Timeless Quaker Wisdom for this Perilous Present Moment: An interview with Paulette Meier

I was recently able to talk to Quaker activist and singer Paulette Meier, about the spiritual and practical riches of the Society of Friends, and ways that all of us can find peace and grounding in this beautiful tradition. You’ll want to check out her albums, especially Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong, Come Join the Circle (for kids of all ages), and Wellsprings of Life: Quaker Wisdom in Chant. Read on..! (Note: Updated July 12, 2020) 

Hi, Paulette. We’re talking now amid a pandemic—COVID-19—that’s unprecedented in many of our lives. We’re feeling stressed, and scared: about the disease itself, about the impacts to our livelihoods, and about a widespread failure of leadership, socially and politically. How does Quaker wisdom speak to times like these?

Actually, Mike, Quakerism began in 17th century England at a time that was also filled with trauma and peril. Two civil wars ravaged the country, and the plague killed 100,000 people in London alone, followed by the Great Fire that burnt the city down, leaving thousands homeless. There was a great deal of corruption and mistrust of political leaders, and brutal punishments were doled out to those who were deemed a political threat, not the least of which were the Quakers. With conditions that seemed almost apocalyptic, many people searched for deeper meaning in their lives than what they could find from the clerical churches. When George Fox and others began speaking of the need to turn inward for meaning and direction, thousands were drawn to their message. People discovered a depth of hidden truth about themselves and their world when they delved deep into silent contemplation, and the experience was amplified when they did this communally. In one of the quotes by George Fox I set to song, he says:
All meet together everywhere, and in your meetings wait upon the Lord. And take heed of forming words, but mind the Power, and know that which is eternal, which will keep you all in unity, walking in the Spirit, and will let you see the Lord near you and among you.

Through their silent meetings, early Quakers “became suddenly conscious of a mysterious and loving presence in themselves and in the whole universe,  only to submit everything they thought and did to the power and life of the Spirit.” (Source.) I think that in the times we are living in, realizing the dire consequences of climate change, collapse of our economy, and this and likely future pandemics, Quaker practice has much to offer to help us approach the simplicity, humility, inner peace, and love that both we and the world need—perhaps now more than ever.

So who are the Friends?

In 17th-century England, at a time of civil unrest and great religious ferment, the first Quakers found a collective way, through silent waiting, into the radical transformation of consciousness that Jesus invited his followers into. There were a lot of people who were unhappy at the time with the existing denominations, especially the Anglican Church, which collected taxes to pay professional clergy who did not necessarily have a real calling to the spiritual life. There was a hunger for more meaningful spiritual experience, and one such seeker, a mystic named George Fox, had visions that moved him to gather all these seekers together and to teach them that what they were seeking was within them. It was like a “a Pentecostal moment in time,“ because as hundreds of people gathered together in centered stillness, they had deep transformational experiences based on their experience of what they called “the Light of Christ within.” This Light opened them to see the truth of their own lives, to see their own ego-based behaviors, and to see how the society they were living in was not in alignment with the ultimate truth of Love.

This new seeing, as painful as it could be, ultimately filled them with deep peace and joy—the peace, as Jesus said, that “passes all understanding.” The Quaker movement was seen as a huge threat to the state and Church of England, and later to the Puritans as well. The Quakers—also known as the Religious Society of Friends—had no use for the hierarchy, nor the rites and rituals of the church, and believed they were re-igniting primitive Christianity.  They refused to pay the church taxes or to carry out social norms that put one class of people higher than another, such as tipping one’s hat to a person of nobility. They were also opposed to war and violence, which did not help their situation with the state. It was their deep conviction and inner peace that allowed them to withstand the brutal oppression that came down on them in the form of long jail sentences, confiscation of property, and torture. Thousands were imprisoned and hundreds died there. William Penn was owed a big debt by the King of England, and he managed to acquire land in the American colony, which is how so many Quakers were able to flee English persecution and come here, where they played a huge role in establishing freedom of religion in the formation of the U.S.


In the past six weeks, the world has changed yet again. America seems to be having a racial awakening in the light of the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among so many others. What does Quaker wisdom have to say in this time of extraordinary tension, and the search for real and lasting justice?

I think Cornell West’s words, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” is an ideal that has motivated Friends over the centuries, as they took on leadership roles in the movements for abolition, women’s suffrage, anti-war, and many others.  Quaker wisdom, like all Wisdom traditions, offers its adherents an inward path to weather the tumult and storms that times like these have brought — conditions that could otherwise lead to despair.

Bayard Rustin, the African American gay Civil Rights activist (1912-1987), who advised Dr. King on non-violent strategy and organized the 1963 March on Washington, attributed his activism to his Quaker upbringing. His resilience in the face of brutal punishment, working on a chain gang for conscientious objection and later being ostracized because of his out gay identity, was certainly influenced by grounding in Quaker practice and principles.

This is not to say that Quakers have been saints in the struggle against racism. Although Quaker campaigns to end slavery began as early as the 1600s, it wasn’t till 1776 that owning slaves was prohibited for all Quakers. And although Friends did much to establish schools and supports for freed slaves after Emancipation, they carried their own prejudices, as the book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship ⁠— written two contemporary Quaker women ⁠— reveals. I think white supremacy is so insidious that even people with the highest ideals and depth of spiritual practice are not immune to its power. Today there is a strong commitment in the Society of Friends to own up to these wrongs, to build awareness of how racism affects us all, and to take action to end it.

It occurs to me that there are types of silence in the face of injustice that are a form of complicity, and a kind of contemplative silence that creates space for healing. Let’s talk about “silent” meetings — how does your work as a singer fit in with Quaker meetings for worship?

Today, there are different denominations of Friends in the U.S. and in Africa, who generally share the primary Quaker values of equality, peace, integrity and simplicity, but some have moved to a more mainline Protestant approach to worship and theology. But the denomination I am a part of, similar to the modern-day Quakers in England, still meet in silent waiting on the Spirit, which we call “Meeting for Worship.”  We have no ordained ministers, no rote prayers, no hymn singing. We meet in silence, but someone may be led by the movement of the Spirit to break the silence and offer an unscripted, spontaneous message to the community. This is called “vocal ministry.” Each meeting is different; we never know what will happen. The clue that a message is to be shared is often a physical one — one’s body literally starts to tremble. (The name “Quaker” was a derogatory name given to the early Friends, but we adopted it for ourselves!)  Sometimes in Meeting for Worship nothing is said, but it’s possible to feel a coalescing of energy in the group that is quite amazing. The sense of communion is palpable. It’s like we’ve been enveloped in an energy field that unites us as one. We call this a “gathered meeting.”

For me, vocal ministry has usually come by way of a song. Sometimes a song will come to me as soon as I enter the meeting room. Once when this happened, the song just kept replaying in my mind until someone else stood up and began speaking about that very song! This is an example of what can happen when a meeting is truly what we call “gathered.” At some point, I could hold it back no longer and had to sing it. Once I began putting quotations from the founding Quakers to song (which I did in order to memorize them for myself), they gradually began to come up as vocal ministry.  Sometimes it felt like these early Friends were literally speaking through me! While Quakers in earlier centuries did not sing or play music communally, seeing it as a distraction from inward listening, several older Friends have shared with me stories of their grandparents singing their vocal ministry in a chant-like style, much like the songs on my album.

Tell us more about yourself, Paulette. You come from an activist / folk musician background, right? What was your spiritual grounding in childhood? What drew you to the Friends?

I was raised Catholic in a working-class family, deeply loyal to the Church. My four siblings and I all attended Catholic schools through high school, and I went on to attend a Catholic college. I was very devout, often walking to attend Mass even on summer weekdays. In the sixth grade, I remember being invited to sing at funeral masses with a small choir, all in Gregorian chant.  (In fact, I can still sing the Requiem in Latin by heart!) Going to college and studying in Germany for a semester opened my eyes to the injustices of sexism, racism, and classism, and connecting with leftists in graduate school ultimately led to my leaving the Church and declaring myself a socialist. But I always retained an openness to what is beyond the material world, and ten years later some mystical experiences I had in the context of studying massage therapy and receiving acupuncture treatments pushed me further in that direction. I spent about 25 years exploring spiritual communities and traditions, from Buddhism to Native American indigenous spirituality and back to Christianity, but nothing felt quite right. When I began reading the early writings of Quakers, I was blown away by the fact that from the beginning, they honored women’s voices as equal to men’s, such that over half of those traveling in the ministry were women. Also, they were so grounded in love and the immediate guidance and presence of the Divine, that they were able to withstand all manner of oppression. As a strong environmentalist and a peace activist, I felt at home with the Quakers, whose tradition stressed simple living and non-violence. I appreciated that the roots of the Quaker faith were in Christianity, but the understanding of what that meant was very different from anything else I’d come across. The lack of creed and dogma appealed to me greatly. In 2004, I decided to become an official member of the Religious Society of Friends.

What’s one of your favorite quotes that you’ve put to music? And who are some of your favorite early Quaker figures?

I love the range of Quaker wisdom on my first album in this series, from intimate and direct experience of the Divine by Sarah Blackborow to the prophetic calls for peace and justice by the early abolitionist, John Woolman. I especially loved Sarah Blackborow’s quote that shows her experience of the Divine as both feminine and masculine:

Oh, love Truth and its testimony, whether its witness be to you or against you. Love it, that into my Mother’s house you all may come, and into the chamber of Her that conceived me, where you may embrace and be embraced of my dearly beloved one. Love is his name; Love is His nature, and Love is His life.

And John Woolman’s words make a plea for awareness of the source of the consumer goods that we buy and use, knowing that the loss of resources can lead to scarcity and war, and the oppression of labor leads to anger, which leads to violence (the following QuakerSpeak videos filmed by Jon Watts):

May we look upon our treasure, our furniture and our garments, and try to discover whether the seeds of war are nourished by these, our possessions.

Another favorite is George Fox’s vision of an ocean of light overcoming an ocean of darkness:

I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of Light and Love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that I also saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings.

This vision came at a time when he questioned God as to why he was having to see so much of the greed and evil in the hearts of people, and his answer was that he needed to understand all conditions to be able to speak to all conditions. The vision (or “opening”) he had provided consolation that the good was always there and would always be there.

One of my favorite early Quaker figures was Margaret Fell, the wife of a judge who was thus fairly well-off financially. Margaret became a convinced Friend after hearing George Fox speak in a church in her home town of Ulverston. She became very involved in the movement and used her privilege to organize support for those in prison and their families and to petition the king and other officials on behalf of them. Her home was “Quaker central,” where so much of the organizing occurred. After her husband died, she married George Fox; both of them spent a years apart from each other in prison. Margaret helped to establish the norm of Quaker women being leaders, who were essential to the survival of the Quaker movement.

Your liner notes say that the chants — and Quaker spirituality in general — move from inner stillness to spiritual vision to heart-kindling fellowship to service (aka “witness”) in the world. How do you find these themes — and your music — traveling outside of Friends’ circles to wider worlds of contemplative spirituality, activism and beyond?

When I was living as artist in residence at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat and study center outside of Philadelphia, I had a message come to me one day in prayer that the Quaker religion was needed in the world today, and that I had a role to play in making it more known.  Not too long after that, I was serendipitously asked to help out with some marketing research for the Arch Street Meetinghouse in historic Philadelphia, the largest meetinghouse in the world. I ended up becoming a volunteer tour guide there, talking to hundreds of tourists about the Quaker faith and the story of William Penn’s founding of Pennsylvania and the “city of brotherly love,” Philadelphia. I thought, “Ah, I am playing a role here.”

Three years later, back home in Cincinnati around the time Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong was being published, a friend gave me a copy of Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Wisdom Way of Knowing. As I read it, I was so struck by how much early Friends’ writings resonated with Cynthia’s description of the Christian Wisdom tradition, that I sent her a copy of Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong and shared my observation. Her enthusiastic response led not only to her sharing these chant-like songs at her retreats and Living School classes, but also to an on-going partnership with us doing workshops together, teaching the chants and exploring their meanings, especially in the context of the Christian Wisdom tradition.

Cynthia, who grew up attending Quaker schools, says that she hopes by bringing these two streams together, that modern liberal Friends, who frequently do not identify as Christian, may be able to see how Quakerism is a manifestation of the Wisdom stream of early Christianity. She Is also intent on building awareness of the Quaker faith in contemplative Christian circles, and has invited me to lead chanting at several of her “Wisdom Schools,” introducing hundreds of non-Quakers to the Quaker faith. As a result of this collaboration, including two 5-day “Quaker Wisdom Schools” at Pendle Hill with Quaker author and teacher Marcelle Martin, I have learned a great deal about contemplative Christian practices and have become more appreciative of Quakerism’s rootedness in Christianity before dogmas and creeds were established. I have also become more convinced of the spiritual power in the ancient practice of chanting, and am feeling led to encourage this among Friends.

Beyond this expansion to a broader network of people practicing in the Christian Wisdom tradition with Cynthia Bourgeault, I haven’t engaged these chants as much with the activist, witnessing aspect of Quaker practice that is embodied in the songs. One exception is with a local organization in Cincinnati that was founded by a graduate of Richard Rohr’s Living School, called: The Hive: A Center for Art, Contemplation and Action. (Hey, that was founded by my old friend Troy Bronsink! Awesome!) I have led chanting there and have integrated some of these Quaker chants into their programs, that do address action growing out of contemplation.

What’s next for the universe of Quaker chant?  And for Paulette Meier? What can we expect on the horizon?

I recorded a new chanting CD with more Quaker quotes I set to song, prompted by a spontaneous fundraising effort at another Quaker Wisdom School In May, 2019. The theme of that retreat was “Wisdom Jesus” and “The Inward Christ,” exploring the resonances between Quaker understanding and the Christian Wisdom tradition. Marcelle Martin served as co-leader with Cynthia and invited me to pull excerpts from the writings she intended to use in her teaching, and compose new chants from them. The result made for a wonderful weaving of teaching and singing. Two Wisdom community musicians, Andrew Breitenberg and Nick Weigand, embellished the chanting with acoustic bass and piano beautifully, and the full-hearted singing of the eighty participants – mostly Quakers- was filled with spirit. The new chants were composed with communal singing in mind and, unlike Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong, they have harmony vocals and instrumental accompaniment, provided by Nick and Andrew. This album, Wellsprings of Life: Quaker Wisdom in Chant, has just been released!

My experience with the Wisdom community has led me to hope that Quakers will begin to see the value of chanting as a spiritual practice that can actually deepen and enhance our experience of silent worship. I would look forward to leading more Quakers in this practice in the years to come. And of course, this is open-source Wisdom, available to all!

Praise for Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong and Wellsprings of Life: Quaker Wisdom in Chant

“Paulette’s chants are creating a whole new musical and spiritual art form, introducing mainstream Christian contemplatives to the pearls of transformative wisdom waiting to be discovered in the Quaker mystical tradition, and introducing many Quakers to these treasures as well! This new album adds fifteen new chants to the repertoire and two talented instrumentalists to the mix. The results are lively, inspiring, moving and deeply practical, all at once. Concepts as subtle and challenging as surrender, inner stillness and compassionate action come powerfully alive through these mystical chants!”
Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and author, Singing the Psalms: How to Chant in the Christian Contemplative Tradition, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, and Eye of the Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm.

“What a treasure these are! … The passages [Paulette] has chosen represent timeless wisdom that all, regardless of denomination, will find inspiring. I now frequently find them coming to mind on my morning prayer walks, which are richer for them.”
Bill Dietrich, former Executive Director, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation

“[These songs] open a doorway to a spirituality that can, in the words of Quaker founder George Fox, “shake all the country for ten miles round.” Her voice moves us into Gods heart, leaving us both challenged and comforted, and resting in a place of deep peace.”
Peter Blood-Patterson, co-author, Rise Up Singing

“The chants are like prayer beads for me, grounding my spiritual intention to follow my inner guide.”
Rose Marie Cipryk

“Paulette Meier’s rich voice, unforced singing, meditative pacing, and natural cadences bring the hearer to that inner peace where truth abides. This approach helps liberate early Quaker spiritual power for a new time.”
Doug Gwyn, Quaker scholar, writer, minister and musician

About the Author

Paulette Meier is a Cincinnati-based singer/songwriter who has used her strong alto voice for many years, singing in the movement for peace and justice. As a peace educator in schools, she produced an award- winning CD of original songs entitled: Come Join the Circle: LessonSongs for Peacemaking, which continues to be used in classrooms throughout the country. She came to her work with children after a variety of work experiences, from a teacher in urban schools to working as a national organizer around energy and nuclear issues. A passion to address the causes of disharmony at both the societal and personal level led her into social work, delivering mental health services to children. In 2004, she received an Artist in Residence scholarship, allowing her to live and study for nine months at Pendle Hill, a Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation. There her appreciation for Quaker history and spirituality was nourished and deepened.  While sojourning among Friends in the Philadelphia area, she began a practice of setting selected passages of early Quaker writings to chant-like song.  In 2010, dshe co-released with Quaker Press a recording of the resulting collection, titled Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong. At that time Paulette was introduced to the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault. She realized the amazing similarities of the founding Quakers’ experience of “the indwelling Christ Spirit” with the understanding of Jesus in the Christian Wisdom tradition that Cynthia writes about. She sent Cynthia her new album, which inspired Cynthia to want to bring these two streams together more consciously. Since then, Paulette and Cynthia have collaborated on leading a number of Wisdom retreats and two “Quaker Wisdom Schools.” In one such retreat in 2019, Paulette shared new chants composed from Quaker texts, and the participants started a spontaneous fundraising campaign for a new recording to be produced. This album, Wellsprings of Life: Quaker Wisdom in Chant, has just been released.

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