I sit in complete silence for forty-five minutes, as do the ninety people all around me. It’s Sunday morning in Monteverde Costa Rica and I am attending a Quaker meeting. We are comfortably settled on hand crafted wooden benches arranged in a circle. Our spacious timber frame meeting place has a soaring ceiling. The huge windows give us a full view of the trees and plants of the cloud forest surrounding us. The wind breathes in and out in mighty gusts and rain spatters the glass.
That’s probably why Joy is Like the Rain is the first hymn suggested during the singing session prior to our contemplation. People simply call out a song title and we sing. Tis a Gift to Be Simple, Kumbayah, The Prayer of St. Francis, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah and Everyone Neath Their Vine and Fig Tree. All are familiar tunes I’ve sung many times in my own Mennonite faith community.
After thirty minutes of singing our hymnbooks are collected and the silence begins without announcement or introduction. Some people close their eyes, some read their Bibles, some sit with their hands open palms up in front of them, while other fold their hands and bow their heads.
I begin by praying. It is lovely and peaceful not to feel like I have to hurry through my prayers, but to let my thoughts flow freely as I bring concerns and joys into mind and before God.
And then I try to empty my mind, like I’ve read one should do when you meditate. I try to concentrate on my breath and the wind, the rustling of the leaves, the creaking of the tree branches.
After forty- five minutes the silence ends when a woman gets up to speak. She talks about a Quaker high school in Cuba closed by the government after the revolution. Now with relations thawing between Cuba and the United States, they’ve been given permission to commence classes again. The woman speaking has friends in the Cuban Quaker community and asks for support and prayer as they get ready to reopen the doors of their school.
A woman with ruddy cheeks, silver earrings and white hair rises next to talk about the strong winds blowing in Monteverde. It has reminded her that the wind is the earth’s breath and that all the air on our planet has been here since creation. We share the air we breathe with every living thing past and present. She suggests that when we feel chaotic or conflicted we just sit and breathe and receive positive energy from all the living things around us. Our very breath connects us to them.
The children have been meeting separately, the older ones return halfway through our time of silence and the younger children fifteen minutes later. Their teachers get up now and explain that the younger children have been learning how to be silent in meaningful ways. They have practiced meditating using a pebble and meditating by drawing pictures of objects in nature. The older children have been talking about how hard it is to voice your opinion when it is different from the opinions of most people around you.
Announcements come next about opportunities to join together in the coming weeks for square dancing, Shakespeare readings, book clubs, coffee houses and listening to activist students share their ideas for improving life in Costa Rica. Things to celebrate about the Quaker school in Monte Verde are listed and the congregation responds by waving their hands in the air instead of clapping.
Then visitors from Quaker meetings around the United States and from as far away as Cambridge, England introduce themselves. We introduce ourselves too.
The meeting ends with everyone shaking hands and blessing each other with a message of peace, a word of welcome or a wish for a good day.
I didn’t expect that attending a Quaker meeting for the very first time would be part of my travels in Costa Rica but I’m very glad it was. There are so many ways people of different faiths and denominations choose to worship and communicate with the Divine. Exploring their infinite variety is enriching both personally and spiritually.