Other than the radiator clanking in the corner on a chilly December night, the Massachusetts Hall classroom was silent, despite the dozen or so students, two staff members and one professor sitting there. Most were breathing slowly, their eyes shut, their faces relaxed.
The silence was intentional, as this was the second Quaker meeting of the semester. Earlier in the fall, Jake Reiben ’17 had approached Bob Ives, Bowdoin’s religious and spiritual life director, to ask for help starting a new Quaker group on campus. Reiben was also supported by Will Gantt ’17, who graduated from a Quaker high school in Baltimore.
Ives said he was pleased to see a Quaker meeting established at Bowdoin. “The silence of a Quaker meeting will not only be meaningful for those from a Quaker tradition, but for any students seeking quiet, balance and inner peace,” he noted.
While not a practicing Quaker, Reiben says he values the religion’s tradition of meditative meetings, which provide a chance for both self-reflection and group cohesion. “Some describe it as collective meditation,” he said. Reiben, like Gantt, attended a Quaker high school — his in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Prior to the Wednesday night meeting in Massachusetts Hall, Reiben had arranged several chairs in a circle. He then sat quietly, purposefully not greeting people as they entered (although in future meetings they’ll do a round of introductions, he said). A brief written introduction was available at the door, asking that new arrivals enter silently and find a seat. “This is not a guided gathering,” he explained. “If you feel moved to share a poem, piece of writing, or any thought on your mind, feel free to stand and share.”
Quakers stand up to speak only if they are deeply compelled to say something to the group. “As you’re reflecting, if you feel moved to say something that has come to your mind, you can,” Reiben said. Others just listen. Quick retorts or rebuttals are not encouraged as the meetings are not intended for discussion or debate.
“As my 9th grade teacher said, it is a conversation in silence,” Gantt said. “You sit and get to be present with everyone else in the room in a peaceful and unusual way.”
Although sitting in silence with people might feel uncomfortable to some, Gantt — who has been attending Quaker meetings since he was five — finds them special and sacred, particularly with people he doesn’t know. “It’s really neat to sit with strangers together in a peaceful place. It’s not like waiting in line or at the doctor’s office. You’re sharing something personal with people you don’t know.”
For Reiben, the meetings that involve people speaking and sharing their ruminations make him feel more in touch with the ideas of people around him. “You get a pulse of the community,” he said.
Gantt said he supported Reiben when he heard about his plans for the meetings, although he felt hesitant at first about being considered a leader of the service since he’s not a “born-and-bred Quaker.” His parents aren’t Quakers, and Gantt considers himself an agnostic.
Now, though, Gantt’s worries have faded and he appreciates the weekly ritual. “Only now do I realize how important it was as a routine,” he said. “It’s a way to slow down in the middle of the week…It’s just a really good reminder to check in with yourself, often.”
Despite their silent, peaceful nature, Quaker meetings seem a natural fit for a high-energy, cerebral community, such as Bowdoin. “It’s a good means for students to collect themselves and share things in a rigorous academic environment,” Reiben said. “The thing I like about Quakerism is it respects and values the voice of others. It’s a collective process of listening to multiple voices.”