A man may look on glass
"A man may look on glass, on it may stay his eye, or if he pleaseth through it pass, and then the heaven espy.” George Herbert (1593 – 1633)
Marigold Bentley is Head of Peace Programmes and Faith Relations for Quakers in Britain.
I have been pertinently reminded of these words of George Herbert whilst spending so many hours in COVID-19 time, staring at a screen but of course, looking beyond that screen to the faces and often the homes of fellow Quakers, colleagues and the wider family of faithful people. Herbert was writing during a time of enormous religious and political upheaval and suffering which gave rise to Quakerism later that century. His writing challenged readers to think for themselves about their religious lives. This is also such a time.
Quaker meeting for worship across these islands, with its focus on the people who attend and an absence of liturgy has moved mostly seamlessly online. We are aware that there are a number of folks who are not happy with computers, and options and recommendations for silent worship have been offered and taken up. Each Sunday morning there are silent meetings held both in physical isolation and online with a reading offered beforehand and spoken ministry given across the airways as Friends feel so called. Quakerism embraces silence and acknowledges connection beyond words, and it is a joy to sit in silence with others, whether physically in the same room or not. We have welcomed Quakers to our meetings from across the world in a way not experienced before. Quakers with physical challenges report that they have felt more able to attend worship than they would be in a meeting house. Adjustments have been made to enable people to hear each other well – something not always possible in a room together. The many miles between meeting houses have melted away and we have enjoyed seeing each others faces at the click of a button.
Quakers nationally have engaged enthusiastically with the many interchurch and interfaith meetings which have taken place so rapidly over the past few months, playing a small part in the rich ecumenical life across Britain and beyond. The opportunities for study, for conversation and for engagement have been many. Our focus is on the world we are constantly seeking to build, whilst keeping people and planet safe from harm.
COVID 19 has been a shocking reminder to us all of the things that really matter – and many of us are recommitting to building a better world post- pandemic. We have been given a glimpse of how things can be. We have breathed air made clean by the absence of traffic. We have experienced the joy of sharing and caring for one another. We have publicly recognised the value of health workers. We can now work together for a world in which right relationships are established with the natural world, in which inequality and greed are challenged and defeated and where war is no longer planned for and delivered.
Do I espy heaven through the computer screen? Most surely I do. I see the commitment of all kinds of people including Quakers wanting to connect with one another, listening carefully to wide range of views and recommitting to shared work. Alongside suffering and grief, COVID 19 has engendered astonishing creativity and compassion. These go hand in hand with the world we are seeking to build each day. I think that by looking into the patchwork of faces, threaded together by our faithful connections, our faces – all of us – portray the heaven we seek to realise together.
Marigold Bentley previously worked for Quakers overseas, including with the Coptic church in Egypt, at the Quaker United Nations Offices in New York, and in peacebuilding in former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland. Her current work includes ecumenical relations across Britain and peace and disarmament. Marigold is a member of Dorset and South Wiltshire Quakers and attends Dorchester Local Quaker Meeting.