On Identity

If we aren’t capable of being hurt we aren’t capable of feeling joy.

(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

I find myself in the library reading Ecclesiastes and wondering how on earth I got here. I’m at a conference—a relatively small one—with a bunch of Quakers I don’t know very well, and it’s already been a strange few days. It’s late. I know some people are snacking in the common room, but I don’t dare go down there because they’re all the sociable types and I’m just—not. Normally I’d be in bed at this hour, but something tells me not to be, so with nowhere else in particular to go, I’ve wandered into the library. This place used to be a monastery, so Ecclesiastes turns out to be the best thing I can find.

I like Ecclesiastes. The end of all man’s toil is but to fill his belly, yet his appetite is never satisfied. What advantage then in facing life has the wise man over the fool, or what advantage has the pauper for all his experience? It is better to be satisfied with what is before your eyes than to give rein to desire; this too is futility and a chasing of the wind.

The author of Ecclesiastes pretty much thinks everything is futility and a chasing of the wind. You could call him a pessimist, but I find him comforting for reasons I’ve never been able to articulate.

There’s a man wandering up and down the halls whisper-yelling for Melanie. “Melanie? MELANIE? We’re going out for ice cream . . . MELANIE!!!” This continues for nearly twenty minutes, by which time he’s absolutely awakened anybody who might have been asleep in the first place—except maybe Melanie.

Around the time he gives up, I finish Ecclesiastes for the second time and snap closed the Bible. This is ridiculous. I’m going to bed; there’s no logical reason not to, and it’s been a long and exhausting day.

I get nine steps down the hallway and nearly crash into Jolene, who’s emerging from a bedroom. I know she’s Jolene because she’s wearing a nametag. I’m not. I’m already in my pajamas.

Jolene looks straight at me and says, “Great! Exactly the person I was looking for.” And she pulls me back into the bedroom behind her.

There’s another woman sitting on the bed. Jolene says, “This is Maggie.”

(I’m not Maggie, so I assume the woman on the bed must be Maggie.)

“Maggie,” Jolene continues, “this is Emily.”

She remembered my name?

“Emily, Maggie’s had a rough day. She needs somebody to talk to. Maggie, you can trust Emily. Tell her everything. Excuse me—I have to go to a meeting.”

And just like that, it’s Maggie and me in our pajamas staring at one another across the room. Maggie does not find this as disconcerting as I do, and she starts describing a vision she’s had that day. Of angels.

I feel like this is a case of mistaken identity. There are Quakers who do the whole mystical thing, but I’m not one of them! I know and love and trust enough mystics to believe that the realm they describe is real, and I’m even begrudgingly willing to admit that I’ve brushed up against the mystical myself from time to time, but I’m not comfortable engaging with it and don’t especially want to be. I like spreadsheets. And systems analysis. And logic puzzles.

Nevertheless, I listen intently to Maggie, for several reasons. First, Jolene told her that she could trust me, and I desperately want to live up to that endorsement. Second, Maggie seems to be in some level of genuine distress. And third, as long as I’m listening, I’m not required to speak.

She finishes by saying that she really needs someone to lay hands on her—“just to channel in some clean energy.”

Okay. Well, again, this is a case of mistaken identity. I don’t do this. Except—I kind of do know how to do this. I’ve known enough healers to know how it works. I mean, to know the theory. Lay hands on the person, open to the flow of Spirit, channel love. Right. So she moves into the chair, and I place my hands on her shoulders and get started.

This is the part where you’re supposed to turn your brain off, I think, but my brain doesn’t work that way, so I’m acutely aware that this is maybe the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me, weirder even than the time I was still working in theatre and found myself pushing a shopping cart full of roller skates through an abandoned high school at midnight, and then the thought occurs to me that nobody ever told me how you know when you’re done, and oh, this is a problem, how am I supposed to know when to stop?

That thought keeps me occupied for several minutes, and I’m sort of grateful for it because it gives me something to focus on, and in the end it doesn’t matter because Maggie knows when to stop. She just stands up and says thank you and good night and I leave and brush my teeth.

When I finally get to bed, I reflect on vulnerability. On why I sat in that library reading Ecclesiastes well past my usual bedtime even though it was a thoroughly illogical thing to do. On why I didn’t pop my head out and ask if I could join the group making a run for ice cream. On why Jolene remembered my name and dragged me into that bedroom. On how she knew Maggie could trust me. On why several healers had talked me through this kind of thing, even though I’d never asked because I’d never planned on trying it.

I reflect on being open to God, and how there’s no such thing as being conditionally open.

And how I think I actually did help Maggie.




This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.

 If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.


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