Quakerism: Taking A Bite Of The Apple
1969: Looking back, my own “formation” as a Quaker began under Morris Mitchell at Friends World College in 1966, and while it has never really ended, I can recognize a kind of novitiate that continued until 1975. And instead of one mentor, or “novice master,” I had several, some of which made a large impact in only brief encounters.
One such in my Boston years was Sam Levering of Ararat, Virginia. Sam was invited to be a speaker at a New England regional gathering of the Young Friends of North America, or YFNA.
YFNA was one of those many Quaker groups I needed to become familiar with; in its heyday it had brought together young Friends from various of our fractious branches (another big piece of Quaker geography, then just barely visible on my horizon).
This ecumenism only worked if all adhered (at least outwardly) to the more conservative of social and behavioral practices of the participating groups. And by 1968, YFNA was well past its prime: it faced growing cleavages, between war resistance by some of us, butting up against patriotic war support among others. Then there was the intrusion, even if rather mildly, of Sixties cultural forces (sex, drugs, and rock & roll). Under these pressures, YFNA’s loose network was fraying, along with much of the larger culture.
Thus this New England gathering was relatively small, and its overall program is entirely lost to me now. What remains is the memory that we were supposed to keep costs down and build community by sharing the cooking and cleanup. I was selected to do some of the shopping for food, and Sam Levering was assigned to join me.
This quest took us by subway to Boston’s Haymarket Square and its venerable public market. Along the way we began to get acquainted. Sam was old and stooped. His steps were not quite slow, but deliberate. He wore a sturdy brown suit, the fabric shiny with wear. As soon as he spoke, I knew he was a southerner.
Given his age and demeanor, it would be very easy (especially for a callow young northerner) to regard him as a bumpkin, and that was my initial impression. Such a reaction was a major mistake; but being thus “misunderstimated” was, I suspect, something he was used to, and able to turn to his advantage.
He told me he spent much of his time lobbying for peace in Washington. But he was no radical, cultural or political. Doubtless that was partly why he was invited to speak: his age and quiet disposition was intended to straddle YFNA’s widening divides.
It was a fine autumn day, and among Haymarket’s many stalls we quickly had most of our provisions in hand. Soon there remained only the question of fruit, which took us outside. There New England’s plentiful apple harvest was arrayed for our inspection in varicolored unmarked heaps: the polished crimson of Red Delicious; maroons of Northern Spy and Cortland; mixed red and orange of Empire, and solid green tartness of Granny Smiths.
I headed for the popular default: Red Delicious. But Sam shook his head. On the subway, he had also explained that to support his lobbying work, he grew apples and some other tree fruits in an orchard on the slopes of the Blue Ridge in southern Virginia, heading for Washington between growing seasons. Silently asserting his expertise, he motioned for me to follow.
I did, though my attention was pulled to a succession of the brighter varieties, all of which Sam shrugged off. I was beginning to wonder if he was too picky or was simply wandering, when his eyebrows shot up, he signaled to me, and turned abruptly toward a pile I had not noticed.
The apples here were visually unappealing: mottled, off-red mixed with orange and brown (what the growers delicately call “russeting”; though “ugly” is the word that would have occurred to me.) Were they bruised? Were they even ripe? But Sam walked right up, boldly plucked two from the pile, and tossed one to me.
I hesitated. The apple still looked inferior, and he hadn’t bothered to pay for them. But when he took a bite, I followed.
It was a shock: the flesh was crisp and the flavor downright transcendent.
Mouth full, I gaped at Sam. He chewed and grinned back. We bought a bagful, and still amazed, I ate another one on the subway back.
I didn’t note, or soon forgot the name of the apple. (After searching a list of nearly 200 New England varieties, I now suspect they may have been Macoun.) But the variety was only one factor: the same tree can produce fruit that tastes great one year, but which the next year might as well be juiced-up styrofoam. Weather, soil, and blind luck all play their unpredictable parts.
So as Sam had strolled among the heaps in Haymarket, he was not only noting their origin, but also assessing their condition. (Yes, this anecdote has obvious parallels to what Quakers call “discernment.” The fact that this unadorned but masterful exercise of it is all I recall from that YFNA gathering testifies to its importance.)
I didn’t see Sam Levering again for years, but didn’t forget him, or ever “misunderestimate” him again. And there was at least one other mentor for my Quaker novitiate in Cambridge Meeting, closer to home.
Louisa Alger had been a schoolteacher. I never knew much of her personal history beyond that, and she didn’t seem interested in talking about it. Part of that was no doubt her native New England reserve. But another part, I believe, was also likely a veil over a personal story that had its compelling and tender moments, and probably loss and pathos as well.
I knew Louisa first more as a model of no-nonsense devotion to Cambridge Meeting, and concern to keep it productive in practical, undramatic ways. One of them, I learned, was beneath our meeting room in a large open basement. In it she ran a quiet but substantial clothing repair and redistribution operation, with numerous volunteers.
But she also had a watchful, and one hopes discerning eye. It was she who came up to me one First Day morning in the spring of 1969 after meeting had concluded, shook my hand, and then fixed me with a steady gaze. She was looking up, being shorter than me, though her straight carriage and dignified mien, not to mention her spiritual stature, made her appear taller. Perhaps she was in a simple dress with a subdued floral pattern and a lacy collar, something a 1940s schoolteacher might favor. Or if it was still cold, a beige suit; she was not unacquainted with tweed.
In any case, Louisa eyed me unsmilingly, and then said, “Charles Fager” (this was Quaker formality; though by testimony, as others had taught me, Friends shunned titles, being addressed by one’s full name indicated that a conversation was not mere banter), “don’t thee think it’s about time thee wrote the meeting a letter?”
And that, Friends, was my Quaker “Come to Jesus” moment. No fervent preaching, no invitation to tread the sawdust path, no altar call or emoting at the mourner’s bench. Instead, a brief, prim summons to write a letter, which was how one applied for membership.
And why not? St. Augustine heard a nameless child singing outside his window; a total stranger spoke to some Galilee fisherman; John Wesley listened to someone reading from Luther. Top billing in the annals usually goes to the blinding light, the talking jackass, or a burning coal to the lips; but they are neither required nor typical.
I thanked Louisa and mumbled some noncommittal reply; but then went home and wrote the letter. It was hardly a masterpiece; but after receipt, an ad hoc committee met with me, and on its favorable report, I shortly became officially a Quaker.
But still a novice. There were more books to read, more committee meetings to sit in on, mentors to observe and emulate, not to mention some trials and tribulations. And even though we rarely spoke thereafter, none taught me more there in the coming years than Louisa.
This is an excerpt from Meetings: A Religious Autobiography. It is available here, and on Amazon.
“If you love history, if you love biography, if you are interested in American culture and the complexities of navigating life in this crazy diaspora – this book is for you. Chuck is a hero of mine, and I feel enormously lucky to call him F/friend.”
— Jeanmarie Bishop, author of “The Joy,” a play about Mary Dyer
More about “Meetings” here.
A previous excerpt is here.