When I was studying Japanese tea ceremony, it always struck me how important it was both for the host and the guest to prepare themselves for the experience. A guest might follow a path through a simple gate into a garden. Along the way, she might notice certain things blooming or see a delightful pattern in the way a rock is placed. She might take a drink at a place where water is softly dripping into a bamboo scoop. Meanwhile, the host has prepared the interior space of the tea house with a sprig of whatever is in season, placed in a simple vase in the tokonoma (the alcove), where there is a carefully chosen scroll of calligraphy which, if you can read it, might carry a message for the day. Depending on the time of year, there might be a hint of incense burning on the coals below the floor level or a slight scent from the blossom and the sound of water boiling in a pot.
Now it is time for the guest to enter. The door into the tea house is quite small. In order to enter in the old days, so the story goes, the Samurai warrior had to relinquish his sword in order to bow low enough to enter the sacred space. Today, the guest bows, symbolically leaving her weapons outside.
Two questions arise for me today in relation to Quaker worship. First, how do we prepare ourselves and our spaces for the experience of worship? In our Meeting, the members of Ministry and Counsel rotate responsibility for “hosting” meeting. This typically means arriving early, arranging the chairs if needed, and settling into worship as a way of preparing the space. Some hosts like to stay in the entryway to greet Friends as they arrive, while others settle inside the Meeting room. Unlike the Japanese tea room, no special care is taken to create an external atmosphere. We used to have a few prints hanging in the Meeting room. Years ago when the room was repainted some Friends felt the artwork should not be rehung, while others treasured the stories of each one and wanted them kept. The conflict was solved by hanging one print on one wall. Those who found it a distraction could sit facing the blank wall.
The second question is how do we enter our places of worship? Do we leave our “swords”—our pens, our words, our anger—outside the Meeting space when we enter? Do we enter mindfully with hearts open, vulnerable, and expectant? Are we prepared to be surprised? Transformed? Do we mentally greet others in the room as we take our place? In Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, Bill Taber writes:
“Entering the door of the meting room can be a very special experience of going through the Door Inward; it can be a “body prayer” as we continue to let body, mind, and spiritual senses seek attunement with the Stream in this holy place as we move toward a seat.”
As Taber also points, out, preparing for worship can take place at any time, not just at the door or in the Meeting room. Mindfulness of our inner state, of our environment, of others in our lives, can be a daily spiritual practice. That was the most important lesson I learned from my tea ceremony teachers. I think they knew that when I returned to this country I probably wouldn’t be able to continue the outer rituals, but they helped me see beneath the forms to the principle of mindfulness, and that has stayed with me as I became a convinced Quaker.