Saturday, 18 January 2014

D is for Dans

One particulardans’ (dance in English) stands out in my mind. In 1996 I attended the international Quaker gathering on Barnens Ö (Children’s Island) in Sweden, and while there came into contact with Swedish Quakers for the first time. The first night of the gathering was memorable. After supper in our particular house (the participants lived in various houses spread over the site) the host announced that the dishwasher wasn’t working and could she please have a few volunteers to wash the dishes by hand. As I enjoy washing-up my arm shot up into the air, along with those of a few others.

There were a lot of dishes and pots and pans to wash, and it took quite a bit of time to get everything clean and dried. As we worked we chatted and got to know each other a little better. We came from different countries, so our curiosity was great. When everything was finished, and the kitchen area had emptied, Gunnar remarked on how much space there was now that everyone had gone. I responded by saying that yes, we could even dance in it! What an idea, said Gunnar, and we promptly began to do just that!

That spontaneous ‘dans’ in the kitchen signalled the start of a friendship with Gunnar, and later with his wife, Elfi, that lasted until one and then the other passed away. When I came to Sweden in 1999 as the first Visiting Friend for the Europe and Middle East Section (EMES) of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), it was Gunnar who translated a talk that I gave at the Friends Centre in Stockholm and it was Elfi who made sure that I was well and truly cared for during my stay.

If there is any message or moral in this story it is – Dare to Dans! You never know where it might lead.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

C is for Cirkel

Cirkel, or circle in English, is a form that is well-known to most Quakers. In general, at least in liberal Western European contexts, and as far as the room and numbers allow, Quakers sit in a circle for their Meetings for Worship (‘andakt’ in Swedish – see A). Circles are said to represent trust, security, protection, wholeness, unity and infinity. American Indians regard the circle as a sacred shape that reflects nature and natural phenomena.

How many circles – and cycles – can you identify in nature – and in life?

A circle draws an individual to the centre, where enlightenment can be found. All the points on a circle are equidistant to the centre, and each person in the circle can be seen and acknowledged. Circles often conjure up images of community, connection and inclusion.

You can be inside or outside a circle. Included or excluded. We Quakers like to talk about inclusion, rather than exclusion. However, I remember when I was a warden of a Quaker Meeting House in England and the rap on the knuckles and the resistance I got when I arranged the chairs in a way that made entry into the circle easier for all. How many people do we exclude from our comfortable circles when we resist change, I wonder?

When the small Småland Worship Group comes together for ‘andakt’, standard poodle Irma lies inside the circle when she feels safe, but stays on the outside and observes when she is unsure. When we met at the home of another dog owner, his dog came into the circle, circled around to each one of us and licked our hands in turn as if to say ‘welcome’. It reminded me of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. It also took me back in my mind to a Retreat in Sweden that I took part in many years ago, when we participants washed each other's feet.

How do we welcome people into our circles, I wonder? And do we exclude anyone?

Sunday, 5 January 2014

B is for Bön and for Barmhärtig

Bön (pronounced boen) is Swedish for prayer, request, appeal, entreaty, plea or supplication. The verb ‘be’ translates as ask, beg, request, entreat, implore, plead, pray, offer a prayer, say a prayer.

As a child I was taught to say my prayers. This activity mainly consisted of asking God to bless mummy, daddy, grandma ... and so on. The fact that I asked God for something must have meant that even at that tender age I believed in some kind of higher or mystical power.

Prayer was not a strange phenomenon to me. Until the age of 14 I was forced to accompany my mother to church on a Sunday. As no choice was presented, I amused myself by inspecting ladies’ hats, perusing the hymn book, or playing silently (and sometimes not so silently...) with my young brother (who was also forced to attend). The vicar’s call to prayer meant bowing one’s head, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, saying the Creed, or receiving the final blessing.

At the age of 14, and the news that mother had enrolled me in confirmation classes, I rebelled. I was a stubborn child, and there was absolutely no way that the theatre of church was going to be prolonged. Mother gave in, and soon after that left the church herself. What a relief that was!

Until I discovered Quakers in my early twenties, I searched for an expression of God that I felt comfortable with. I found this in nature, in our garden, walking in the Yorkshire Dales or locally in the fields close to our house. In the outdoors God has always felt close, and there, prayer has come quite naturally to me – not just as requests, appeals or the like, but also as thanks for blessings received, for the beauty of the surroundings and for the wonders of nature. I often send out arrow prayers – for someone, for myself, for guidance in a particular situation. Perhaps this is what Paul was getting at when he encouraged people to ‘pray without ceasing’. It is being in an attitude of prayer that matters, not the constant petitioning.

Since becoming a Quaker, prayer has been a rather private affair. It is rare for someone to pray, out loud, in Meeting for Worship. A Swedish Friend who died recently was an exception. His legacy of a book of prayers written by him to God, his loving Father, is a treasure to treasure.... and a reminder to dare to pray out loud.

I cannot think of Bön without linking it to Barmhärtig (pronounced barmhaertig), which means merciful, compassionate, charitable. In my own prayers – and indeed in my attitude towards others – I also need to be merciful, compassionate and charitable. If I remember that, I can reflect what God constantly reveals to, and bestows on, me.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A is for Andakt

In Sweden, Quakers talk about going to Andakt. In English this means going to Meeting for Worship. The direct translation of andakt is ‘devotion’, or ‘reverence’. For Quakers in Småland, the county in which I live, going to Andakt either involves travelling several kilometres or hosting the Meeting in our own homes.

Småland is a large county in the southern half of Sweden. The 5 members of Sweden Yearly Meeting and the 2 faithful ‘friends of Friends’ who live in it are scattered from north to south and east to west. In order to meet as regularly as possible, we decided to gather in each other’s homes once a month. This decision, taken in January 2011, heralded the birth of the Småland Worship Group (Smålands Andaktsgrupp).  

We meet once a month on a Saturday or a Sunday at 11 o’clock. After Andakt we have a simple lunch together, prepared by the host or hostess, spiced with plenty of good conversation. Our number also includes two small children – aged 5 and 3 – and standard poodle Irma (you will read more about Irma when we get to the letter I). We sometimes make music after lunch, or make funny noises together and laugh. Children bring out the children in us.....

Like Quakers in other parts of Europe we meet in silence, for an hour, in a circle. A table with a lighted candle on it is usually in the centre. Spoken ministry might punctuate the hour. It might also be completely silent.  Whatever happens, we love being together, worshipping, eating and having fun. 

In short, we love going to Andakt.