Sunday, October 19, 2008

Costa Rica, Part Quakers


So.. you may know this about me and you may not... but whenever I get to a new place I'm strongly drawn toward things that don't fit the cultural mold. Things that make you raise an eyebrow, cock your head, and mumble "huh?" Those are the things I marvel at, I study, and I'm drawn toward.

An example - in my Lonely Planet guidebook I happened to see the word "Quaker" in the index. Odd, I thought - what in Costa Rica merits a page about Quakers in this guidebook?

Upon further research I discovered a fascinating slice of history. To escape the war draft, a group of Quakers had settled in Costa Rica in the 1950's. Costa Rica had just recently disbanded its military and declared itself a peaceful country. Since the Quakers are staunch pacifists, they refused to sign the draft and several were imprisoned. Anyway, a small group of Quakers from Alabama settled in a beautiful mountain area called a "cloud forest." They began making their livelihood producing cheese and ice cream. They also bought up a lot of land to protect it as part of a national reserve.

Being a bit of a separatist group, they weren't too thrilled to discover that their area was becoming a popular tourist destination because of the lush rain forest. Thus, the road up to Monteverde isn't paved. "Isn't paved" is a nice way of putting it. We had to disembark from our bus and slosh through a soupy landslide that had smothered the road, continuing our journey in another bus on the other side of the washout. Anyway after several (5) hours of bussing, we arrived in Santa Elena, a few kilometers away from the Cheese Factory and Quaker Meeting house.

It really was a beautiful area. Very peaceful, and a bit magical, with clouds drifting through and morning light goldening the mist-covered mountains. We found a great place to crash for only $5 a night, and started hiking through the tropical rain forest. We saw some pecaries, several birds, but didn't see any sloths or toucans. Actually, some of the friends I was traveling with saw some toucans, but I didn't.

The highlight for me was attending the Quaker meeting on Sunday morning. I can sum it up in one word - silence. One hour of complete silence. Not a word was spoken while we prayed and listened for the Holy Spirit to speak.

OK, I confess I don't yet have the ability to quiet my spirit before God for that period of time. At least not in a public setting. In my non-spiritual vanity, I spent the first 20 minutes focusing all my willpower on not letting my stomach growl. Alas, after 20 minutes all hope was gone, and my stomach shamelessly announced to the silent listeners around me that I was famished from not eating breakfast. Not to worry, I could hear other people's stomachs rumbling as well. Amanda, sitting next to me, nodded off to sleep a few times.

I should explain briefly about the format of Quaker worship for a moment. Please note, however, that we were largely unaware of these procedures when we walked in. Copying everyone else was all we had to go by, but we didn't know how long we'd be sitting there. No one left the WHOLE TIME! All the wooden benches were arranged in a sort of circle, so we were facing many others. We arrived at the tail end of the worship (hymns in Spanish). People came in silently, no one greeting anyone else or speaking. And then we all sat, completely silent for an entire hour. About 30 minutes in, a handful of kids joined us and sat silently with their parents. During this time the idea is to listen to to the Holy Spirit speak.

This type of approach to spirituality really intrigues me. Silence, reverence, and meditation. I'm not that great at it, really. There is too much clutter in my mind to claim any sort of spiritual revelation was made to me, except that my mind is too cluttered and I am preoccupied with rather trite concerns. I concentrated on quieting my stomach, and failed at that. I prayed for everyone I could think of, but that only lasted a few minutes. I watched other peoples' faces and looked around, trying to see if anyone else was hearing a word from God. I listened to the soft purr of rain on the tin roof. I watched iridescent blue morpho butterfly flutter by a few times, a gorgeous stark contrast to the dark green jungles surrounding the meeting house. It was a good hour. I have a lot to clear from my life and from my mind before I can quiet myself before God.

The hour ended suddenly and abruptly. I don't know how everyone knew, but on some unspoken signal people began rustling about, shaking hands, murmuring greetings to each other. The spell was broken and we were all "here" again.

A few reflections on the hour were given. A few comments, announcements, and prayer requests. Then they asked to introduce the "visitors," which meant, namely, myself, Amanda, and Mandy who were visiting from San José. Everyone laughed because the person asking "the visitors" to introduce themselves clearly meant just us. And everyone knew that... except us. So we introduced ourselves and afterward everyone chatted for a while. The meeting house doubles as a school for the kids - it reminds me (almost) of something out of Little House on the Prairie or the Homestead Village I visited in Texas.

There were all sorts of little details that I highlighted in my mind, but no generalizations I could make. There was an "English dance" scheduled for next Saturday. A potluck the next. A class on worship. A few ladies in dresses and some in pants. Men with shoes on, men in socks. Men cleanly shaven, men with large beards. No crosses anywhere, no scripture that I can remember. An Obama '08 bumper sticker on someone's SUV. No one tried to convert me or asked me to come back.

So anyway - a rather neat experience. Not one I had expected to have while studying Spanish in Costa Rica. Sitting in silence with cheese-making Quakers in the midst of a golden misty cloud forest watching iridescent butterflies flutter by.

How did I begin this thought? Oh yes, finding things out of the ordinary and being drawn towards them. This is part one.

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