In the mid-1950s I participated in a study and discussion program sponsored by United States Conference of the World Council of Churches in preparation for a major gathering two years later on the theme "Nature of the Unity We Seek." Groups were set up around the country with representatives of the major Protestant denominations. Each group was assigned a topic and met for a three-hour session every six weeks for a period of two years. The general theme was the sacraments and the ways in which faiths and beliefs unite or separate us. The topic of the Seattle group to which I was named was "Baptism."
The Religious Society of Friends has held a rather radical position on the sacraments—which include baptism and communion. Friends have believed in the inner-spiritual observation of these occasions and not in the outward practices, so my contributions to the discussions were from a very different frame of reference, but were received with courtesy and, I’m sure, some curiosity. All members of the group made presentations of their religious body’s belief and practice relative to baptism. What was remarkable was that most of the representatives felt that as practiced, baptism didn’t mean very much. There were many forms and concepts—infant and non-infant baptism, christenings, immersion, sprinkling, etc. Much depended on the traditions and clerical leadership involved, but in some instances the occasion took on a somewhat formalistic air.
The rite of baptism centers on the use of water as a symbol of cleansing, of death and rebirth, of risk saved by faith. Into these considerations came a discussion of what was seen to be the changed significance of water as a religious symbol in the modern lexicon. Many of the ancient religions, and certainly Christianity, were based in arid lands, where water was life itself. And, certainly, there are parts of the world where this is still very true. But in our Western, high-technology culture water is turned on and off at the tap, almost everyone can swim, and while water is still death-dealing and life-giving, the power of its meaning has certainly diminished. So, if water has lost something of its power for both menace and healing, does any other element come to mind?
It occurred to me, and I expressed it in my presentation on the practice of Friends, that silence might well be considered in this role. Silence today is a very rare commodity. Many people feel restless and uneasy when silence surrounds them, and there is an urge to fill it with something—anything. Some years back I was speaking with a friend who was curious about Quaker worship. She said she’d like to visit a meeting sometime, and asked what she should expect. I explained that we sat in a circular formation, and that the meeting for worship opened, usually, with a period of gathered (group) silence of 20 to 30 minutes. The poor dear was horrified. That long in silence? "Oh, I couldn’t do that!" She exclaimed. Even many Friends find silence difficult, and they tend to fill it with mental exercises.
Let me explain what I think silence can be. To enter into silence is in some respects analogous to entering into water, for pleasure or for therapy—you offer yourself to it, relaxed and trustful, and you are rewarded with the realization that the element you may have feared will sustain you. If you are tense and flail about, you will sink. Silence is not an end but a beginning—to be entered; to descend into; to be trusted for the truths that may be there; for light, guidance, and for instruction. One may hear life speaking, or hear nothing but calmness and waiting. The individual experience is, in a Quaker meeting for worship, a part of a group experience: sharing the spoken word, sharing the surrounding silence, and responding inwardly to both. Out of the silence may come an insight, a meaning, a memory, a deeply held and examined concern that emerges in the spoken word. A message thus given is not responded to conversationally nor adversarially—it is laid before the group as an offering on an altar, and it may be taken and used or it may be left.
As a meeting for worship we are silent but listening, using the silence individually and collectively, aware of yet oblivious to each other, expecting everything but expecting nothing. And out of nothing can come the greatest gift—the divine mystery and power of the paradox.