Being Silent

Last Sunday was another of those meetings for worship. In the first 20 minutes when the children were present no baby cried, no toddler kicked the bench, no little voice whispered.

After the children left, quiet returned and there were no obvious coughs or lozenge wrappers. No stomachs growled, and no Friends made unexpected trips in and out.

Outside the meeting room the traffic was distant, airplanes only a low grumble; no leaf blowers, games of tag, or scolding mobs of crows.

As meeting neared its end no one snored —and no one spoke. We returned to the world with friendship and conviviality.

It had been one of those meetings for worship in which no one was moved to speak, but I would not have called it a silent meeting. For I did not feel that the worshipers were eager for the silence.

In the 1960s I attended Wilton (Conn.) Meeting from time to time with my grandparents, Clarence and Alice King. I remember the silence at those meetings being almost palpable, as though the air in the room had changed, the atmosphere somehow gaining weight. When someone spoke in that meeting, the sound was like a fish rising from a great depth and splashing into the air. The odd thing was that despite the beauty of the message, there seemed to be an eagerness in the congregation to get back into the silence again. I have had this experience a few times in subsequent years in a few meetings. On these occasions, even when the messages are frequent, they fall back into a deep pool of silence, which nourishes them and joins them in a whole. But these occasions seem to be increasingly rare.

I come to meeting eager for that experience and am frequently distracted, often by my own mind, which is so abuzz with the business of the world that it cannot seem to settle down into what Douglas Steere called "the presence of the Listener." Often I am disappointed with my fellow worshipers. For just as you can feel the true centering of a meeting and even a Divine presence in it, you can also feel a general distraction, a restlessness—feel us becoming peevish children who want to go out and play, or are eager for someone to entertain us with insight or profundity.

When I have questioned Friends about their similar experiences of worship they may acknowledge that they are often distracted by thoughts of work or family or the beautiful day waiting to be enjoyed. They may say that worship is always a struggle and that each comes to it in his or her own way. They may say something like, "It is up to each of us to get what we can out of it."

I can agree with this argument but I am not content with it. In fact, I would go a step further. I believe that many of us have lost the ability to find pleasure in silence, lost the eagerness for silent worship.

Think about your average day and the daily lives of your children and grandchildren. Many of us live in cities and even suburbs in which there is a constant din from the machinery of the city itself. Add radio alarms, yammering TV shows, constant commercials, "drive time" music and talk, and the general exterior and interior noise of highly programmed families.

We have cell phones, beepers, and pocket computers to keep us constantly connected. We rate our success on the number of things we can multitask. Our children try to do homework with two or three kinds of media humming. Even our vacations may be highly scheduled so as to "get our money’s worth."

By now you may be saying, "Hey, that’s not me. I lead a pretty simple life." But even the simplest Quakers I know these days seem to have minds buzzing with "have to"s.

Then on Sunday morning there is that scramble to get to meeting to be silent for an hour, well, 50 minutes really, because maybe you arrive a little late, or really 40 minutes after the kids go to First-day school and we all settle down again. Then perhaps a couple of messages were kind of grating, so that leaves only about 30 minutes, and my mind wanders, trying to remember if I fed the fish, if I should shop on the way home, if I am ready for work tomorrow. Someone’s hearing aid begins to squeal—and so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

William Penn wrote in his Advice to His Children: "Love silence even in the mind; for
thoughts are to that, as words are to the body, troublesome. . . . True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment."

I fear that because of the nature of our current busy lifestyles we have lost the belief in Penn’s statement. I seem to discern a fear of true silence. We are willing to be quiet for a bit, but with our shorter attention spans there is an impatience for that still, small voice to speak to us before we have to go to our next venue.

In this way we are losing Quaker worship, because one needs to prepare for worship. Rufus Jones writes ". . . the worshiper, if he is to enter into this great attainment, must cease his occupation with external affairs, his thoughts of house and farm and business, and center down into those deep levels of his being where he can feel the circulation of spiritual currents and have healing and refreshment and restoration and fortification flow in from beyond himself. This is not worship, but it is preparation for it."

I would guess that we all value the restoring power of that deep silence. I would also guess that many are afraid to go there. For it requires letting go of your control of your mind for at least that short period of worship each week, letting the words that you use to order your life fall away, trusting that they will be there on the other side of the silence, trusting that the Presence you find in the silence will safely guide you.

If we are to heed Rufus Jones, it also requires preparing for meeting: making a bit of effort to begin First Day with silence and a worshipful state of mind. You know the next step. How many different ways can you "turn off the noise" in your daily life the rest of the week? What kind of effort do you make to be together in silence as a family?

Don’t be tricked. Of course switching off Saturday-morning cartoons and going for a silent walk in the woods is a balm. But it is your own mind that is the loudest appliance, especially the channel that keeps broadcasting that you must be in control. It takes some courage and effort to flip that switch and trust that the silence and the spiritual connection in it, not your daily planner or even some spiritual commercial, will inform your life.

In the past, perhaps in the context of a rural community where natural silence was the norm, it was simpler to answer yes to the Query "Is worship a daily part of your personal and family life?" It is revealing to rephrase the Query for today’s lifestyle, "Do you feel it is important enough to take the time in your personal and family life to silence your mind and your body and open yourself to that pure, still waiting?"

If your answer is "I’m always too busy" or "I want to but I don’t seem to get around to it," ask yourself what you do get around to and why it is more important than worship. Spend some time with this question on the way to work or school or the hardware store. Figure out why that might be a good time to turn off the top 40 or All Things Considered and dip into the silence for a bit.

This is where worship comes full circle. The Query about worship in meeting says "Is there a living silence in which you feel drawn together by the power of God in your midst?" Each Friend can develop a different habit of how he or she comes silently into that presence. Some may read Scripture and then lay the book aside. Some may offer a prayer and then let the prayer fall silent. Some may draw near to a palpable presence of Jesus. Some may be inspired by other spiritual or secular poets. Some may reach upward and inward for the Divine Spirit.

In my experience there is one common ingredient to all seekers, and that is the seeking itself, an eagerness to leave the noise of your own mind for a place where something greater and deeper than you holds sway. It is important for each person and the meeting as a whole to cultivate the eagerness for that inner silence. And when words or thoughts arise from that sacred place, it is easy to know whether they are appropriate to share. A wonderful revelation is that the intense, creative listening that we do in worship does not require spoken words to let us know we have a divine Presence in our midst.

There is a very real sense that the silence we share is not between us but rather within us. Dogs may bark outside, babies cry in the meeting room, and winter winds hammer fiercely at the doors and windows. The peace will continue because the meeting is not a physical space.

As Tom Bodine of Hartford (Conn.) Meeting has described: "The worshipers gather at the high edges of a great spiritual bowl. In the silence, as the worship deepens, they slide down the sides of the bowl until their feet touch." Friends share the ministry that exists in worship. Speaking is a part of that ministry, but usually speaking is a smaller part of the meeting for worship than silence. Only a few contribute to the ministry of speaking but all can join in the ministry of silence.

That silent communion, which is our faith and practice, is what buoys us up all the rest of the week if we will believe in its power.

Chris King

Chris King attends Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting. His bread and butter comes from helping to create communications software. His amusement comes from writing plays and children's books. His insight comes in discovering the grace in the diversity of people. © 2001 Christopher L. King