled and surprised by our silence. After a while, she says, she noticed that someone with closed eyes was smiling. So! She thought to herself. There is a thought process to this! The ensuing laughter startled her, but she knew she was not being mocked.

And so much more. Those described above come from diverse races and nations. Others enter anxiously masked, or proudly unmasked, carrying in themselves rainbow diversity. One of our long-time attenders happily observes that in our circle, queer attendance is close to half. I feel joy watching the masks, the unease, gradually fall away.

So many mysteries we present to each other: mysteries of joy and suffering, interfaces of language and action springing from diverse inner connections, life histories unfolding in different cultures and circumstances, fear and bravery and need displayed at kaleidoscopic angles. Strangers float in and float out, less unknown than when they arrived. Stability is not our focus at the moment, but rather, finding ways to offer listening ears and hearts to match the needs of visitors brought to us by the Spirit.

In the simple Quaker circle, in darkness or light, hands, hearts, minds reach out for a human touch and find it. However we choose to name the great Comforter, we find light and peace at the centre.

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