10/18/2007

reverence

As Mormon children we are taught a lot about reverence. In Mo parlance reverence doesn't have anything to do with respect or awe, it's about sitting quietly in your seat with your arms folded across your lap (and I'm not at all exaggerating about the posture) for the 3-hour block of meetings each Sunday. As children we are repeatedly told this and every week in the children's Primary meeting there are 'reverence songs' to underscore these ideas.

I haven't heard the word reverence discussed in Quaker circles, at least not in any memorable way. What did move me greatly recently, though, was this blogpost about a Silent Quaker Meeting that wasn't silent. Because there was an autistic child experiencing silent worship for the first time and it was not a wholly comfortable experience for him. He spoke loudly and was somewhat belligerent. While I cringed just a wee bit at the spectacle aspect of this story, the author does a fine job of illustrating the difference between silence and silent worship. IMO, silent worship does not mean that there is an absence of sound (and anyone who's worshiped in our downtown Santa Ana Meetinghouse can attest to the fact that street noises don't preclude Silent Worship).

A quote from the article, explaining what occurred after the close of the not-Silent Meeting:
Friends greeted the mother and the boy. The mother attempted to apologize. No one was having any of that. We knew that we had experience a first rate Quaker meeting. We know that the purpose of meeting is not to escape from the world to a place quiet enough to listen, but to learn to listen well enough that we can listen anywhere, under any conditions. It had been a good and rewarding morning’s practicum. We were grateful. There was not a single kvetcher, not a single grumbler, not then, not later.

One of those present was a new attender, a new Christian, a new Quaker. She is a transgendered woman. She has lots of tattoos. She was checking us out, watchful. She had been burned by church people. She walked up to me after meeting and said “Well, hmm. I guess you really mean it. I guess everyone really is welcome, wow. Walking the talk, hmm.”

God told the psalmist, Be still and know that I am God. Quakers like that verse. Many think the stillness referred to means silence. It does not. The Hebrew verb means to relax, let go, stop trying so hard, release. In order to see God, you have to stop striving, stop relying on your own strength. You have to give up your notions of how things should be. You have to let go of preferences and pet peeves. You have to open yourself up to the uncomfortable.

Then God shows up.

Because I loved this post so very much and I wanted to share it with each of you, I intended to blog about it today. Perhaps it was just coincidence that I received an email message from my LDS ward this morning that illustrated the contrast between the Quaker approach to worship and the Mormon way. My ward's bishopric sent out a notice to each of the ward members encouraging them to follow the guidelines for reverence set forth in this article by Orson Scott Card (a well-known SF writer and active Mormon). In this piece Card offers a list of simple rules to enforce obedience and reverence in children. He says that when a young child begins to be loud or unruly, their parent must remove them from the meeting immediately and physically confine them in their arms. Some of his instructions:
1) Hold the child firmly in your arms (but not so tightly as to hurt).
2) Hold him in front of you so that he is looking into your eyes. Don't hold him at your shoulder, like a burping baby, or he'll kick you mercilessly. And never hold him on your lap so he is looking away from you, toward all the pleasing distractions of the foyer.
3)His arms must not be free, and any limbs that he is flailing about must be made immobile. It is essential that you achieve this through persistence, not through pain. That is, don't grip him so tightly that he stops struggling because it hurts. Rather grip him firmly enough that he can't get his limbs free, but whenever he stops struggling there is no pain or even discomfort. In fact, when he isn't struggling, he finds that he is merely being held close to the warm body of his loving parent.

Card also adds details of what the parents are to say to the child and then how to reward them for subsequent reverent behavior. He states that he has "never seen this fail" to produce the desired behavior modification in children and asserts
If all parents would establish clear rules for their children, and, by persuasion and longsuffering, labor to bring them into compliance with good rules of behavior, not only would our [church] meetings no longer sound like zoos, but within a generation our foyers would be empty because everyone would be in the meeting.

Our children and each new generation of adults, blessed with skills of self-control learned young, would find themselves living in a world that was more civilized because Mormon parents, at least, were no longer raising barbarian children.

Am I the only one who found his rhetoric a bit over the top? Sigh....[and to be honest, I suspect that the din on my ward is much more a product of an overly-large ward that needs to be split and not necessarily about unruly children...]

So John and I have amazingly well-behaved kids. Though I am reticent to take any credit for their goodness, I believe that a large measure of their ability to act appropriately--even in long boring meetings--comes from tolerance and respect. Not merely from learning to respect others, but from being tolerated and respected themselves. We have not tried to "break" the will of our children. Rather, we've relished each stage of their development and understood that it's not appropriate to expect the same behavior of a 3 year-old that you expect from a 13 or a 30 year-old. Likewise, we have regarded our kids' opinions and ideas highly and have tried to hear their frustrations rather than assert our own expectations on them.

And, honestly, I suspect that if Jesus were to visit my ward's sacrament meeting, he wouldn't be sitting on the stand and wishing for parents to more dutifully restrain their young ones.
Rather, I imagine him in his role as a mother hen (see Matthew 23:7), calling his children to himself, enfolding them in his arms and letting each of them know that they are loved, just as they are. And explaining that he instilled children with a sense of wonder and curiosity and strong voices. That these are divine gifts. And that these little ones have much to teach us.

Especially those of us who have forgotten what it means to 'become as a little child':
1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. (KJV Matthew 18:1-4)

11 comments:

amelia said...

you're not really surprised that orson scott card would use such hyperbolic rhetoric, are you? i mean, this is the same man who argues that gays and lesbians already have the right to marry--they can marry members of the opposite sex just like the rest of us--so they're up in a dither over nothing... :)

it makes me sad that your bishop would find it appropriate to distribute such advice. i imagine doing so is as much a product of generational attitudes as mormon culture (it's certainly a product of mormon culture; i just think younger generation mormons don't subscribe to such ideas as much).

at the end of the day, i do think behavior is important. and i do think parents have a responsibility to actively teach their children good behavior. but i agree with you--it's more likely to be learned when the desired behavior is modeled; and even more likely if the desired behavior is based on principles of respect and love that are symbiotic, rather than hierarchical.

JohnR said...

In all fairness, there are Quakers who get upset at noises produced during silent worship, and children generally take the class option over meditation. And I think in both settings the focus is on removing distractions so that everyone there can listen.

What I think is interesting is what the listener's focus is on in each meeting. In Mormonism, the *emphasis* is on the authoritative voices, with the spirit stamping approval, while in Quaker meetings the spirit/inner voice I think takes precedence, and the external voices/sounds add to that. The use of time, seating arrangement, and (non)presence of authoritative texts/quotes all serve to reinforce one or the other. Of course, there are individual exceptions in both environments.

jana said...

I should add, too, that all Quakers certainly wouldn't feel the same way as the one quoted here, nor would all Mormons side with OSC, but the contrast is interesting, n'est-ce pas?

Behind the Infamous Veil said...

oh, jana, thank you for this. *sigh.* I'm just remembering the days when I had 6 children under 8 and all the glares we got in Sacrament Meeting. Often people would get up and move so they didn't have to sit near us. And we tried _so hard._ But OSC doesn't say what to do when you only have 2 parents and 4 of your children are misbehaving! But guess what? They all grew up to be able to sit quietly for an hour at a time, and now I am the loudest and the most fidgety on the row.

john.white said...

I reserve my frowns for the Quakers frowning at the loud kids. Wait, that doesn't work, does it?

I immediately flashed on a friend of ours who visited with her squirming, vocalizing son and felt the need to exit with him. It was so exactly what was described here. Whether OSC's description is mainstream or not, I can understand the perceived pressure to not disturb other people.

In this case, I was sad that we'd failed at communicating that staying with Baby was just fine. Maybe she'll see this and tell us what she thought?

Sara said...

Nice one.

madhousewife said...

Great post, Jana. I sustain it!

As a teenager I would sometimes visit the singles ward with my older sister, and I was struck by how "reverent," i.e. quiet, it was. I must admit that I found it refreshing. It's easier to worship--or feel like worshiping--in a quiet environment. But once I was in a family ward sacrament meeting when a high councilor spoke about how much more he enjoyed visiting the wards with children--that the singles wards were quieter, but the family wards seemed to have more vitality. Still being single at the time, I thought he was nuts. :) I still think I prefer a quiet atmosphere--well, not that I'd know because I hardly ever get one...and maybe that's why I prefer it... Anyway, now that I have kids--and have been through some very vitality-filled sacrament meetings with them--I often think of this man's proclaimed preference for the noisy meetings, especially when we get reprimands from the pulpit for not controlling our children. Maybe the high councilor was just trying to justify the Mormon practice of having too many children and not enough silence :) , but still, I'm grateful for his perspective, all these years later.

I was also touched by that story about the non-silent silent worship. As the parent of autistic kids, I was feeling that mother's discomfort. (It was almost as though someone had cribbed the notes from one of my daughter's many non-silent appearances at church.) But I have to say that people in my ward, for the most part, are very understanding and helpful with my kids. I think more Mormons are trying to emphasize the other aspects of reverence, but we just can't get past the fact that we want things quiet. Maybe because true reverence is so hard, the feat of achieving silence in young children seems easy by comparison.

amelia said...

i think madhousewife is right: true reverence is hard. and silence facilitates moving towards true reverence. so the desire for silence is not always just an adherence to surface manifestations of something that should be internal; it's also (often, in my opinion) a longing for reverence and peace when those things are hard to achieve and knowing that silence--or the absence of distraction--can help accomplish that.

since reading this a few days ago and seeing caroline's take on the OSC piece, i've been thinking back to my childhood. i'm one of seven and we were by no means angelic (though i was probably the least outwardly misbehaved of the bunch). my brothers were (justifiably) known as "search" and "destroy" when they were children. but i don't remember there being all that much of a problem with us. i don't remember many trips into the foyer for myself or my siblings. i don't remember many stares in our direction because of our misbehavior. and we sat front and center--on the second pew--our whole lives (a habit i still can't break).

i'm not saying we were perfectly behaved; i simply think that there was less condemnation of a squirmy, not-always-quiet, large family than we sometimes think there would be. i think most people in church hear and see the kids and simply smile at their antics. and i think it's too bad that your bishop thinks it's necessary to suggest such tactics.

Caroline said...

Great post, Jana.

I've been annoyed recently by the use of the term 'reverent' when we're talking about keeping kids quiet. Reverence to me implies a worshipful state of being. What the Church leaders are asking from kids is generally just silence, not that kind of reverence.

I think I might be the friend with the squirming infant that John mentioned. I do tend to feel pressure to keep E from being too shrill and screechy in church meetings. Even among the Quakers, who were so nice about letting me know beforehand that it was ok if the baby made sounds, I just didn't feel comfortable staying. I would have felt stressed out if the baby was making noise while others were trying to meditate. Ironically, I feel more comfortable with E making noise in LDS meetings, since it's already pretty loud in there anyway.

john.white said...

Caroline: Interesting. Maybe if there was another baby or two there vocalizing, you would have felt more comfortable?

cprolf said...

That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read about reverence and children! I have been working in the primary of the L.D.S.church for years and I have never been encouraged let alone instructed to treat children in such a manner. What church were you attending???