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I Stayed for the Silence
When I first started worshiping with Quakers in the late 1960s, like many newcomers I was attracted initially by the testimonies of peace, justice, equality, and integrity.
But I stayed for the gathered “silence.”
I wasn’t looking for some kind of weekly meditation group offering “down-time” to counter the stresses of a busy and noisy world. I was intrigued by the opening silence in Quaker worship, not as an end in itself but as an important tool in my lifelong quest for wisdom and Truth—which can be anything but peaceful and stress-reducing!
At the time I was in college studying interpersonal communication and the role that words play in our lives. One of the functions of language is to create concepts or models that help us think and talk about different aspects of reality that we are interested in, especially things that can’t be experienced directly in the here-and-now.
After visiting a local Quaker Meeting several times, I saw a striking parallel between unprogrammed worship and the process of higher-truth-seeking emphasized in my communications studies. I found a community of kindred spirits who for 300 years had been pioneering ways of transcending conventional wisdom and worldly values, developing new ways of being in the world which early Friends called “The Peaceable Kingdom.”
Seventeenth-century Quakers and other religious dissenters had broken with the established churches because they were fed up with nominal Christians who lived basically worldly lives, and disillusioned with professional clergy who were adept at quoting scriptures but who evidently had no personal knowledge of the redemptive power of the Spirit. In other words, they were frauds, selling spiritual “maps” that bore little or no relationship to any “territory” that regular folks could recognize.
These early seekers felt they had no choice but to begin their worship in humble silence, but as Pink Dandelion notes in Quakerism: A Very Short Introduction, the purpose of this discipline was not silence for its own sake. Early Friends hungered for vocal ministry that was authentic and divinely inspired.
They did not want to waste this precious opportunity listening to idle words that were driven mainly by ego and intellect. They required an opening period of “expectant waiting” for authentic leadings from the Spirit to compel someone to share a divinely inspired message with the assembly—or not. George Fox and other ministers of the “Children of Light” sometimes preached for hours, but there were also occasions when an entire Meeting for Worship passed without a word being spoken, simply because neither the speaker nor the listeners happened to be ready at that moment for a message to be received.
So the opening silence in Quaker Meetings remains an enigma, a profound mystery beyond our control or understanding. It is that Center where, like a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel, we let go of our personal goals, expectations, and desires and allow our selves to be shaped for a higher purpose than we can consciously appreciate.
Meeting for Worship still offers a space for individual meditation where inner peace can be cultivated. But there is another door that can open within the stillness when we prepare ourselves to hear the “Thunder of Silence,” the sound of God seeking to get in touch with us. This can happen when as a faith community we are prepared to be “cracked open,” ready to see our dualisms dissolve into unity, and primed to hear the divine music of the Cosmos channeled through spoken words.