Why would a Jesuit be taking part in a Quaker worship service? Yet that is what I was doing one Sunday in May. After celebrating the 8:30 a.m. Mass at Nativity parish on New York’s lower East Side, I walked a dozen blocks up Second Avenue to the 15th Street Meeting House. A classically simple building dating from 1860, with a white-columned portico facing a park that softens the traffic noise from Second Avenue, its only furnishings are wooden benches with red cushions. Soon I was seated on one of them, in company with some 60 or so men and women of varying ages, all sharing in an hour of communal meditation. Moved by the Spirit, a few of them rose to offer a brief reflection.
Did this seem strange to me? Not at all. As a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, I attended what was known as Fifth Day meeting. The whole student body trooped over to the meeting house adjacent to the campus for the regular Thursday morning hour of meditation. I was too immature at the time to appreciate these gatherings, as were many other undergraduates. Since Thursday was the day Time magazine arrived, one could hear the rustle of turning pages in the midst of an otherwise prayerful silence.
After Haverford, it was still a long time before I had any real sense of Quaker spirituality. It began, curiously, following my entrance into the Society of Jesus. I began to read the works of Quakers like John Woolman, who spoke out against slavery in his travels through the colonies. His journal, published in 1773, helped to confirm me in a lasting attraction to spiritual autobiographiesas did the journal of George Fox, an early leader in the Society of Friends imprisoned in England for adhering to his faith.
From their beginnings in 17th-century England, the Quakers have long been committed to the cause of justice. John Woolman’s outspoken objection to slavery is just one instance of that commitment. An English Quaker, Elizabeth Fry, led the way in prison reform in the 1800’s; her compassionate work among women prisoners, in particular, was groundbreaking at a time when they were treated with great cruelty, packed into dungeons with their children.
Concern for peace, too, is a major part of the Quaker tradition. The often-reproduced versions of The Peaceable Kingdom were the work of a Quaker artist, Edward Hicks; their theme is taken from the passage in the 11th chapter of Isaiah that speaks of the leopard and the lamb lying down together. The day I attended the 15th Street meeting, a woman rose at the end of the hour to mention a vigil for peace to be held that afternoon at the great arch on Washington Square.
As a further sign of its commitment to social justice, a building next to the meeting house hosts a year-round shelter for homeless men and women.
Farther uptown, lodging is offered to students who come to New York for weekends of serviceservice that sometimes takes the form of helping out at the soup kitchen held on Saturdays in the Nativity social hall. On a wider scale, the American Friends Service Committee has been in the vanguard of prison reform and opposition to the death penalty.
That sunny spring morning, the tall windows of plain glass on either side of the room with its unadorned, off-white wallslent a luminous quality to our calm environment. With the sound of birds in the trees outside, it was easy to sense God’s presence. As part of the brief explanation of Quaker worship in a pamphlet for visitors, the reader is told that the gathering in silence is meant as an aid in seeking a fuller knowledge of God’s will and its practical consequences in our lives. Finding God’s will through prayer and meditation, and bringing it to bear in our daily livessuch a concept is in keeping with Ignatian spirituality, with its emphasis on freeing ourselves from whatever could prevent us from serving God wholeheartedly. The two spiritualities, Quaker and Ignatian, can thus be seen as peaceably related.