Saturday, December 15, 2007


I've just written my report for STAC (a nice Quaker trust who gave me funding) about the Spiritual Friendships course I went on at Woodbrooke. I know I've been pretty slack at blogging lately (1 phoneline/internet connection between 4 of us with 2 of us also trying to do Summer Gathering planning - yes, I know, again - doesn't make for much internet leisure time!) so this is a bit of a cut and paste job... my apologies to those who've already heard most of this before!

The idea of attending this course originally came up because Sarah wanted to do a Woodbrooke course that would be useful for the YF community here, I was to go with her as a support person/elder. Having looked at the Woodbrooke programme for when we would be in the UK and being mindful of the various current issues this one seemed to fit the bill nicely. Then of course Sarah had the most horrendous first trimester-plus-a-bit I've ever come across and to cut a long story short I ended up going alone!

So I attended the course very mindful that in effect I was there because of the leadings of others. That awareness, I think, changed my approach to the course - instead of just participating for my own benefit I was constantly 'seeing it through many eyes', looking for that something that would translate across the globe and help us work towards us building on our strengths as a YF community and to our place and contribution to the wider YM.

Very quickly, despite my still considerably jetlagged state, I realised that apart from the facilitator I was probably the most experienced member of the group in terms of 'spiritual friendships'. I think I am right in thinking that I was also the only one present who had come to Quakerism as a child and had had the benefit of working my way through many Quaker events for young people and then Young Friends which went a long way to explain the imbalance in experience.

Being with a group of predominantly 'older' Friends (I think about 4 of the 10 of us were under 60 and I was the youngest) gave me an extremely valuable insight into this group which is predominant in Friends both sides of the world. I learned not only from those present but what our facilitator shared of others' similar stories. Those who become convinced Friends at 40-60+ yrs of age are aften 'refugees' from other churches and faiths, there is often a lot of hurt, anger and pain associated with their past associations and an instinctive lack of trust, a sense of vulnerablity and an unwillingness to put themselves in a position where they percieve that they may be hurt again. Many have left their previous churches because of disagreements over doctorine, having been told that they are 'wrong' in their beliefs/opinions/questioning and in some cases that they are damned, condemned to hell etc. Such veherment rejection and condemnation unsurprisingly takes its toll on people.

As a result we spent a lot of time talking about building trust in spiritual relationships, setting boundaries and a 'framework for friendship'. For me this was very familiar as it would be to anyone who has been to Link Groups, Summer School, JYF camp or similar. Concepts such as only sharing what has been said with permission, 'what's said in the group stays in the group', listening attentively rather than thinking about what you wish to say, taking it in turns and not interupting, everyone's contribution being valued and accepted etc, I realised I had come to take for granted over the last 25 years. For several present though they were new, challenging and liberating. At this point I started to understand more what some of the older Friends had meant when they had told YFs at Yearly Meeting that YFs had a lot to offer, and why that was so.

Joycelin Dawes, our facilitator, introduced us to Martin Buber's concept of a 'space that is neither I nor Thou but a place where 'The Other' is present between and amongst I and Thou, there are fluid, and respectful, boundaries and creative possibility.' - ie introducing the 'spiritual' aspect of the friendships. She had started her work some years ago with what she called 'barefoot befriending' - training people going out into the community to be a supportive friendly presence, not counsellors or advisors but simply to befriend, listen to and support those isolated and in need. She realised that whilst this met many needs it was designed to be one way although many befrienders found the experience rewarding it could be draining and something more was needed to support their needs. In exploring this and using similar techniques in other settings she realised there was scope for bringing into her work a spiritual dimension - the 'spiritual friendships' we were building during the course drew on, amongst other things, a combination of 'worship sharing', 'creative listening', co-counselling and of course any other friendship. I think all of us felt throughout the course that there was a sense of 'gatheredness' to our sharing similar to that of a deep Meeting for Worship.

Given that we spent several days on the subject I don't think I can really do it justice in one blog post! Maybe I'll come back to it again some time...

Quite where I take this now I am still unclear about. As far as the YF community itself is concerned I think we need to appreciate more what we already have. Friends on the course were stunned to hear that much of what they were experiencing was a common experience for many young people and YFs around the world.

At the end of the course several spoke of a sense of loss and grief at us parting and wondered how they could possibly convey that to their Meetings let alone build up such friendships again. My Summer School kids back in the UK were faced with that aged 11! My suggestion was to look to the younger members of their Meeting who have been to camps, Junior Yearly Meetings etc as they know only too well the blues of going 'back to reality'. I have heard older Friends within our YM who have spent terms at Pendle Hill and Woodbrooke speak of that same sense of loss and difficulty in building up again the kind of deep spiritual friendships that had become part of their daily life there. YFs are not alone in feeling isolated and not understood within their Meetings!

For our physical YF community at camp perhaps there is more we could do. At JYF camps it is the norm to go over such ground rules like the 'framework to friendship' that we drew up on the course - perhaps there is scope for doing likewise at YF Camp rather than assuming everyone takes it as read, we have far fewer formal sessions outwith our Meeting for Worship for Business which is probably why it currently doesn't happen. Someone on the course wistfully said how they wished all friendships could be on such terms as we'd set out - taking a step towards such a reality at camp is possibly something to consider.

I have come back with far more questions than answers and a much greater appreciation of the experiences I've had.In terms of the YM it is comforting to know that it's never too late to become part of such friendships, one member of our group was in his 80s! (so those 'TOW's have no excuse)

I also know that this is something others have to take a lead on within the YF community rather than me, I really am getting too old to be a YF! I hope that way will open to take this discussion further and bear fruit. Time for those of us with the JYF/YF/etc experience to go out and be patterns and examples again methinks =)