Monday, 13 November 2017

My Convincement Experience

A magnolia-painted meeting room with one small window, and several rows of traditional wooden benches.
The meeting room at Pardshaw, site of some of my early
Quaker experiences. Photo by Andrew Rendle.
There's something that I think can be a really revealing, insight-provoking part of each of our personal experiences to share, and that we don't really share that much – how each of us that considers ourselves a Quaker came to do so. I don't mean simply how we came into contact with Friends, or when and why we started going to Meeting for Worship, or otherwise became involved in Quaker organisations. I don't mean how we got to know some Quakers at a peace camp, or on a political campaign, or at a demonstration, or at Pride.
I'm talking about the experience that made each Quaker realise that this was their spiritual path – the experience of what we have called, from our earliest years, convincement. My spellchecker doesn't like that word, probably because it's not really used much outside of Quaker discourse, and perhaps not that much even among Quakers. Online dictionaries give a perfectly good definition, though – in this sense, it refers to the action or state of being convinced. If you're new to Quaker discussion, it's worth pointing out that this might be similar to what other faiths refer to as conversion. We speak of Friends becoming convinced, rather than being converted, a difference that has a number of reasons feeding into it, and really beyond the scope of this post; perhaps I will return to it in another. If it makes it easier for you to think about, feel free to read “convince” as “convert”, but do be aware that you are missing some shading of meaning when you do so.
Convincement can be a road-to-Damascus experience, or a gradual experience. For some, it can be hard to pin down a specific moment. Sometimes, one realises that the point where one actually became convinced of the Quaker approach was before one began to consciously identify as a Quaker. Like so much of Quaker experience, convincement is subject to massive amounts of variation. Unlike much of Quaker experience, this is perhaps a point that is more in common with other faith traditions.
Talking about our convincement experiences allows us to share in a deeply important part of one another's spiritual life, and it often connects to other important aspects of a person's life, sometimes even with other big changes. Becoming convinced can be a result of big changes in our lives, or can be the cause of them – it's far from implausible for it to be both, and sometimes it's neither. For me, it was an accumulation of many things, a long time coming.
From an early age, I was fascinated by religions, though feeling no personal connection to any I had come across. I would take part, as much as an outsider was allowed, in the activities of different religious groups. I suppose you could say I felt an affinity for religion in the abstract, without having any affinity for any particular faith tradition. At the same time, even after profound reflection over many years, I could not find any scintilla of belief in any sort of supreme being – or beings. And yet, I felt something. I had a feeling inside, that I could never describe, when I visited any place of worship. A profound sense of power, I suppose, of a sort of weight to the place. Even where the act of worship didn't take place in a special place, I could usually seem to feel something – I suspect just a subconscious amalgamation of the impressions from the body language of all the participants, perhaps – of the solemn and serious power involved, even in those observances that were light-hearted and celebratory. It intrigued me deeply, as did the simple idea of understanding and learning about different faiths and traditions.
At uni, I participated in a university Pagan Soc set up by people I knew. Never identified as a pagan, but there were elements to some of the approaches I saw that resonated with me. As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I kept Mormon missionaries coming back for about a year, so I could learn about their faith; not much resonated with me there, but it led to some important experiences, as detailed in that earlier post. Through all of this, I had little contact with Quakers, very little awareness of them, really.
The first time I knowingly met a Quaker was before that, though. In the first year of university, taking part in a Students Union protest involving a pond (which we were protesting by emptying it), I met a Quaker for the first time that I am aware of. I don't know how it came up in conversation, but when the people I'd gone to the protest with and I were chatting with this person afterwards, they mentioned being a Quaker and told us some of what that meant – though in a fairly jocular way that was missing an awful lot of detail, as I would later discover.
During my time intercalating from university, after it became abundantly clear that I had developed narcolepsy, a young woman started coming to some societies I had contact with, though I wasn't actually involved in them all at that point. There was a sort of informal network of societies with a huge overlap in their membership – writers, role-playing, fantasy & science fiction, pagans, a couple of others – who unofficially shared some socials, that sort of thing. A quiet person, and being involved in these societies for the first time, and rather young and innocent in appearance, most of us made the quite natural assumption that she was a first year. It soon became apparent that she was actually the same age as a lot of us, a fourth year, having not gotten involved in societies in her first two years, and then spent a year in Canada as part of a year abroad degree scheme. At the Writers' Guild Christmas meal, I was sat near her, and discovered that she was a Quaker – and apparently far more willing to talk about it seriously than the Friend I had met in the first year had been.
We also found some common interests, and both studying maths (though I also studied another subject as well – physics before intercalating, computer science thereafter). We talked quite a lot at social events, and it wasn't often about religion. When we became an item, I took more interest in that again – partly because it was something she spent her time doing, and I was curious about it from that angle, as well as from my interest in religion. She took me along to a Young Friends gathering at Pardshaw Meeting House that summer, working on cleaning and repainting the main room with a bunch of Young Friends; there wasn't a great deal religious really happenings, but there was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and a lot of fellowship. She also took me along as a +1 when two Ffriends were getting married – I forgot to take my narcolepsy medication with me, and ended up sleeping through most of the marriage meeting (as well as while standing up on a Birmingham bus, which was apparently scary to witness). It was immediately after that marriage meeting, however, that things start to take a turn towards what you might call convincement – starting with a particularly odd conversation.
(And yes, in case you were wondering, the young woman in the preceding paragraph is the one I'm currently engaged to. So this is a love story, too, I guess, but that's not the point)
I was introduced to someone she knew from previous a Quaker event, and there was a lot of conversation about a lot of things, but this new person asked if I was a Quaker. I answered for myself, explaining what views I had come to myself, but that I didn't subscribe to any faith. They turned to the woman I was accompanying and said “yeah, he's a Quaker, he just doesn't know it yet”. I suppose, in hindsight, this was true, but it was an odd thing to hear.
Anyway, I went back to Pardshaw that winter, less work, lots of communal fun, and struggling to stay warm. Deciding I wanted to learn more directly, I went along to Young Friends General Meeting the following February; back then, YFGM ran a parallel programme at the February weekend, aimed at Enquirers, and that suited me. I learned some more, experienced more – including my first experience of Quaker decision-making – and decided I wanted to continue being involved. I was appointed to the committee who ran YFGM's activities at Pardshaw, enthusiasm for the location being more important than Quaker credentials, it seemed, and went along to the next couple of YFGMs. I supported my partner in her work on other Quaker activities, and I came to identify as a Quaker myself, with very little change – and that based on my experiences of Quaker worship and other activities – in my actual “beliefs”. A little over 10 years later I became a member of my current Area Meeting, having had limited involvement (which is to say, virtually no involvement) in local Quaker activities for most of the time I was active with YFGM – a very common pattern for YFGMers.
So my convincement experience was no revelation, no road to Damascus moment, no sudden outbreak of the Light in my heart. It wasn't about how I viewed the idea of God. It was about coming to realise that Quaker practice worked for me. Of feeling that I was welcome to explore it first-hand while holding the beliefs I already had, and seeing that it fit with them. This is not to say that I wasn't changed by any of these experiences. I certainly was, and I hope I continue to be. But that change was not part of my convincement, nor a result of it. My convincement merely set up the practical conditions – involvement in Quaker worship and learning to improve my awareness of the Divine – for that transformation to occur.
I was convinced by that most simple expedient – I tried it, and I found that it worked.
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