Today I watched a DVD of a National Geographic special called "Inside Mecca."
In our Yearly Meeting we joke about Newberg, Oregon being "Quaker Mecca," because it has George Fox University, Barclay Press, Newberg Friends, North Valley Friends, Second Street, Iglesia Evangelica los Amigos en Newberg, and West Chehalem Friends, as well as the Northwest Yearly Meeting headquarters. But calling Newberg the Quaker Mecca is totally different from the real Mecca (obviously...)
As I watched the DVD I found myself appreciating certain things about the idea of having a place and physical rituals to do together. The documentary showed three people on their pilgrimage to Mecca for Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that all Muslims are supposed to do at least once in their life to retrace the steps of Muhammad, and Abraham before him. Every year, 2 million Muslims come to Mecca for Hajj. They visit the Ka'abah, the mosque that they pray toward several times a day, and then they all leave the city for rituals signifying purification, forgiveness, and overcoming temptation.
Although I disagree with quite a few things about Islam, I can't help but be drawn to the physicality of their rituals and traditions. As a Quaker I dislike empty rituals, but rituals that still have meaning can be helpful and good. One ritual that my husband and I learned from some friends is called "The Birthday Questions." On each person's birthday we ask them three questions: What is a high point from the last year? What is a low point from the last year? What are you looking forward to in the next year? (We also sometimes use these questions at New Years and on our anniversary.) These are simple questions, but having this ritual helps us remember, reflect and be grateful for the gifts we've been given and the struggles we've come through. It also helps us get to know others better, and allows us to focus well on the person whose birthday it is, to really hear their heart. So I think some rituals can be helpful.
In Quakerism, of course, we have rituals, even though we don't call them that. Unprogrammed meetings have the ritual of entering the meeting space in silence and waiting for the Spirit to speak through those gathered. Programmed meetings have rituals of singing, reading scripture, and listening to the Spirit through someone who has been listening and preparing a message. Sometimes these rituals are helpful in bringing us to awareness of the presence of God, and sometimes they are dead forms.
But we don't often do very well at using physical actions to represent spiritual truths. That's what stood out to me most about the Mecca rituals. They show their desperate need for God by running (or walking quickly) back and forth between two hills, symbolizing Hagar's desperate search for water to give to her thirsty baby Ishmael. They go to the physical spaces to remember things that happened in their sacred history to Muhammad and Abraham. They throw pebbles at stone pillars to represent stoning Satan, overcoming temptation in their lives. And of course, the pilgrimage itself, the movement from the everyday places to the place of remembrance, is itself a ritual of physical import.
I think we as Quakers probably miss a lot by not using our bodies more often to connect spiritually to one another and to God.
Actually, now that I think about it, that's something that I noticed from the Romans 12:1-2 passage I talked about last weekend and posted in my "retreat!" post. It goes like this:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I noticed that this passage talks about our bodies, our spirits, and our minds. We worship through using our bodies and our minds, not just our spirits. It is "spiritual worship" to use our bodies and minds for God. As Quakers we probably see how our minds fit in to our spirituality, but I think we often forget that we need to allow our bodies to connect with God, too. I don't know what that would look like for you--dancing, playing a sport, playing music, resting, laughing, or creating some other physical ritual that is meaningful between you and God.
I don't think we should create rituals that everyone has to do in order to be spiritual, but I think it would be good to pay attention to the ways we use our bodies, and how those things are sacraments. All of life is a sacrament, as the early Friends taught. Perhaps we too often fall into the trap of Greek dualism, separating the sacred from the profane, not allowing our bodies to enter into our sacred time of meeting together and being in God's presence. I'm not sure how we can right this as a group, but maybe if individuals work on it in their own personal lives we can create meaningful spaces where our bodies can be used together to praise God.
Actually, the whole universe is Quaker Mecca, because we don't have to go to a certain place to be in the presence of God, or to remember God's faithfulness.