The School of the Spirit: 1

In March of 2018, I learned about an 18-month program called On Being a Spiritual Nurturer. It was offered by The School of the Spirit, a ministry “rooted in the Quaker contemplative tradition of the living silence.” Feeling ready to explore my Quaker heritage, I requested an application.

“Write a summary of your experience with spiritual nurture ministry,” the application said. “Reflect on how you have been drawn toward or clearly discerned a call to spiritual nurture and its study. We seek to understand how this call has risen out of your personal faith, faith community, life experience, education, and training. We encourage you to offer stories that describe your explorations, wrestling, insights, and lessons learned. Please include your experience of desiring, seeking or receiving support concerning this call.”

What follows is my response to this request.

Prologue

Spiritual nurture ministry is an unfamiliar phrase, but it stirs deep associations. Good friends nurture each other. They’re responsive to one another’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Quakers, moreover, self-identify as a Religious Society of Friends.

I have a knack for making and keeping friends. I’m a good listener and often ask good questions. People tend to trust and confide in me. I have been with friends who are giving birth and others who are dying. I have helped some friends get married and others get divorced. I’ve been there for friends who have become suddenly and seriously unhinged, just as they, in turn, have been there for me.

A Quaker Retreat

My Quaker Granny

As it often does, the calling came out of the blue. I received a notice from the Roanoke Friends Meeting about a one-day retreat they would soon be hosting. It was called Testing the Water. I didn’t know what the title referred to, but it felt like a good opportunity to become more familiar with my Quaker family roots.

For several years I had been studying my family history, reading books by and about Quakers, and brooding upon a potential cross-fertilization between the Quaker tradition of contemplative worship and my decades-long practice of Vipassana meditation.

Other long-standing Sunday morning responsibilities had kept me from attending more than a few Friends Meetings. But this retreat would be on a Saturday. So I went online and registered. I also downloaded an attached file about an eighteen-month Quaker program. I didn’t even open it, as that kind of commitment was unthinkable.

But I smiled when I saw that the retreat would be on March 3rd, the birthday of my best friend. By the time Doug died in the spring of 2000, he and I had spent a thousand Thursday afternoons together. Douglas had always kept a sharp eye out for omens and synchronicities.

Two evenings before the retreat, I was ruthlessly pruning the Downloads folder on my computer. Digital clutter tends to accumulate. I was well into this tedious house-keeping chore when I came upon an unfamiliar file-name that included the letters SS and several numbers. I decided to at least glance at it before hitting the Delete button.

SS turned out to be School of the Spirit. The file was the Program Guide for that eighteen-month course called On Being a Spiritual Nurturer. Then I remembered having downloaded it when I registered for the Testing the Water retreat.

By now it was late at night, but I decided to read it anyway. Then I read it again. A Bob Dylan song came to mind. Someone had given him a book of poems by a thirteenth century Italian poet. “And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coals, pourin’ off of every page like it was written in my soul…”

That’s what reading the Program Guide felt like.

Rescue 8

A new crew of volunteers

Having a quiet call suddenly come into view is a familiar feeling. Seven years ago a similar inner knowing caught me by surprise. Our local Rescue Squad had sent out a mailing. “We’ve been here for you all these years,” it said. “Whenever you’ve needed help, we’ve been here. Now we need your help.” A time and date was given for a special meeting at the Bent Mountain Fire and Rescue station.

When the evening arrived, I put a checkbook in my pocket, recruited some neighbors, and we drove out to show support. Patti, the Rescue Chief, came right to the point. “We don’t need your money,” she said. “Thanks to all your generous donations, we have plenty of money. We need you.”

The Rescue Squad was down to just a few members, she told us. Recruitment wasn’t keeping up with attrition. If they couldn’t find ten folks willing to volunteer, Rescue 8 would fold in a month or two. Then Patti choked up and couldn’t go on.

A tall, gaunt looking man stood up.

“I’m the fire chief,” he said, “and I have Stage 4 cancer. But I’ll keep running calls as long as I can, because neighbors have to help neighbors.”

A sign-up sheet was later passed around for those willing to volunteer. To my amazement and dismay, I signed on the dotted line. Crewing an ambulance, taking on duty nights, and dealing with difficult emergencies had never occurred to me as a possibility. Besides, there was a grueling EMT certification course to get through, plus a rigorous state exam. I had been out of school for over forty years. Besides, I was already maxed out with other responsibilities.

Just below those raucous misgivings, though, was that quiet knowing. So along with nine others who had come to that meeting – none of whom I yet knew – I volunteered to keep Rescue 8 up and running.

Francis of Assisi once said that it’s in giving that we receive. How true this turned out to be. Spending two evenings a week at the station, running calls, and being there for neighbors in need was more than balanced out by what I received; namely, an experiential understanding of nurturing, the importance of teamwork, and the evocative dream of being paged.

Most of the calls we ran were for people having traumatic and sometimes life-changing experiences. Once we arrived on scene, we had to respond quickly and professionally to whatever injury or illness had caused them to dial 9-1-1. But we also needed to respond to the emotional needs of the patients and their families. Nurturing and comforting were essential.

Teamwork in emergency services is a given. At least two crew members have to be on board before an ambulance can leave the station: one to drive and one to be with the patient. Many more are needed to ensure that the vehicles run well and the station is clean and well-stocked. Then there are the meetings, the mentoring, and the training. Developing critical skills and awareness is mandatory so we can learn to keep each other safe in dangerous and potentially life-threatening circumstances. We also helped each another process those thankfully rare calls which can cause nightmares; the calls you can’t talk about with anyone other than your fellow crew members.

This team-building, moreover, is with folks who may well be on different cultural, political, and/or religious wavelengths. Some of my friends on the squad, for example, were ecstatic when Trump was elected; others were horrified. Those differences didn’t matter, though, because we all knew that everyone on the crew was making the same personal sacrifices in order to serve the community.

Then there’s the numinous dream of being paged. When I’m at the station on a duty night, I can respond to a call as soon as it comes in. The rest of the time, I might be working in the garden, or visiting with friends, or deep asleep. But when my pager starts beeping, I instantly change gears and drop whatever I’m doing. I throw my jump bag in the car, glance at the address on the pager’s small screen, and start driving, trying to navigate the back gravel roads as fast as I safely can.

It took quite a few calls before I could disengage from the adrenaline rush of the literal and see the striking metaphor. In Isaiah 6:8, the prophet first has to hear the call. Only then can he say, “Here am I. Send me.” So my pager gradually became a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward willingness to listen and respond.

Light Morning

The four founders

My faith community is rather unorthodox, being neither a Friends Meeting nor a church. For the past forty-five years my faith community has been Light Morning. It’s where my personal faith and life experience, as well as my education and training, have been shaped.

Light Morning began when a small group of people coalesced around a source of inspired guidance in Virginia Beach in the early 1970s. A young woman had cultivated the gift of putting her personal self largely aside in order to respond to those seeking help with their physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual problems.

Early on, she had asked me to be her conductor: the one who guides the sessions and reads aloud the questions submitted by the seekers. I hardly knew her, yet it felt right. So with no conscious idea about where this might lead, I agreed. Other members of the group tape-recorded and later transcribed the sessions. The rest lent prayerful support.

This form of spiritual nurturing taught me invaluable lessons about both conversation and counseling. First, the more needful and sincere the questions, the better the response. Second, whenever the conductor’s mind happened to wander during a session, an otherwise eloquent response could easily become hesitant and awkward. Finally, for the guidance to be truly helpful, it had to be put into practice by the one who had requested it.

As the weeks and months went by, the guidance became more prophetic. An escalating series of crises – social, economic, political, and spiritual – was intuitively foreseen. We were challenged to adopt a radically simplified lifestyle, to cultivate reliable inner guidance, and to share what we were learning with others. We were also reminded that the outward journey, the inward journey, and the educational outreach all required teamwork, community, crew.

When we initially gathered together as a group in June of 1973, the guidance had offered a name for our shared work: Associations of the Light Morning. Dark times may well be on the way, this first session had said, yet there is still a promise of light.

“There can come and there will come light out of darkness, dawn after the night. But the night need not be so very dark. For there is the moon, and there are the stars. And each adds to the glow of the night, to the beauty of the night. Be, then, as the stars and the moon.”

A book, Season of Changes: Ways of Response, grew out of the guidance we received. Then, nine months after they had started, the sessions ended. Galvanized by a shared vision, we pooled our available resources and bought an abandoned farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. In the early spring of 1974, four of us moved to the new land.

Over the following decades, hundreds of people visited Light Morning. A few stayed on; others bought land down the road. Most of them, though, were passing through, hoping against hope to somewhere find a path with heart.

Those were tumultuous times. Life in a so-called spiritual community – where meals, work, and finances were all shared – sometimes became a bubbling-over cauldron of unresolved interpersonal dynamics. Driven by necessity, we turned to such techniques as creative problem-solving, non-violent communication, open-hearted listening, and group contemplation. We also came to depend on the three core practices that our guidance had consistently recommended: meditation, dream-work, and prayer.

* * *

The concluding stories from my application to the School of the Spirit (Wax Statues, The Vipassana Experience, A Personal God, and Testing the Water) can be found here.

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