Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thanks to the Quakers

Guest post by Allison
My husband and I spent the past five years connected with peaceful, loving Quaker educators when our sons attended Princeton Friends School (left). The experience, which immersed us in Quaker values, also helped draw me deeper into my own faith tradition of Catholicism.

Greg and I both are products of public school systems and public universities. Both of our mothers worked as public school teachers. So we  never considered private schools—religious or independent—as an option for our sons. When we bought a house in New Jersey in 1997, we chose a town with a reputation for strong public schools and willingly paid high property taxes for a small house so our boys could attend public schools.

But our lives veered on Sept. 11, 2001, when Greg narrowly survived the attack on the World Trade Center, escaping from the 68th floor of Tower 1 eleven minutes before it fell. The attack happened one day before our older son Gabriel’s fifth birthday and just days into his kindergarten year.

While we did everything to shield Gabriel from the effects of the attacks, he was profoundly affected by the loss of his father’s workplace and dozens of his father’s colleagues and friends. By second grade, it was obvious Gabriel needed a smaller, more nurturing school. We were delighted to discover Princeton Friends School, which as part of its mission “recognize and nurture the spirit in each child within a community of learners.”

When the school offered both our sons scholarships, we jumped at the opportunity. And a great opportunity it proved to be for us.

The Quaker religion is relatively new. A little more than three hundred years ago, Englishman George Fox, the son of devout Anglicans,  founded the sect because he was disenchanted with the ritualism of the Church of England.

I admire Quakers’ moral courage. Historically, followers have been in the forefront of promoting equal rights for women and abolishing slavery in the United States. Prominent Quaker women include Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony. Quakers coordinated the Underground Railroad, helping black slaves find their way to freedom in Canada. They also have been in the forefront of prison reform, treatment of the mentally ill, and abolition of the death penalty, all social justice issues dear to my Catholic heart.

At the Princeton Friends School, the community focuses heavily on serving one another, and the larger community. Children are trained to shake hands, look adults in the eye, say good morning, and hold open doors to others. Monthly, all children, teachers, and administrators engage in community service. Here, our sons were blessed to witness faith in action.

The school is small, deliberately so. About 125 students attend from nursery school to eighth grade. This means no one—not faculty, parents, or students—has the luxury of not getting along with anyone else. My children learned, as did my husband and I, that one could not push another person away.

I carried that lesson back to my own life and parish. It’s all too easy for us Americans to switch jobs, switch neighborhoods, heck, even switch spouses when things aren’t going our way. I learned from the Quakers the value of figuring out how to get along with others, trying to find common ground even when it appeared there is none.

While the school doesn’t teach classes on religion or spirituality, it does set aside time and space for worship. Every Friday, the entire school community gathers in an 18th-century meetinghouse for Settling In, which is modeled after the Quaker Meeting for Worship. It was moving for me to see children and adults gather, largely in silence, with one voice or another every now and then speaking of insights gained from this meditation.

Thus, I learned from the Quakers to cherish even more the Catholic value of silence.  No spiritual experience for me  compares to being in the silence of a sanctuary where the Blessed Sacrament resides.

While I grew to love and respect the Quaker faith, being immersed in it also helped me to clarify my own faith.

Most Quaker communities eschew both clergy and creed. The followers I know are  more focused on social action and pacificism than on theology and formal worship.

For me, the Church’s authority is a way to mitigate the potential for cults of personalty around a particular leader or the sense we can create Eden here on earth through our own kind actions. The Nicene Creed, along with the Beatitudes, grounds my beliefs and guides me daily.

My family will be forever grateful to Princeton Friends School, a community of peaceful, loving learners, for sheltering us during a difficult time. I also am grateful the Quakers we met helped me feel even more at home in my own faith.