Have you ever had one of those nights when you just can’t sleep? Well, I did the other night so I passed the time by pondering what I was going to use for the F post in the Quaker Alphabet series.
It was far too obvious to go with Friends and I avoided Fun, Fripperies and indeed Frittilaries. Likewise Frivolity, Freedom and Faith. I ended up with that staple of the Sunday Quaker meeting for worship: Flowers.
Let me explain. Quakers disdain rituals and outward symbols, yet forgetting the flowers is punishable by disownment (if you are lucky), or possibly death. What can I say? I don’t know of anyone who has forgotten flowers and who is still a member of the meeting. Coincidence? I think not.
Last week Sigoth and I had signed up to be Welcomers. The job of the Welcomer is broadly to be there slightly early and greet everyone as they arrive. This is a charming custom; it is also intended to pick up on any visitors or newcomers so that they can be directed to the location of the coat hooks, the meeting room, the toilets and any leaflets they may find useful if they have not been to a meeting before. A brave Welcomer may feel up to giving an introduction to what meeting for worship is about; generally I follow normal custom and practice by thrusting a leaflet at the hapless first-timer and gabbling something like “read this – it will explain everything” in a panicked voice. British Quakers at least are frequently bad at saying what they believe without at least a month’s notice and a following wind.
In our meeting, the Welcomers have a long list of jobs to carry out and I’ll be honest – it can be hard to remember everything. We also have to deal with teas and coffees after meeting, so there are cups to set out, kettles to fill and boil early, milk and sugar to find, biscuits to make ready, all the odd teas (fruit, herbal, loony tunes) to retrieve from the cupboards. Before meeting begins we have to check the hearing loop is switched on, the water carafe and glasses are ready, the meeting room is in good order. Then we stand outside about 15 minutes before meeting until about 15 minutes after meeting has started to catch early and late comers. We slip out of meeting as notices start in order to brew tea and be ready to serve drinks to parched and talkative Friends. We wash up and put away. We make sure any post is handed to the right people.
Most importantly we provide the flowers.
Quaker meetings don’t have altars or symbolic paraphernalia. Our meeting houses can be used by many religious groups including Jewish and Buddhist, because they do not sport Christian symbols. The seats are arranged in a circle and in the centre there is a table. On the table there should be flowers (or in winter, tasteful leafy substitutes). Many Friends use the flowers to help them slip into the state of silent waiting in which a meeting for worship is conducted. They act as a focus for the attention as minds clear and listening begins.
Imagine the Armageddon when the flowers are missing!
Last week we forgot the flowers.
Sigoth had set up the hearing loop and I was checking the water carafe. I looked at the table. It seemed a tad under-dressed. Something was missing. I could hear steps on the gravel path as the first Friend approached. What else was usually on the table?
“Flowers!” I squeaked at Sigoth. He looked confused, then horrified.
Sometimes you have to have faith in a Higher Power.
As I heard the hooves of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping towards me, my desperate gaze fixed upon a pale glimmer on a side table. Someone had left a single flower in a vase. It was bit brown on the edges but otherwise usable. I lurched forward, grabbed it and slammed it onto the central table as the door inched open.
“Morning!” said the Friend, smiling as the hoofbeats faded away and the Balance of the Universe was restored. “People are starting to arrive! Are you Welcoming today?”
“Definitely!” I replied. Sigoth smiled at me conspiratorially and we went outside to shake hands with people in the cold, bright sunshine.
From the meeting room I heard a faint voice.
“What a pretty flower….”
Meeting for worship went off without a hitch. We enjoyed that deep, silent hour with a sense of gratitude and an acknowledgement of our frailties.
Well, at least we treated everyone to chocolate digestives.