DAY 211: Meeting

May 25th, 2017 § 0 comments

I expect readers are bored by my usual preoccupations; as am I, but the world is always forcing them on me. So today, let’s consider a different subject which preoccupies me from time to time: a comparison between the beliefs and practices of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Quakers. Both of these quasi-religious movements started with a strong belief in what you might call ‘God’ (heart of the heartless world, opium of the people) as their foundation, the Quakers naturally as a 17th century dissenting sect and AA as a sort of born

downloadAA meeting

again way of redeeming sinners. (‘There is one who is all-powerful. That one is God. May you find him now.’) Both of them are now not so sure; what they cling to is a belief that whatever it is you’re after you can’t do it on your own, and you’re better off in a ‘meeting’. This is a different object from what the rest of us understand by a meeting, where lots of us gather in SOAS or the Conway Hall and listen to Lindsay German and  nine other people denouncing the Tory Government’s policies somewhere (with twenty minutes for questions if we’re lucky) – it’s a more intense and more interactive affair.  In the case of AA, as many meetings as possible, say ninety in ninety days.


Quaker meeting

Which is difficult if you’re an alcoholic in Latvia (say – a not unlikely situation); in the case  of the Quakers, once a week will probably do. You go to the meeting, stay for an hour, have tea or coffee, wash up and (hopefully) feel better.  The impartial observer notes that the main difference – why do I even bother to say it? – is that Quakers say almost nothing all the time and just believe that the Spirit is giving them a helpful push along the road, while alcoholics talk compulsively about themselves – about their previous appalling behaviour, their recent lapses, their failure to progress from Step 6 to Step 7. Some alcoholics think that the Spirit or Higher Power is going to help them, others are (like some Quakers) quite frankly atheists. In any case, they feel/hope that this going-to-meetings activity is the essential element in getting anywhere.

I owe a great deal to these odd and slightly irrational practices.  Many Quakers these days make a great deal of the fact that they have NO CREED AT ALL; while the alcoholics have Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which I suppose is a bit like having a creed. The other noteworthy difference is that the Quakers, like the Samaritans – the ones in Palestine, not the ones on the end of the phone – and the Parsis, don’t normally convert you, so their numbers remain on the whole small (outside Kenya – do they have different rules?), while converting or ‘twelve-stepping’ a still suffering alcoholic is in theory an integral part of AA practice.

I should write another paper on this, but it would surely just add to my long list of rejections. [I should here interpose, though it isn’t strictly relevant, the most brutal rejection I’ve ever had for a journal submission. It started:

‘Luke, you used to be known as a mathematician of taste and style.’

I leave you to fill in the rest.]

Many years later, the state of the world so appals me that what kind of a mathematician I am, or am known as, worries me no more.


This seems a perfect place to insert Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’. I can’t think why I haven’t done it before, when probably every GCSE poetry class has to con it:

It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”

And – although the Kenyan Quakers probably sing in a different style or variety of styles – here’s  a Swahili song of praise from a meeting at Lehigh.















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