We were ten minutes into the Sunday service before I realized it had started.
I had taken a dirt road a few hundred yards into the grounds of Sylvester Manor off North Ferry Road last Sunday morning, parking near a clearing of log benches set low to the mossy ground under the trees.
Except for birdcalls and traffic from the highway sounding like far away surf coming softly through the sunny morning, I was alone. Was I early? I checked my phone — it was just 10:30, right on time— and looking up I watched a fit, white-bearded man walking up the road toward me. “Good morning,” Jim Pugh said quietly, introducing himself and taking a seat on one of the logs.
I sat near him, asking how large the Quaker Meeting congregation was. “Today, this might be it,” he said, and then was silent, looking out at the woods.
Later he would tell me as many as 15 Friends would gather on summer Sundays.
His quietness was not rude or wary, but something formal, and I was reluctant to interrupt it.
Two blue jays were hopping branch to branch nearby as the raucous cry of a gull cruising overhead broke the quiet. I could see the gull sailing between breaks in the treetop canopy, flashes of white piercing the green. It was then that I realized Sunday church had started minutes ago without my knowledge.
I come from a time and place where you were born into institutions. For me there were three: the Democratic Party, the National League and the Roman Catholic Church. All three — one of them imparted literally from the cradle — took hold and still have a grip me.
But religion for me, in many ways, has more to do with a sense of identity than theology. I saw this paid in blood by spending time in Ireland years ago where, even though the war in the last quarter of the 20th century was fought over centuries-old class and economic oppression, religion was the box checked for you at birth deciding which side you would fight on.
In our time we see maniacs using religion to enlist soldiers in wars that in the end have little to do with theology and more to do with identity, and those foolproof recruiting tools of giving young men who have nothing to lose something to fight for.
I’ve always admired Quakers for their courage to embrace nonviolence and their refusal, when the U.S. still had a draft, to participate in wars.
I’m not a pacifist, but the wars my country has waged in my lifetime have all seemed misguided and dishonest. If I admire the Quakers for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War-era draft, and to protest the government for pursuing the war, I equally admire and respect the courage of the men of my generation who served. There’s no contradiction there. Serving our country in uniform and making sacrifices is honorable, just as refusing to do so out of conscience and taking the consequences, is honorable.
My thoughts drifted back to the woods in front of me. I broke the quiet — startled at how soft my voice was — telling Jim that this was my first time at a Quaker service and asking what was the drill. My voice had also startled the blue jays, which had come to within 10 feet, curious enough to get close to the two men sitting still and hushed on the logs.
Jim explained that this was a “silent meeting.” Some Quaker — or Friends — gatherings have agendas, but most are silent.
“There’s no clergy, no hierarchy for direction,” he said. Anyone in the meeting can speak about a spiritual matter, a personal observation or express a point of view, with the only rule being that when they’re finished there be a period of silence so people can consider the speaker’s point of view without immediately responding.
For me, raised Catholic, this is a radical concept, especially that bit about hierarchy and clergy. It’s always been radical and Quakers have paid a price for their religion, beginning with their origins in the 17th century in England and here in North America. Ralph J. Duvall, in his “The History of Shelter Island,” writes of persecutions of Quakers in New England that began in 1656 and lasted for years because their beliefs challenged the religious, and therefore the governmental, power structure.
The Friends, Duval wrote, were “subjected to cruel persecutions including imprisonment, starvation, banishment from their homes, flogged and branded with hot irons … John Rouse, son of Thomas Rouse, who was once owner of Shelter Island, had his ears cut off for being a Quaker.”
Duval tells the story of an elderly couple who had been imprisoned, whipped and nearly starved in Boston but were taken in and cared for, as were other Quakers, by the Sylvester family of Shelter Island.
John Green Leaf Whittier was inspired to write a poem about their ordeal and final sanctuary, with the lines: “A peaceful deathbed and a quiet grave/Where ocean walled, and wiser than his age,/ the Lord of Shelter scorned the bigot’s rage.”
There’s a small cemetery near the clearing where we sat. I broke the silence again to ask if that’s where Island Quakers are buried. “Quaker sympathizers,” Jim answered. “Quakers eschew any thing like graves or headstones, most preferring to be cremated and their ashes”— he opened a raised palm — “into the wind.”
Religions or belief systems that condemn violence, realize that the urge toward making war or oppressing fellow humans is not caught like a virus. It comes from somewhere within all of us, and must be recognized if it is ever to be purged. In Mac Griswold’s history of Sylvester Manor, “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” she writes about the Quaker’s belief of “a war against darkness within. When a Massachusetts inquisitor asked … [a] Friend where this ‘dark place’ was, the prisoner placed his hand over his heart and answered, ‘It is under my hand.’’’
Forty minutes after sitting down, I was ready to go and told Jim, thanking him, and remarking on the peace of the place.
“Nice to meet you,” he said. “We’re here every Sunday at 10:30.”
He pointed toward a small, simple pavilion not far away, open on all four sides, where the Friends can take shelter when it rains.