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Ellen's Review Corner: Le Flambeau School of Driving

By Ellen Michaud

 

photo by Peggy Senger Morrison

One moment with Peggy Senger Morrison—Quaker pastor, author, therapist, motorcycle enthusiast, mother, grandmother and founder of Oregon’s Freedom Friends’ Church—and the myth among non-Friends that Quaker women are quiet, gentle little creatures who go quietly into the night will be shattered forever.

I don’t know how the myth got started, particularly since quite a few of our historical sisters harangued people in the streets and most of the women I know today are up to their elbows in social issues with Magic-markers, email, demonstrations, T-shirts, and letters-to-the-editor.

But once Peggy Senger Morrison roars by on her 300-pound motorcycle or stands in front of a crowd in boots and leathers and begins to preach, I’ve no doubt our reputations will be framed more accurately.

Fortunately, for those who will not be privileged to experience Peggy in person, it will also be framed more accurately by settling down with one of her books—as I discovered when I opened her latest, Le Flambeau School of Driving.

I had just moved cross-country from Vermont to California and was so battered by movers’ estimates, packing lists, inventories, boxes bigger than I was, and the California DMV—which refused to accept my Vermont photo driver’s license and marriage certificate as proof I am who I say I am—that I could hardly move. So when Le Flambeau arrived on my doorstep, I dropped my boxcutter, brewed a cup of tea, and settled on my little jasmine-framed porch to escape the chaos.

An hour later, the tea had grown cold, the sun had snuck under the eves to burn my thighs, and I was too riveted by Peggy’s words to move.

The woman is a gift.

Le Flambeau—literally, the “burning torch”—is a book of 100+ narrative essays and first-person stories that clearly show how one woman burning with the Light within is led and schooled as she ignites, sees what many of us miss, and moves through life touching every person she meets.

The essays, some of which have appeared in earlier work, cover a wide variety of topics from spiritual disciplines for the 21st century to illuminating discussions of Quaker “proselyphobia,” noisy Quakers, and climate change theology. Some essays are short blurts of truth that Peggy has uncovered as she motors through life; others are longer weaves of Quaker thought and history combined with an understanding of human frailty and strength.

Each essay is grounded in a personal story, a sense of Presence, a deep understanding of human nature, a no-holds-barred personal honesty, and a big helping of Peggy’s insight and killer humor. 


Her story-telling abilities are particularly sharp in a riveting and detailed 73-page section of individual stories based on her hair-raising adventures as a trauma healer in Africa. Buses in Kigali that drop off cliffs, toilets of slippery poles that must be negotiated with the balance of a tightrope walker over a pit in Congo, and driving in Burundi add the kind of on-the-ground detail that allows us a glimpse of the beautiful human beings in Africa Peggy meets—and whom we never seem to hear about on the nightly news.

But it is particularly in her stories of churches and meetings both in Africa and here in the United States that Peggy shows us who we, as Friends, can be.

 “The meeting I usually attend is a Quaker hybrid,” writes Peggy. “We sing a little. We pray out loud a bit. Then we settle down and shut up. Someone usually receives a message to speak, often several someones. The messages are usually right on target. We like the peace that we get between the messages. Most of the people in the room are new Quakers; they are acquiring a taste for the silence.”

One day, a man, accompanied by a little boy who seemed to have some degree of autism walked in. The boy, Peggy says, immediately and loudly said, “Oh no! Not Church! Don’t want church!” And when Peggy greeted the two, the father confessed his fear that attending a church wouldn’t work and they might not be able to stay. Peggy urged him to try, and the man and his son sat down.  

For the next hour, the boy yipped, muttered, exclaimed and moaned. And in the midst of his offering, other vocal ministry rose from those gathered.  
“We sang,” writes Peggy ““We prayed…“We settled into silence. The boy moaned, clucked, muttered, and talked…[then] other vocal ministry aroset was sweet. It was true. It was just what Jesus would have said. It didn’t directly address the situation; it addressed the needs of the meeting.”

The result?,

“I experienced what some Quakers call “gathering,”writes Peggy. “It is a deepening of the silence. A kind of mystical feeling of the bottom dropping out of the meeting. A transcendence; a visceral experience of the presence of God”
When the meeting rose, Friends greeted father and son, and the father tried to apologize for his son’s behavior. Friends wouldn’t have anything to do with the apology, Peggy writes. “The purpose of meeting is not to escape from the world to a place quiet enough to listen, but to learn to listen well enough that we can listen anywhere, under any conditions. It had been a good meeting and rewarding morning’s practicum. We were grateful.”

Le Flambeau also includes a brief foreword by Quaker author William Ashforth.. It skips lightly through our schisms to deliver an abbreviated overview of the four main branches of Quakerism in the United States today, then concludes with Ashforth’s comment, “And then there is Peggy…God’s very own loose cannon.”

Clearly the man knows her.

 

Ellen Michaud is the editor-­at­-large for Live Happy Magazine, and the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, which was named the #1 spiritual/inspirational book of the year by USA BookNews. She is also an alumna of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer, a past writer­-in­-residence at Earlham School of Religion and the former book review editor of Friends Journal.



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