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All the Right Reasons: Chel Avery on Quakers and the Extraordinary Ordinary

Quaker Quest Blog


I think I came to Quakerism for all the wrong reasons; I hope I’ve stayed for the right ones.

As an adolescent, I had an active spiritual life. I didn’t have words for it, but I felt the presence of Holiness in the natural world, in art and poetry, and sometimes in my inner being. But church life as I knew it didn’t seem to have anything to do with how I experienced God – formal prayers, sermons, and rituals left me uninspired.

When I first read about modern Quakers, I was delighted.  I was attracted to all the things that Quakers were not―not creedal, not ritualistic, not hierarchical―a religion empty of all the things I rejected about religion!

I spent about six years reading about Quakers before I worked up the courage to attend a Friends meeting for worship. I checked out books by Barclay and Brinton from the library and slogged through them. I kept my eyes open for the “live Quakers” that were rumored to be in my community, but I never knowingly met one.

By the time I discovered where the local meeting met and dared to attend for the first time, I had concocted an ideal image of Quaker perfection in my mind. (Novels by Jan de Hartog and Catherine Marshall helped feed that glowing expectation.) Shyly I slipped in among these wonderful people and discovered, to my great disappointment, that they were just people after all. They were so . . . ordinary! What an anticlimax!

That could have been the end of the story, but very soon afterward I moved to another city and found myself, utterly by happenchance, in the middle of a high-density Quaker habitat. My neighborhood was scattered with Friends, and they readily invited me to attend the small Yahara Worship Group that rotated from one family’s living room to another.

These were people I had begun to know, people I met walking their dogs in the park, packing produce in the food coop, standing in silent witness on Hiroshima Day. Ordinary? No one is ordinary. Worshiping with Friends I began to get glimpses of a deep sincerity and receptiveness to the Extraordinary at the heart of how these people approached their day-to-day, outwardly unremarkable lives.

And very slowly, I found myself drawn to Quakerism for what I was finding there, rather than for what was absent. When I formally joined Madison Monthly Meeting a few years later, I felt I was making a commitment to a meeting community – I will do my best to stay attentive and true to the sacredness that I find in the world, and I will help others to do the same, and I will accept and rely upon such help from my community.

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