What is Worship?

Meeting for worship is the heart and center of a Quaker meeting and of being Quaker, but what do Quakers mean by worship? To newcomers, the answer to this question is sometimes hard to grasp. Is this a quiet time for sharing inspirational thoughts? A time for private centering down in the atmosphere of a loving community after a stressful week? Inspirational thoughts are, in fact, the format of many worship experiences in other churches. Centering down, or meditation, is the goal of many non-Christian spiritual gatherings. It would be easy to assume from the appearance of our ritual that this is what is happening in Quaker silent worship.

Yet there is that word—worship—that guides us toward something. A common approach today is that the word is related to "worth," giving God the honor due. Worship seems to come naturally to many who live in interdependent societies. First Peoples (e.g., Native Americans) exemplify a natural sense of the sacred in all life, living comfortably in relationship with the source of life, acknowledging dependence as created beings and interdependence and equality with all of creation. Individuals can have a sense of
place in the larger picture: each person has a contribution to make as a part of the larger whole, and that whole is felt to be upheld by a positive and loving force. In these cultures, there is an awareness of human limits—an awareness that we don’t bring ourselves into existence and that something will take our lives back, at an unexpected time, no matter how we try to avoid this inevitability. There has been a clear sense for many that there is a Power in the universe greater than the power of humans.

With the rise of technology, humans have experienced a great increase in our power over many of the forces that used to intimidate us, and so we de-emphasize our limits. With the rise of social equality and the importance of the individual, we have lost some of our hierarchical sense, and along with this, some of our sense of belonging to a larger whole. The very environment in which most of us live, surrounded predominantly by other humans and by human inventions, gives us less experience with mountains, oceans, and starry nights, or with understanding and respecting other life forms and their differing natures; we lose our sense of our proper size in creation. Today humans often experience our true size in negative ways-—through sickness, emotional breakdowns, crime and danger, the pressures of life, pain, and suffering. These difficulties still teach us our limits and our size, and they lead us to seek a larger perspective.

Modern pride in human abilities sometimes makes us feel ashamed to admit our inadequacies. Cultural beliefs in the power of the rational mind, willpower, and the heroic individual lead many to think we should be able to handle everything ourselves. Yet our challenges often can feel too big for us and bring us to worship in order to reconnect with the higher power that is the source of our lives.

Worship can bring us into balance and return us to the root that feeds us. Worship has been conceived of as being directed by God, but I see it as a two-way street. We open our awareness to a relationship in which we already live, a love that is always there waiting for us, available to help and guide us toward positive living. The Source of all loves each of its creations, and created everyone to be a unique individual. The Source of our lives wishes to give us our worth as much as we come to acknowledge the worth of that Presence. God has desires for us; perhaps we could say that God prays to us! Are we listening? Are we open to being led to our growth and fulfillment? Are we open to being used by a greater power, for reasons that our rational minds may not yet understand? Perhaps our greatest act of worship is simply to say yes to walking together with this Presence.

Dag Hammarskjöld, former secretary-general of the United Nations, expressed this sentiment beautifully:

I don’t know who—or what—put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer yes to someone—or something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. From that moment I have known what it means "not to look back," and "to take no thought for the morrow."

In France during World War II, an amazing man lived among us. His name was Jacques Lusseyran. Despite being blinded at the age of eight, at 16 he founded an underground resistance movement of 600 men who published and distributed a newspaper throughout sleeping Paris. Eventually the movement was betrayed and Jacques Lusseyran spent 18 months in the Buchenwald concentration camp. For a while he lost his bearings and the joy and trust that had carried him safely through life. In his autobiography, And There Was Light, he describes one point when he felt as if he were at death’s door. Then suddenly, and without his doing,

Life became a substance within me. . . . It came toward me like a shimmering wave, like the caress of light. I could see it beyond my eyes and my forehead and above my head. The Lord took pity on the poor mortal who was so helpless before him. It is true I was quite unable to help myself. All of us are incapable of helping ourselves. Now I knew it, and knew it was true of the SS among the first. That was something to make one smile.

But there was one thing left that I could do: not refuse God’s help, the breath he was blowing upon me. That was the one battle I had to fight, hard and wonderful all at once; not to let my body be taken by the fear. For fear kills, and joy maintains life.

This extraordinary man lived on and began to turn around the spirit in the camp. In the end, he survived by following his inner leadings against logic. The battle between Germans and Allies was within earshot when the SS gave the inmates the choice to walk out of the camp or stay and wait. Eighty thousand rushed out and were shot to death in the surrounding woods. Twenty thousand, including Jacques Lusseyran, stayed until the U.S. soldiers arrived. Consequently, of 2,000 people who entered Buchenwald together with him on a train, he was one of only 30 survivors.

I tell this story because it’s an example of how Grace is always trying to reach out to us, to guide us if we listen, and to uphold our lives if we just say yes. Worship empowers us; it does not belittle us. Perhaps we need to stop trying so hard in life! Perhaps things would be easier if we lived aligned with our Guide, our Root. We might even ask ourselves if we are refusing a peaceful life because we enjoy the drama and self-centeredness of suffering. If we live in a state of togetherness with our Source, whatever our situation may be, it will be made easier. It is a serious cause for self-questioning if we refuse peace and joy.

Centering, a kind of alignment,is the first necessary step of worship. Silence and emptiness are the labyrinth we navigate to gradually bring ourselves to this state of alignment. Worship is not emptiness; emptiness is simply a space we build, like the interior of a temple. Within this space the new and unexpected could happen—we could receive healing or enlightenment if it reaches out to us. Emptiness is our invitation, and words may be our calling out—the way we bring our own attention toward the Presence that is always with us. Silence and words are the steps we use to walk the path toward gradually opening ourselves. Finally, by an act of will, we open the door to the love that upholds us—we say yes.

And what happens once we have passed into the Presence? Into breathing the real air that upholds all life? Can we stay on the mountaintop as Moses longed to do, and set up tents with Jesus on Mount Tabor as the apostles wanted? No—after realignment into the Presence, worship flows into movement, and the dance begins. We shake hands, we turn this way and that, and we speak. Now we remember that the Presence is with us not only within sacred time, but within the ordinary too. As long as we choose to keep our door open, the Presence stays with us, in all words. Jacques Lusseyran learned this through the clarity that blindness brought him:

There is only one world. Things outside only exist if you go to meet them with everything you carry in yourself. As to the things inside, you will never see them well unless you allow those outside to enter in.

Through setting aside special times for worship, we become accustomed to the safety of life. We can speak and move and attempt creative work with more confidence. We can hear foreign ideas and not be afraid. The Presence is in all its creations. We can love it with our bodies; we can serve it with our arms. We can dig and mine for it when it seems avalanched under confusion. Where can we go that it won’t be? It is here, there, and everywhere.

Thus meeting for worship is a return to the state of worship, that state in which the wise and powerful, as George Fox expressed it, "walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one." We dance with our Source: sometimes we are following and the Source is moving us quickly. Sometimes we find ourselves in the lead—we must make a decision, a choice, or an act of will. Living in this state of worship is not servitude, but a promise—the promise that we are upheld by the Source of all that is, and that we are not alone in our creative works or in our confusions. Martin Buber nicely described how to live in the power of relationship when he said, "The basic word I-Thou can be spoken only with one’s whole being. . . . Whoever says Thou does not have something, he has nothing. But he stands in relation."

Although he says nothing about the sense of togetherness with the Presence/Power with whom we dance, T.S. Eliot, in the following passage from Four Quartets, has spoken beautifully for the process and experience of Quaker worship:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

And we cannot say with whom we dance. Giving names and faces to the Divine was anathema in early Judaism, and yet we feel accompanied through life, and we feel that we dance with a responsive partner. Quaker worship adds this deeper level to T.S. Eliot’s description: there is One with whom we dance, and the One is also the many, as well as the Source. Nothing is outside of the One and yet no part of the One is the whole, nor can we say (because we don’t know) that the One is the sum of the parts. The One must also contain limitless uncreated, and all creation increases the power of the One.

I have seen a perfect image of the whole: on Navy Pier along Chicago’s shoreline is a giant Ferris wheel. The large light at the center sends light outward along the spokes until it reaches the lights on the rim. The rim is always lit, yet is also in the process of being lit, and the light moves ever outward from the center, while the whole wheel is moving together at the same time—and it is all one thing! In Quaker worship we sit in a circle, facing the center, united by this center. If we reach the gathered meeting, the center moves us together in the same dance. We experience our individual light as having a place in a larger dance, not lost but multiplied in power. We do not need endless prayers to persuade the Source to be with us, all we need to say is yes. Yes, I accept your invitation to dance. I will not separate myself from this good that wants to happen. I will dance with you, O Mystery that creates us, and thus I will take my place in the dance of the whole.

Amen and alleluia!

Marti Matthews

Marti Matthews is a member of Northside Meeting in Chicago, Ill. She is active in Illinois Yearly Meeting, a counselor for the Adult Basic Education Department of Triton College, and author of the book, Pain: The Challenge and the Gift. ©2002 Marti Matthews