Northampton Meeting is found on the second floor of a building on a side street in downtown Northampton. It is a condo-style Meetinghouse, the first one of this kind that I have seen!
The Meeting itself began as a worship group in 1991. It was approved as a full-fledged Monthly Meeting in 1994. Then, the members began to look for an appropriate place to call home. In 2001, they purchased parts of the second floor of a downtown building. The architect, Lynn Posner Rice, reworked the interior space for the use of a Quaker Meeting. The space today has a library, a kitchen, a coatroom, 3 First Day schoolrooms, a community room, and the Meetingroom. About 35 people attend Northampton on a regular basis.
In prior blogs I have talked about the five testimonies, which are really codes of behavior for Quakers. The five testimonies are peace, equality, simplicity, integrity and community. (See blog entries for Amesbury and Adams, August of 2014, and Mount Toby, December of 2014.) Northampton’s Meetingroom brings to mind Quaker simplicity at its best. The space has lots of windows and natural light, a wood floor, and benches in a circle-type arrangement. It is a lovely, light space reminiscent of the older meetingrooms I have been in, though far more modern.
The testimony of simplicity arises out of a desire to give the inward experience the highest priority. Anything that diverts from the inward experience is considered unnecessary. This focus on the inward begins in the style of worship, which is plain and simple quiet worship while seeking the Inner Light. But it also extends to all outward appearances in dress, speech, and architecture. Any outward distraction is considered an impediment to spiritual growth. An early Quaker named John Woolman expressed another aspect of simplicity:
May we look upon our Treasures, and the furniture of our Houses, and the Garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these possessions.
In short, he believed that creation of luxuries and other unnecessary things leads to the oppression of others, and that this, in turn, can lead to war. If all live simply, such oppression is not an issue. Today this is referred to simply as “right sharing of resources.” And in the clearest form yet: Live simply so that others may simply live.
As in all testimonies, the outward manifestations of the testimony of simplicity have changed over time, but the essence of it remains the same. Quakers were well known for what is thought of as traditional Quaker garb: dresses in muted gray and brown colors with simple bonnets with no ribbons or other ornamentation. Men wore plain black suits and hats, which they did not take off in the presence of others. Today Quakers dress in what I call Quaker Casual. The best definition of this for me is: anything goes, as long as it is comfortable and functional.
Plain speech with thee, thy, and thou was once used, but is no longer the norm. The names of the week and the months were numbered. Today, Business Meeting minutes are still recorded with this nomenclature and Sunday School is still referred to as First Day School.
At one time, music and the arts were banned. This is no longer true today.
In today’s busy world, right ordering of priorities, with reduction of waste, clutter and too much busyness is an important aspect of simplicity. If one is too busy, there is no time to focus on the interior quality of life and on spirituality….
In architecture, early Quaker Meetinghouses were modest and simple and generally reflected the beliefs of the builders. In accordance with the testimony of simplicity there is no ornamentation of any kind. The benches are usually in an inward facing square or circle that focuses on the people involved. Even though they are simple buildings without ornamentation, they are usually aesthetically pleasing to the eye, which is in accord with the desire for harmony within their communities. The simplicity of the buildings allows the worshippers to focus on inward prayer.
Northampton has managed to achieve simplicity in their Meetinghouse even though it is in a condo building. The Meetingroom is simple, with benches arranged in a circle. An ex-convict who was working to rehabilitate himself made the benches, which are fashioned after Costa Rican Quaker benches. The other rooms of their Meetinghouse are remarkably uncluttered and simple also.
The picture is of the Northampton Meetingroom. I had a difficult time deciding if I should put in a more documentary photograph of the Meetingroom. I finally chose the photo that represents (for me) the very spiritual nature of the room, and the uplifting of spirit that occurs there. How can one help but look inward in such a beautifully simple, harmonious room?
Mount Toby Meetinghouse is located in Leverett, Massachusetts. The Meetinghouse was designed and built in 1964, located on 112 acres donated by a member. There was an addition added in 1997. It is a spacious and roomy one story L-shape building with the meetingroom at one end. It has a Scandinavian, utilitarian, 60’s vibe to it. The Mount Toby Meeting community had lots of input with the architect and designed the building for “functional simplicity.” At that time, the community made a decision to create the meetingroom with windows above eye level, so that there could be “gathered Meetings” with few distractions. The Mount Toby members contributed a lot of the building labor. The Meetinghouse is very functional, but it is definitely not the most aesthetically pleasing meetinghouse in Massachusetts! What I saw, as a photographer, was lots of grey linoleum, utilitarian shelving, and beige carpeting with windows that do not show the surroundings to the greatest advantage. I know meetinghouses are precious to those who worship in them, and I am sorry, Mount Toby, but that is my opinion. So my photography was a challenge!!!
However, what the Meeting lacked in visual appeal was made up for in the evidence of a thriving, vibrant, active and engaged worship community, which was very appealing to me. The evidence was everywhere. This community really works. In 1667 Isaac Pennington said this of Quaker community:
Our life is love and peace and tenderness, and bearing one with another; and forgoing one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.
The “community” in a Quaker Meeting is a very important aspect of meeting life, and is one of the five original Quaker Testimonies: Simplicity, Integrity, Equality, Community and Peace. (See blog entries for Amesbury and Adams, August of 2014.) As I have traveled from meetinghouse to meetinghouse, I usually ask what is the best aspect of the meeting. The answer I usually get is “The Community.” There are three facets of community that are important in Quakerism.
The first characteristic of community is the social aspect. In the early days of Quakerism the meeting would provide food, money and shelter to needy individuals or families who may be experiencing economic hardship, imprisonment or worse arising out of persecution or prejudice against Quakers. Historically, there have always been Committees on Suffering, which provide support and assistance to those members who are suffering hardship as a consequence of actions taken in accordance with Quaker principles. These committees are still active today in some places. In all Quaker communities, however, help is usually provided to anyone who needs help, in whatever form they need it. Meetings are very caring communities.
There are other facets of community, however, which are unique to Quakerism. Though Quakers believe each person has their own relationship with God and each person communicates directly with God in Meeting for Worship, Quaker Meeting is really corporate worship. In a Meeting for Worship, Friends are collectively seeking the Light. A meeting that is especially spirit-filled is described as a covered, or gathered meeting. These terms signify that the love of God is covering the group, and the whole unit encounters the Light amongst them. In the tract called “A Gathered Meeting,” Thomas Kelly describes it this way:
In the practice of group worship on the basis of silence come special times when the electric hush and solemnity and depth of power steals over the worshippers. A blanket of divine covering comes over the room, a stillness that can be felt is over all, and the worshippers are gathered into a unity and synthesis of life which is amazing indeed.
These kinds of meetings are very powerful experiences, and they tend to bind a group together, which in turn strengthens the social experience of the members.
Finally there is the practical aspect of the community. As a group, members conduct memorial services, weddings, and run the business of the meeting. They also decide how they will proceed as a group in acting on their values. In the early days, the Quaker meeting community provided control of individuals, often monitoring their behavior to make sure it stayed within Quakerly tenets. This no longer happens, but when asked, the community will provide guidance and assistance to individuals who have a particular need. Some people have asked me why there is not anarchy in “Quakerdom” if each person is following their own leading? Community in a Quaker Meeting helps prevent this, providing guidance and assistance to individual seekers.
All of these “community things” ran through my head as I photographed at Mount Toby. The building was just a building, but the sense of spiritual connectedness and caring among a group of people was evident all around me: for the conception of the building, for the labor provided to build the meetinghouse, for providing help and care for each other, for their respect of individual differences and needs, for their weekly worship together, this community really seems to work. This year, Mount Toby celebrated 50 years of community. As many as 100 people attend Meeting each Sunday, and the numbers are growing, so they must be doing something right…
The picture is of the Mount Toby Meetingroom.
Have you ever been to Woolman Hill? If not, you should add it to your bucket list. It is a pure delight.
Woolman Hill is a Quaker retreat center located in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. They host educational activities and provide space for overnight group retreats, workshops and sabbaticals. They also have some cabins scattered about their grounds for personal use, personal retreats, relaxing times, or just plain fun. I stayed overnight in the Sunrise cabin. The calendar date showed that “Fall” was just one day old, but the air felt like deep Fall. There was definitely a nip in the air. But with a roof and a wood stove, it was warm, safe, comfortable and relaxing. Life simplified in a good way.
Today, North Dartmouth Friends Meeting is located on Woolman Hill. In the early 1990’s, the last few remaining members of North Dartmouth Friends Meeting offered their Meetinghouse to Woolman Hill. In 1996 the Meetinghouse, which was built in 1849, was disassembled, loaded onto two trucks, and moved. In 2001, the new foundation was poured and reconstruction begun. The very old Meetinghouse now has a new life. It is used for mid-week worship, with an average attendance of 10. And it is available to the many groups and individuals who come to Woolman Hill for retreats, conferences, weddings, and other events. It is part of the complex of buildings Woolman Hill has available for its mission of fostering spiritual connection within, with others, and with the natural world. The Meetinghouse is in beautiful, pristine condition. It is square and plain, with lots of window light, old wood and old benches. When you walk in, it has the delicious smell of fine old wood. The creative thinking used to re-imagine, move, re-create, and develop new uses for an old building is wonderful. It is recycling at its best.
Because there is not an active meeting community at the Meetinghouse, I am going to take this opportunity to talk a little bit more about my own photographic process. If you are not bored by this description, you can find further details of my process in the blog on East Sandwich Preparative Meetinghouse, written in May of 2014.
When I first read the book called The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori, I felt as if I was recognizing my own photographic practice there on the printed page. The author talks about four essential elements in the process of making a photograph. First is the muse, which is the sense of inspiration. Second is hara, the still and grounded place within. Third is the chi, which is the energy within both the photographer and within the subject. Lastly, the resonance between subject and the photographer which arises from the chi.
When I walk into a Meetinghouse, I feel a sense of resonance from somewhere deep inside. I feel a deep connection and internal shifting especially after meditating and connecting with the still point inside me. Then the energy begins to flow. When that happens, I work non-stop. The pictures just begin to present themselves, though there are some pictures that I know I must take to relate to the story I am telling. But I also just “see” some things that scream at me to “take this picture.” And so I do.
Though technique definitely comes into play and is always in the back of my mind, this is not an intellectual exercise. Photography is a spiritual practice for me. It is a letting go of self, it is being in the moment, it is staying attuned to the flashes of perception that come, and it is remaining keyed into the resonance that I feel with the subject matter. At some point in the day, I will know that I am done. Suddenly, I feel the energy go, the resonance wane. And then I know I am finished for the day. It is time to pack and go. I feel a sense of completion, and I always say a word of thanks for the light (and the Light), the day, and for the opportunity given to me to photograph in a beautiful building.
The picture is one of those that just called out to me: Take me!
The Berkshires are a great place to visit, and I entertained myself quite well for several days in between Meetinghouse photography. One of the Meetinghouses I photographed was the home of South Berkshire Friends Meeting in Great Barrington, MA.
The Friends in this area have followed a traditional route to becoming a Monthly Meeting. In the 1950’s they began as a worship group, with interested people meeting in homes. In 1955 they became a preparative meeting under the guidance of an established meeting. And in 1984, the group became an independent monthly meeting, conducting its own business as South Berkshire Monthly Meeting.
At that time, they began to search for a building they could call home. In 1999, they bought 20 acres of land with a house on it. The house was remodeled with a meetingroom addition. Today, South Berkshire Meeting is a one-story building with a wide sweep of lawn, a beaver pond and a mountain just beyond. This is not a traditional Quaker building, yet the Meetingroom still feels ‘Quakerly’.
The story of the unfolding process of becoming a full-fledged Meeting, finding a place to call home and remodeling a building to suit their needs speaks to me of the long and winding road of Quaker decision making.
If I were a comedian, I am certain I could write a laugh-out-loud, funny parody of the Quaker decision making process. But I am most definitely not a comedian, so I will write about it with the same earnestness and sincerity with which Quakers approach their decision making process. It is a wonderful, awe-inspiring and creative way of approaching decisions. And at the same time, it is difficult, laborious, and frustratingly slow.
Quaker decision making is based on finding “unity” in the Truth of God’s plan. In Quaker parlance, it is described as “laboring in the Spirit until they can discern a truth that exceeds the reach of any one individual” (An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies by American Friends Service Committee, 2011). This is very different than majority vote. It is also different from consensus, in which all people agree. Here, everyone may not agree on the final outcome, but they all agree to move forward with the final decision. During Quaker process, when a concern is deliberated, each person’s opinion and insight is sought and valued. Sometimes all the individual opinions are as one, and the way forward is clear. However, as in any group of individuals, there are most often differing opinions. Sometimes one new idea can lead the entire group to a different decision, and sometimes one new idea can hold up the entire process. The Clerk of the Meeting often has a key role in listening and then stating “the sense of the Meeting.” The dissenters may stand aside at this point for the sake of unity. If not, the process continues until unity is found. This can often take place over a long period of time. Worship is interspersed throughout the process as all members of the group seek to leave ego behind and center on finding unity in the Truth of God’s perceived plan. As always in Quaker process, snags are inevitable. Sometimes, the smallest word or detail can delay finding unity. Sometimes one deeply held dissenting opinion causes friction during the process. But when a decision is finally made, it is usually a solid, well-considered, and creative outcome which all stand behind in unity.
I am certain that any Quaker who has been in a Business Meeting can identify with “hitting a snag.” In South Berkshire, the lengthy decision making process hit a snag while considering the question of whether to have benches or chairs in the new Meetingroom. Deliberations were long, arduous, and difficult. It shook the unity of the community. Today, chairs are in the Meetingroom. It still feels like a Quaker Meetingroom even without benches. And I have to tell you….the chairs are very, very comfortable.
The picture is of the South Berkshire Friends Meetingroom with the comfortable chairs. The windows overlook their beautiful grounds. On the right is their nod to Quaker benchdom.
The Adams Meetinghouse was home for the East Hoosuck Meeting. Quaker settlers from Smithfield, RI and Dartmouth, MA settled in the area in 1769. The Meetinghouse was built in 1782. At its peak in 1819, the Meeting had 40 families.
When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 and facilitated westward movement, the East Hoosuck Quaker settlers began to move west for better farmland. The last East Hoosuck Friends Meeting was held in 1842. Subsequently, the Meetinghouse was deeded to the town that maintains it today.
The Meetinghouse sits alone, high on a hill, in the middle of a cemetery. In the distance is Mt. Greylock. It has two doors, one for men and one for women, and a gallery on the second floor. There are fireplaces on the first and second floors, facing benches, and partitions between the men and women’s sides. One of the partitions hinges up and the rest are pulled up by hand. This is quite different from the normal winching systems of the time. The building is constructed with hand-hewn beams and post and beam construction. Some of the original nails, hinges, and door handles are still in place. It is bare and simple inside.
I have previously written about Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Integrity, Equality, Peace and Community [see Amesbury Meetinghouse blog entry]. Most Quakers take the testimonies to heart, and the East Hoosuck Quaker community was no exception, especially in regard to Equality. The testimony on Equality arises out of the belief that all people are created equal in the eyes of God, with the Inner Light equally present in all, regardless of sex, color, race or creed. In early times, this testimony was reflected in Quakers giving equal spiritual authority and recognition to women and refusal to use forms of address that recognized social distinction. They were known for not doffing their hats and for using the words “thee, thy, and thou” instead of the more formal ‘you’ that connoted social ranking. Though these forms of social activism do not exist today, Quakers throughout the ages have pursued Equality in whatever contemporary issues existed.
At East Hoosuck Meeting there are several examples of people living lives in testimony to Equality. In this Meeting there was a famous (for her time) preacher known for the ‘true gift of speaking’. She was named Hannah Anthony Hoxie. In the early 1800’s it is remarkable that a woman, of any persuasion, would be noted as a preacher. East Hoosuck Quakers were also involved in the Abolitionist movement and it is known that they harbored runaway slaves.
Susan B. Anthony was born into an activist East Hoosuck Quaker family in 1820. Her aunt was Hannah Anthony Hoxie, the woman preacher. Her family held abolitionist meetings on their farm. In her own time, she became an activist herself. She was involved in the temperance movement, but because she was a woman she was not allowed to speak at temperance rallies, and this experience led her into Women’s Rights. In 1852, she joined the Women’s Rights Movement and began to dedicate her life to woman’s suffrage. She also campaigned for the abolition of slavery and the right of women to own property. Due to the efforts of Susan B. Anthony and others, the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, giving women the equal right to vote.
I am personally grateful to the East Hoosuck Quaker community for nurturing Susan B. Anthony during her early years. Her activism has allowed me and my daughters, and all American women, to live the lives we have today, with full equal human rights. And I was also surprised and proud to learn that she was a Quaker, which I had not known previously. It is amazing to me that, despite its humble beginning and ending, the East Hoosuck Quaker community had such a lasting effect on the world. You would never guess it from looking at the building. As I have learned at each Quaker Meetinghouse I have photographed, the building is only the beginning of the story.
The picture is of Adams Meetinghouse, on the hill, in the midst of the cemetery. Mt. Greylock is to the left. The two front doors are open in welcome. Some of the wooden shutters are still closed in this picture, and some have already been opened to allow the daylight in the building. Window light is the only light available in the building.