Out of Silence

Dusk mustered forces in the shrubbery when I pulled out of my friends’ driveway. It was deep into 6 p.m. and the shadows of evening were gathering. Earth’s colors were muted, but the clear sky above was washed in peach and the small, thin clouds glowed amber.
The eastern heaven wore a pure, warm opalescence; and as I turned right at the first traffic light, heading toward Vermont, the sun winked deep vermilion and sank behind the far hills.

I switched on the car radio just as a charcoal smudge appeared against the luminous sky. Glancing up from the untrafficked road, I watched the smudge focus into a wedge of geese. The V’s uneven arms were a checkmark of affirmation as the opening bars of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony filled the car.

It was like a satiny bow on the gift of a memorable day.

Directly across the circle of chairs is a window with three African violets resting on its generous sill. The center plant is crowned in royal bloom. "God is waiting," I thought as I sat, "and we gather in God’s peace."

Despite all planning, getting off to Sunday morning service can be a little anxious, it seems to me. And driving to service an hour away always carries the chance of unpredictable delays that should be reckoned with.

I did well for once. Only two ladies were in the second floor assembly room of Bennington Senior Center when I arrived. They were putting out books and pamphlets on a table and welcomed me with smiles and handshakes. Bennington Meeting has been gathering in this public facility for some time, while it studies the feasibility of a permanent home. I had been privileged to visit once before and enjoyed peace and inspiration. Was that typical or the exception, I had wondered as I planned another visit?

I leafed through a couple of magazines. People were arriving. There is not the chatter here typical among Baptist, Congregational, and Community churches I attend. Yet warm recognition and quiet welcome embrace all comers. Gradually people find places in the circle of armless blue upholstered chairs.

Sunlight floods through the window across from me and bathes the blossoms in splashes of purple, violet, amethyst, and mauve—jewels tiaraed on slender stems above the lush, succulent leaves.

"God is waiting, and we gather in God’s peace."

"I had forgotten," I think, "forgotten this one essential fact of worship. Habit and tradition too easily erase this central truth."

The usual services I attend are so set on preluding, processing, and invoking God’s presence (hopefully to dialogue, but usually just to listen) that I do not picture God there before me. Waiting. Expecting. Watching for my arrival. One does not place the return of the prodigal son in a sanctuary, yet is that not the very home we stumble to, and find God waiting?

I so easily forget that it is God’s summons to come. God’s call to assemble. God’s house—where God hosts—and blesses.

Across from me, my friends, who arrive after I am seated, are taking chairs to the right of the window. The husband is left in shadow, but the flood of light anoints her hair—her shoulder. It streams a rectangle of light across the floor beyond them—"a light unto my path!"

Almost at the point of arrival I knew that this would not just be a repetition of my earlier experience. I had purposely decided to sit across the circle from where I was seated on my first visit. I wanted assurance of a new perspective, to escape mere echoes of my first meeting with the Religious Society of Friends. I sought worship, not recall.

But I need not have planned. God had already accomplished that. God had not just rearranged, God had redecorated. God was indeed awaiting me.

Since my prior visit, the Senior Center had redecorated the entire room. Walls were repainted, the carpet had given place to a polished wooden floor, visually redolent of grained boards in multi-hued tans, ochres, and warm browns: incense for the eyes: sweet fragrances for thought. Quilts hung against the mat white walls. Antique drums rested on the rafters.

"God had them redecorate for the Quakers, I thought. "The reflective restfulness of blues predominates. And the wood accents."

Wood as symbol. The Carpenter is at home. And we are welcome.

The decorators had not just used wood. They had accented brown weathered beams against the flat white walls. And the beams echo crosses. Salvaged beams from some ravaged building, they echo barn, and manger, and shelter—"Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations."

As people find their places I notice more men this time. I see young and old, couples, children. (Later I learn they include current members of the meeting, and past members visiting for the day.) Generations face each other in multiple meanings of the word.
Upon the wall before me, and floating above in the rafters, the cross whispers God’s love. Even the blue-and-white, 9-piece patches of the quilt hold crosses—Greek crosses: crosses with equal arms saying, "Justice is for all, salvation available to anyone"—crosses of azure hope pieced against the pure corners of forgiveness.

I am too prone to ponder catch phrases, "Advent carries Lent," "Stable links with Sepulchre," as if Messiah can be captured and declined. Here simple timbers reveal Truth. No word, no explanation is necessary. How quietly the members take their places.

Such pregnant silence.

Such revitalizing peace.

Quietness flooding room and soul like absolution. Silence immersing, cleansing us in peace.

And through the silence . . . Light! Light in fragments touches persons and rectangles the floor, moving as the hour whispers by. Light, touching one and then another. Reminding us of God. Light behind us and before us. Above us. Among us. Within!

And God is light.

One of my greeters moves past me now, to take a chair across the circle on the left. She sits beneath the wall-hung quilt in blues and yellow, prints and plains. The quilt with the nine-piece patches. Her blouse is dulled blue also, her slacks white, her socks navy. The chairs in the circle are padded blue. With closed eyes and hands relaxed, she is one with silence and setting. Her entrance is not so much a signal for the meeting to begin as for worship to continue—to expand—to grow. Out of eloquent silence.

I am often annoyed as ideas, thoughts surface. Occasionally the very words that spring to mind seem out of place in such a group. Am I bringing my ideas and concepts and superimposing them on Quaker ideas—ideals? The crosses, the flooding light, the very words cause me reflection—light that bathes, washes, anoints, "immersing," "cleansing," "absolution". . . .

With that word "absolution" I realize it is not I shaping the reflection. "This is no Baptist idea, nor Congregational, or necessarily Community," I tell myself. "This springs from a liturgy far more structured than mine. Here in this place of concern for the world, justice for all, God is free to be the God of all. Why shouldn’t God, out of the silence, seed my mind with thoughts that unite rather than separate? Seed my mind— our minds?"

Even as I meditate upon this more inclusive view, one in the circle speaks. He mentions Jesus on the Sea of Galilee—stilling the winds and waves, catching to safety the sinking Peter. "Water again," I think. "The catching of Peter from death. Into new life—salvation—resurrection. . . ."

The hour ticks to a close. We rise, join hands in common gratitude, in quiet acceptance, recognition, benediction.

At last we share names, identification, greetings, around the circle. Then divide. Some to write letters of protest, opinion, concern. Others to snack and share interests, explanations, experiences in a friendly, quiet way. Having found new understanding and acceptance of self in worship; out of the silence we are free to interact, and then depart on our individual, united, inspired ways.

Now as the heavens dull above my travel, Beethoven’s masterpiece throbs in waves of joy to its conclusion. Above the surging chorus, beyond the opulent blend of a superb quartet, the orchestra climbs to stirring heights and soars beyond hearing. And the audience of this live performance bursts into appreciative applause.

I remember stories of the deaf Beethoven being turned by the performers to behold the audience’s thunderous response to the premiere; to accept tribute for such glorious beauty, heard and shaped and born—out of silence.

Charles A. Waugaman

Charles A. Waugaman, a retired Baptist minister, artist, and writer, lives in Jamaica, Vt. His poems have appeared in Friends Journal over many years.