Quaker Meeting House | Nantucket, MA
Nantucket Essays

Mending the World

by Robert P. Barsanti

Every Sunday, at 11:30, I realize I am late for church. I come by this feeling honestly. My family came to St. Marie Goretti’s late as a regular habit, so much so that the Pastor had the wise idea that if he made my father a Reader, we would arrive on time. Faced with the prospect of an audience for his sonorous tenor, my father made sure we were all out the door on time and sitting in the first pew to the left of the altar. For our part, we wanted that pew, since it meant that we would be the first ones downstairs for the donuts.

My parents steeped me in the church. I went to CCD in elementary school and then went to the St. Joseph’s School on Saturday to be educated in the catechism. My mother considered that a good start, to be followed up by several years as an altar boy and, had she and fortune had their way, four years at B.C. High or Malden Catholic. As with so many of my mother’s dreams, money got in the way, and I was forced to get a superior education at the local high school among the pagan.

I slipped away from the Holy Mother Church in college and didn’t fully come back. They stopped serving free donuts, and life kept interfering with my Sundays. When I was younger, I would return to church for the occasional wedding, and now, in my middle age, I return for that far grimmer Holy Mass. Each time I return, I find some of the peace that my parents must have felt. The mass doesn’t change, leastwise since they stopped saying it in Latin and let the priest face the parishioners. Each service follows the same beats I learned when I was wearing a cassock and surplice. Stand, kneel, sit, and ring the bells when you are supposed to.

Of course, the prayers are the same. The Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Apostle’s Creed repeated over and over Sunday after Sunday, year after year, baptism to funeral. You don’t silently say those prayers, you speak them along with everyone around you, so the churchgoers create one giant chanting mob. Or they would have if we hadn’t been there. My father had a habit of speaking slightly faster than everyone else, as if he has to prove that he knew the words and had to lead the rest of us. His children, all fruit of the pagan and godless public schools, made up our own words for the prayers or said them in funny accents. Whoever stood near my mother would get “the bite” with her annoyed fingers.

These days, on summer Sundays, I find myself in the Quaker Meeting House when my life allows and the doors are open. The Society of Friends is about as far from the Roman Catholic Church as you can get and still call yourself Christian. No prayers, no songs, no funny stained glass, and no snacks. You sit on 150 year old benches, look at white walls for an hour, and say nothing. A Quaker Meeting has two basic rules: sit down and shut up. I first went to a Quaker Meeting when my boys were very young and very loud. If one wasn’t shouting, the other was, and if both were silent, Thomas The Tank Engine was trying to be a very useful engine. When I wasn’t a father, I was in a classroom talking a lot and listening far less. So, I had no idea what to do with an hour of silence. Nobody needed to talk to me and I didn’t need to talk to anyone. We sat in quiet until the town clock struck the hour, then St. Paul’s and the Quaker Meeting let out.

It was great. You forget how noisy and pushy our world is. Someone beeps you, or updates you, or tugs on your arm, or yells in your face from coffee until nightcap and often beyond. I suppose I should listen for the Word of God in my soul or transcend my daily existence, but I always wind up daydreaming and walking back through the week. Most of the time, it isn’t a pretty stroll. It involves too much cowardice, avoidance, and candy. Had I returned to Holy Mother Church, the priest would give me five Hail Mary’s and the South Beach Diet, and I could leave cleansed and fresh. Instead, I shake hands after an hour and walk out into the world I soiled.

The hard core O.G. Quakers didn’t use the Bible. To them, if God wanted to say something to you, He would pull you by the ear for a little “Yahweh would like a word” and fill you in, one-on-one. Nonetheless, the urge to write proves hard to resist, and the Quakers indulged it to write down questions. To examine your life, they asked “Queries” to which you would silently answer and stew over. For example, they asked “How are you mending the world?”

I am twenty years too old to lie to myself and call it honor. I don’t do enough to mend the world, although I do more than recycle my beer bottles and pizza boxes. But mending the world doesn’t require dramatic acts to sew up the ripped seams of our society. It just asks for a stitch here and there, a thought before you start tearing, and a willingness to do something even if it seems too small to matter. One person standing in the face of a milling mob doesn’t do much, but it’s a start.

In this time when we can buy guns more easily than we can buy Sudafed, we rip our world up by the clip. From Sandy Hook to San Bernadino to St. Maria Goretti, we are asked to pray, and I understand prayer. It soothes and settles us back into the pattern of a life. But sometimes, I would like people to forget their prayers, settle onto a bench in the Quaker Meeting House, and find themselves in the silence of white walls.

How are we mending the world?

Articles by Date from 2012