We find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. Nobody expected it, nobody was really prepared, the impact has reached into virtually all aspects of our lives as, one by one, our jobs, activities and social connections closed down.
For a while, the building ‘went to sleep’, and shut down altogether. Weeks went by in empty darkness with the doors closed and locked.
The first sign of life reemerging was when a day care unit for people with additional needs asked if they could open in the meeting room. This organisation provided vital support for users and their families during the stressful lockdown period. We worked out a risk assessment that made the building and garden as safe as possible for vulnerable users to make a home, we were glad to welcome them and to feel that our meeting was reaching out a supportive hand.
The feedback from them was that the building was (and still is!) serving them well. So many times, we have felt our Meeting House wrap itself around us in times of difficulty, so many meetings have been embraced in a deep and close stillness, it is gratifying to think it may be doing the same for them!
As rigorous protocols were established, meetings resumed but with much reduced attendance, as friends who fell into vulnerable categories sensibly continued to shield.
The role of the person on door duty to welcome everybody has changed. Chairs, light switches, door handles and hard surfaces are disinfected before and after meeting. The garden door is opened to allow ventilation, and to let in the last scents and gentle sounds of late Summer and the stirrings of Autumn.
Books are not put out, as they are likely to be handled by more than one person.
A candle is set on the table. The candle is used instead of flowers to recognize the fact we share a flame on behalf of those who cannot attend meeting themselves, and for those who have lost loved ones to Covid.
Everything looks simple and bare.
Everything feels Quakerly.
Five chairs are put in a distanced circle. Soft cushions are taken off them and set aside.
Somehow the circular shape feels more inclusive, more connected than the rectangle we are used to.
Friends are welcomed at the door. ‘Have you shown any signs of Covid? Please remember to anti-bac your hands as you go in. It’s so good to see you.’ No one shakes hands, a ‘namaste’ greeting has become our accustomed welcome.
Meeting in silence, the strangeness of masks as well as ‘social distance’, yet joined so closely it feels as if we were holding hands. No one speaks, Advices is rarely read, the sense of sharing our thoughts and reflections so strong that words are not needed.
The candle flickers and glows.
The changes are small, but the meeting feels simple, honest, akin to the meetings early Quakers may have experienced. Things we do ‘because we have always done them’ are set aside. There isn’t room.
Absent friends are held in our hearts. The spaces where they sat feel empty, and weigh on us. There is a sense that the meeting is held on their behalf.
The hour passes, and the end is marked with another namaste.
No tea or biscuit, but somehow this feels right as the circle remains unbroken for a little longer for afterword.
Then there is a spontaneous silence before people start to leave.
The cleaning process is repeated in the empty building.
I gather up my things and look around. Our beautiful, ancient meeting house, with its dark honey brown panels and rows of benches used by generations of Quakers since the day it first opened, had worked its spell once more, blessing all those who attended with the very same silence and stillness that has given strength to friends in previous times of adversity.
Only some of us can attend at the moment, but nobody is apart in spirit.
For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.