We go clockwise around the circle of folding chairs. Most of us are shy. We say our names and, per our leader’s prompt, something we like about Quakers. A shiny-headed man with a gold-tipped cane is one of the last to speak.
He sits close to me in the circle, wearing a dark blue suit and loafers and clutching two books to his lap. One is a Bible. He does not wear a wedding ring. He shifts positions constantly, putting varied amounts of weight on the cane as he tries to sit up straighter. He struggles to get his sentences out, lips moving frantically around sounds he cannot make. His dark eyes bug with the strain. When the words emerge they are painstakingly placed, each one a piece of fragile glassware set on a high shelf.
The sentence takes a good fifteen seconds to emerge. By the time it does, the Quakers and I are transfixed; we’re staring at him, and everyone is smiling. Mehmet Rona’s face splits into a grin. Exhausted and pleased, he snuggles back into his chair. Silence.
I think: My God, this man is a prophet.
Mehmet Rona has presence. In another life he might have been a politician or a door-to-door salesman; people are drawn to him like moths to light. At our break for tea, he moves around the circle to take hands, kissing fingers. He offers a ride to a woman when he learns she doesn’t have one. I tell the group I’m interested in conducting interviews with Cambridge Quakers, and am met with suspicious looks. Mehmet speaks up. “I’m…..in,” he proclaims, shakily raising a fist to the air. Everyone laughs. I flush to my scalp and beam at my bald knight in shining armor.
Mehmet the prophet speaks boldly. This particular session of New Lights (an evening teaching group affiliated with the local Friends Meeting) is predominated by ‘non-deists.’ Mehmet, quite obviously, finds their opinions blasphemous. He squints his licorice eyes in frustration when someone conflates God with natural beauty, or identifies Him as the creative impulse they feel before penning poetry. Mehmet adores the Friends Meeting. He exalts its prison fellowship and commitment to the poor. As a vegetarian pacifist, he’s at home here. Nevertheless, his God is bigger than a landscape or a good idea. I know he wishes he could speak more. When he does, everybody listens.
“The Quakers are hungry for Christ,” Mehmet tells me later, in private. “And they deny it.”
The Society of Friends first coalesced in 17th-century England around a group of Puritan dissenters: the most famous of these, George Fox. Shepherd and shoemaker turned theologian and preacher, drawings of Fox portray a hook-nosed gentleman dressed like the beloved oatmeal mascot. (Contrary to popular belief, Quaker Oats claims their beaming front man is neither Fox nor his contemporary, William Penn; he’s a fictional Friend named Larry.)
Depressed and dissatisfied by clerical advice and the political pandering of the English Civil War, Fox eventually accessed what he identified as true authority. In solitary prayer, he heard a voice: “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” No bishop’s robe or hefty tithe could improve or subsume Fox’s own intimate access to God. There was undiluted wisdom straight from the fount, and it was there for everyone. Fox and his followers envisioned their sect as “primitive Christianity revived.”
But at the Cambridge Meeting, most of the Quakers are not Christians.
Quaker worship means sitting in silence for exactly one hour. In Cambridge, that entails filling a bare, tallow-colored room with a predominantly white congregation, shoed in Birkenstocks and draped in scarves, mostly elderly. Some gaze at trees out the window. Some stare at their hands. All mediate, or talk to a higher power(s). Many are Buddhists. Some are atheists. Some are Jewish, some are lapsed Catholics. No text is read. No songs are sung. “Quaker” in Cambridge is a far cry from Fox’s unfettered but rigorous Protestantism.
The hour of worship isn’t always entirely silent. An individual can speak if he or she is ‘quaking’—overcome with the impulse to ‘give a message’ to the Meeting. Anyone can do this. As one member tells me, the Quakers are not so much a society of laypeople as they are a society of clergymen—each ministering to their own conception of God.
At the close of the hour, before homemade breads and tea, there are announcements: for climate change walks and camp-outs at nuclear power plants, for Israel-Palestine video screenings and singing in the streets. At Meeting, earthly actions collapse into religious worth. They are the sum of faith. The Quakers do good, even though at times they feel more like a left-wing service club than a unified religious community.
In the midst of it all, there is Mehmet, a bald sore thumb, proclaiming the Gospel whenever he can get words out. Why does he stay—why doesn’t he find a Baptist congregation to join, or a Catholic priest to hear his sins? It’s because in theory, what the Quakers have going on appeals to him—this unmediated means of communing with God.
Talking is hard labor for Mehmet. I watch flashes of delayed electricity working in the muscles of his forehead, popping his veins in frustrated embarrassment. Tongue, teeth, and lips collide and tangle. I silently cheer when they manage to cooperate, spitting out a word or fragment. Mehmet has primary progressive apraxia of speech. Often, the condition is caused by a left-hemisphere stroke—I’m not sure if this is what happened to him.
The eating itself is calming to Mehmet; the waitress knows him by name and meatless order. Mehmet comes to the Plough and Stars almost every day for lunch. It’s close to his apartment, accessible even with heavy dependence on a cane. We’ve got our hats and coats in a bundle together on the chair, and Mehmet is leaning forward to speak. Without his disease, he would be a lecturing professor, holding all the cards of wisdom and prestige. He dresses like an academic, clad in a dark suit jacket and sweater. But the power dynamics are wonky. I am the one that can articulate quickly, pulling words from recesses with ease.
It is poignant that the man who for decades practiced silence as spiritual discipline is now confined to it. He takes it lightly—“God wants me to shut up,” he chuckles—but still, it’s sad. Mehmet made his living as a renowned physicist; now, equations and proofs pool in the contours of his brain. Mehmet is funny; when he makes me laugh, his face goes radiant.
Mehmet loves words, and actively seeks God in collections of them. “The…Bible is prose….written…in poetry,” he opines. In 1989, hospitalized after a motorcycle accident, he read both Homeric epics, plowed through the King James Bible in its entirety, and taught himself Ancient Greek.
I’ve been attending Quaker Meetings for months. They aren’t easy. The noisiness of my own body is an impediment—the grumbles and pops of a stomach, the creaks of a tense jaw, the scratch of denim as I cross and re-cross my legs. I am so noisy.
In Morning Meeting, attendance 150 on average, ‘settling’ takes about fifteen minutes. That’s how long children are required to stew before being released to Day School. Tiny cries produce parental shushes. Little boots bump the benches. I like having the kids around. They give me cover to get comfortable.
It’s 10:35, and the room has filled. Nestled in my pew, I dispose of the ideas that come to mind most readily. Those ones are never about God. I fret over academic assignments I need to complete, wishing I had a pen and pad to make lists. God keeps the lilies and the sparrows, but what about me, bearing the petty burdens of grocery bills and cover letters and homesickness? I don’t know what it will be like to not have a bedroom at home next year. I don’t know how I will get up in the morning without hearing my roommates bustling around, turning on the shower water. But these worries lack gravitas; they aren’t noble. Can You speak to my condition, Lord? Even if You could, why would you want to?
This isn’t what I went to spend my hour on.
I picture a broom, knocking down cobwebs from the eaves of my brain—a pair of hands taking out the trash. I know the dust will be stirred up when the Meeting is over. For now, I move it into the corners.
Next, I must try not to fall asleep. Once, in Morning Meeting, I gave up. I slumped against the tallow-colored wall, closed my eyes, and shamelessly dozed. Every morning is a battle with leaden eyelids. I worry a little about how my mouth might hang open, how my breathing might grow labored. Perhaps I even snore a little.
I hear the spoken messages: a confession, a snippet of policy talk. I join the singing when it arrives (the same guy sings “Give Peace a Chance” almost every week.)
Finally, I approach something like prayer. It is shocking how tiresome conversation with God is these days. I must knead myself into it.
The Quaker meetings put the impetus on me. If I want to have an experience of worship, I must focus. There is no guidance from a speaker, no set of songs or parcel of text, just the cloudy space of my own thoughts. For some, like Mehmet, this is where the God of Israel lives—speaking into grey slimy tissues, washing them clean.
Turkey, the 1950s.Six-year-old Mehmet lived with his parents (culturally Muslim atheists) and his older, adopted brother (Armenian by birth, converted to Islam while living in Turkey).
The Armenian brother, disgusted with his father’s cankerous doubt, demanded that a lamb be sacrificed. His sin brought shame on the household; atonement was necessary. A lamb was ordered.
“I….played…with…the…lamb,” muses Mehmet. The sentence comes out surprisingly fluid, not much space between the words. I envision small, brown Mehmet in dust or grass, running wool through his fingers and kissing a pink nose. They’re running together, two young created things. I can see this in Mehmet’s eyes: unadulterated joy, decades old, all the fresher for being stored so long.
The next day, a man with a mustache arrived at the house and took the lamb from Mehmet. I imagine it came away from his scrawny arms with a bleat, a panicked scuffle of hooves that struck his collarbone.
“I…made…eye…contact….with…the lamb…at the moment…of slaughter,” stutters Mehmet. By this point I’m glued to him, elbows forward on the table, water glass and pen alike forgotten. Recollected blood runs in Mehmet’s irises: life leaking crimson for the sake of his father, whom he loved. But was it really necessary to kill the innocent?
“It…was…that…moment…I…found…my…religion,” whispers Mehmet. The blood in his eyes turns to tears. I flush. Mehmet pauses. He rasps a little around his breath. His tears collect, almost to the point of spill.
“You…write…” says the old man, “…I…collect…myself.”
Mehmet has lived a life of visions. In 1973, he was living in Ankara with his wife Josephine, teaching physics at a university. One night, he sat straight up in bed, waking his bride. She noticed fuzzy light, a halo maybe, tangled in his hair.
Mehmet dreamt he was strolling into his living room. In the dream, he peered at a print of Mona Lisa hanging on the wall. La Joconde, Mehmet insists, became the Virgin Mary. Hand outstretched, she tugged Mehmet into the canvas. Suddenly, he was in Biblical times, the illustrations in my purple book blown to size. Mehmet doesn’t provide details of what he saw after that. It’s enough to know that he saw something.
Mehmet’s official conversion was anticlimactic. In 1981, during the baptism of his godson, a priest asked the Turkish professor if he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Mehmet, of course, said yes—he had for decades, even if this ceremony was his first time articulating the choice. “That’s so beautiful, so subtle,” I murmur. “After all that time.” Mehmet approves: “I’m…glad…you…see…the…beauty…in it.”
And how did Mehmet become a Quaker? The whole thing is a big joke. He made friends with a man named Michael Shannahan, an Irish guy with seven children. After a few months of shared meals, Mehmet asked Michael to introduce him to his parish priest. Stereotypes were foiled; Michael was a Quaker. From then on, Mehmet was a Meeting-goer.
Mehmet has lived a life of tragedies. Michael Shannahan went through a horrible divorce with a wife “addicted to being pregnant,” and drank a lot. For months, Mehmet spent all his free time sitting with his friend. Mehmet’s motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down for a year and a half. His own marriage with Josephine crumbled. This mysterious illness rendered him mute in all settings except the most controlled and intentional. And yet he is all praise, all love.
Mehmet has arrested me. He grasps my hand when proving a point. He makes me order dessert, and won’t let me pay for my meal. Eying my notebook, he tells me he has a “similar fetish” for luscious journals and smooth pens. He praises my home city. He tells his waitress friend what to do with his untouched half of pizza. “Oh, Gary?” she says. “Of course.” It’s Mehmet’s ritual to apportion his meals to the needy. For all his etherealness, Mehmet is a man of the people, offering rides and food and compliments with abandon. “My…whole…life,” he tells me, “people…have said…I have a…transparency…for God. I…leak…my faith.”
It’s true: Mehmet has a rare life of allegories, a symbolic pattern you can’t ignore. The Lamb of God, the faith of a small boy. The silver tip of a knife pulverizing innocence, all the sadness of the world spilled from sheep veins.
Mehmet himself is a symbol for holy silence. In the still of Meeting, he comes to know a Lord he has always encountered through noticing and listening and the love of others—not through traditional avenues. “My…relationship…with Christ…is very intense,” he says. Natural. Felt. “Meetings…help me…to organize that.” His relationship with people is intense too. “You…have to love…other…human beings,” he insists—a simple sentence made overwhelming by palsied hands and desperate eyes. He wants me to understand—there are so many ways to know this God. One’s own mind can be a cathedral; one’s own life can be the liturgy.
When I was a child, God and I met in silence. Like many American families, mine didn’t attend church. Yet even without a pastor’s spoken word for it, I always knew God existed. I liked Him. Whenever our cat got lost in the fields behind our house, I wrote God suppliant letters in fat felt marker. I plunked His spirituals in my piano lessons, singing along as I practiced.
I never learned about God. I had no sermons to listen to, no Sunday school lessons to complete, no verses to memorize for candies. I hadn’t heard any of the gossip: that some people didn’t believe in Him, or denounced His definition of justice, or found his Son’s claims—the one Way, Truth, Life, etc.—restrictive. My relationship with the Creator was all intuition and innocence. After bedtime, door closed, I thought over spelling tests and worried about friends at school. I felt listened to. God was my friend.
When my father sang to me in the bathtub, or directed magic shows with me, or helped me with math homework, God was there. When my mother gave up her teaching job to raise me, shuttling me to the library and the zoo and the dentist, God was there. My parents indefatigably modeled sacrifice and adoration, and we never stepped foot in a sanctuary.
As a little girl, I remember feeling guilty about not going to church. I wanted my family of four busy on Sunday mornings. I wanted us to acquire teachings and talk about them together, or pray before dinner like my friends’ families. I wanted us to follow the rules. Now as an adult, I choose a church with a sermon and songs and communion and structure—because there’s something good about that too: having spoken norms and covenant community and a pastor I trust to keep me on my toes. Church matters.
But “the church” is fluid, and Mehmet understands this, the Quakers understand this: how God can operate covertly, in an unstructured Sunday service where there is nothing but calm, in the six other days of a week. And while I’m personally convicted that God must be at the center of the Meeting in order for it to operate as a religious community—a God that looks like Christ—I find the fluidity somewhat refreshing, indicative of how invasive He can be.
God is vast. This has always been an idea that both terrifies me—how can I believe in something I can never see the boundaries of?—and comforts me—that’s what faith is all about. And don’t you want faith in something your limited mind can’t fully comprehend, can never completely espouse in a sermon or hymnal?
When I rise to leave the table, Mehmet embraces me. He kisses me on the cheek twice, warm and soft, loneliness incarnate in the way he holds me close. He tells me he’d like to keep getting lunch, please. I feel unconditionally loved in the grit of the city. I feel touched by God.