The Meaning of Silent Worship

A Friend recently asked, "What does silent worship mean?" Silent worship is about making an opportunity for God. God makes opportunities with us—in a beautiful sunset, or in a moment of insight; silent worship is one of the ways we can make a highway for God in the wilderness of our lives.

I didn’t always know silent meeting was about God. When I began worshiping in Friends meeting, I wasn’t sure there was a God, but I was sure that silent meeting was important to me, God or no God. If there were a God, I had to come to Him or Her in my own way, on my own terms, for my own reasons. Silent worship allowed me to be myself with God, if there were a God. Shortly I learned I had no problem about using the word "worship" for silent meeting. There was a Power in the silence. I wasn’t ready to give it the name God, but I knew it was a power. Something happened in the silence. Worship changed me. I came to associate meeting for worship with transformation. I experienced moments of insight and objectivity during worship. Insights came not so much as a result of thought as by my coming to see a problem or issue in the Light.

One such early experience of seeing an issue in the Light resulted in spontaneous healing. I felt resentment against my father’s brother because he gave my father $300 when my father was dying of cancer without medical insurance. Since my father was a compulsive gambler, he quickly gambled away my uncle’s money. I was angry at my father, of course, but I was also angry with my uncle. What did he think was going to happen to the money when he gave it to my father? I dropped out of college and took the first job I could find—in a prison. I was mentally unchallenged but spiritually very challenged in my new job. I was mad at the world, and I focused some of my anger on my father’s family. A few years after my father died, I sat in meeting and was called to remember my resentment. In almost the same instant, I felt a deep disinterest in maintaining that old anger. I let go of it, and the anger never returned. I saw the issue in the Light during worship that day.

I was changed not only during worship; I noticed I was different after worship. I remember once speaking to a friend after meeting. As I looked into her face, I was moved to say words of healing about an issue she hadn’t shared with me—or anyone else, for that matter. She was a very private person. I felt I might invade her privacy if I spoke those healing words. I was afraid. What if I were wrong? Right or wrong, would she be offended? Then I thought: "This is happening right after worship. I should trust it." I spoke the words of healing, and she looked at me like a wounded animal. I took her hand and squeezed it. I knew I had done what Love required of me. I learned that Something used me in healing ways after worship. I came to call that presence for change "God."

For me in those early years, meeting for worship was a laboratory experiment. I was learning who God was experientially. My whole way of relating to the world changed after meeting and between meetings. During worship I sometimes thought, "Nothing’s happening!" But I learned to look at my way of walking in the world after meeting. The whole week was different because I had gone to silent worship.

I have come to believe that meeting for worship is about change, transformation, coming to wholeness. If I truly make an opportunity for God in worship, I will be changed. Sometimes change happens through grace. Sometimes it happens because I work very hard. But if I work hard, it’s because God first gave me the grace of wanting to change so I would work hard.

If worship is about change, it is also true that God takes me where I am. If I am caught up in an unsatisfying relationship, God will speak to me about my part in that relationship. If I am doing harm to another, I may reflect during worship on the damage I am doing. If I am caught up in the laundry lists of life, I may find myself yearning to choose meaning. If I come to worship to mull over a problem, I may learn my own responsibility for the existence of the problem. If I come to worship in mourning, I may find deep gratitude for what has been given. God takes me where I am.

Worship is different each time, depending somewhat on the issues and concerns I bring with me to meeting. It’s important to me that I not try to program what worship will feel like. I simply expect to be in worship and don’t expect it to feel a certain way. Sometimes worship feels like I’m fully awake, using senses not available to me in my dailiness. Sometimes I am filled with awe and reverence, sometimes with joy, sometimes with holy sorrow, compassion—often with gratitude. What worship is like depends on what I am like when I come to worship—what I need, what I am ready for. Notice, I didn’t say what I want, but what I need. God sets the agenda.

I have experienced deep inner silence—wordlessness. During it I am in touch with my core self, my eternal self. The troubling issue will return after the deep inner silence, but I will face the issue with my core self, my eternal self, the spark of God within. I will look at the same events with a God’s-eye view, a longer-range perspective that is at the same time a wider and deeper perspective.

I have sometimes experienced what the apostles called the peace that passeth all understanding, the peace in the midst of uproar that says, "This is what’s given. This is mine to confront. I know what I am called to do, and I will do it the best I can. Despite outward chaos, outward pain and suffering, outward terror, I am called in this particular way at this particular moment. I will do what I am called to do." The action that was beyond even considering becomes something I choose to do.

I may know that a particular meeting for worship is gathered. All hearts are moved to deal with different aspects of the same issue, through spoken ministry or not. I have read of profoundly deaf Friends speaking words in worship that are right in tune with the ministry they have not been able to hear with their outer ears. Gathered worship is more likely to happen to me if I truly listen to the ministry of others in meeting. When I truly listen, I will learn that a Friend who has dementia is still capable of being moved to speak to what is on everyone’s heart during a particular meeting.

Easter Day, 1993, was an especially gathered meeting for those of us in Urbana-Champaign (Ill.) Meeting. A Friend said he didn’t know how he could forgive Robert McNamara, because McNamara wrote he knew the war in Vietnam could not be won, but supported it anyway. All hearts focused at once, not on Vietnam, but on forgiving, and we were as one heart. Several Friends spoke, but the meeting was so deeply centered that there was no mistaking it for a popcorn meeting. I especially remember one Friend saying, "When a deep wrong has been done, healing the breach may not require me to say, ‘I forgive you’—because our enemy may not need to be forgiven. But if I can say, ‘Please forgive me,’ then maybe the wound in both of us can be healed." After worship we all were in wonderment about what had come forth in our midst. God had touched a chord, and we all resonated in tune, gathered in worship by the call to forgive.

I may know that a particular meeting for worship is covered—the spirit of God covers us with wings of peace. We are held in God’s everlasting arms. This may be a corporate experience, or it may be for one person alone. I think sometimes I can tell the experience has not been mine alone. I have been held for a while, and when I return to the dailiness of life, I look around and see others returning to dailiness at the same moment. There is a general stirring in the room when the Presence lets go its hold on a covered meeting, and we return from a far country.

In a covered meeting I feel a little like a small child who has explored the world for a while and then comes to a caring adult’s lap to be cuddled before she returns to exploring the world. Like a child, I am restored by being held in God’s lap. After worship I will be ready to explore our world again—ready to fall, skin my knee, learn—and then I’ll know it’s time to return to God’s lap.

The experience of a covered meeting is different each time, depending on my need. Sometimes I have rested in God. I have often come to worship crazy, but I have always left it sane; sometimes a covered meeting means being restored to Reality. For me there are no words during a covered meeting. I am beyond words. I am simply held. When God lets me off Her lap there may be a few words: "About that problem you had when you came in—have you thought about this?" God gives me the key. Usually I’m not sure how the key should be used, or how to put it in the lock. I usually have to work for my insights, or if not for the insight, then for how it should be used. But the key is there. I have been held in the Light, restored in God’s lap, and given the key. It’s a gift. What I do with the gift is my choice. I return to the dailiness of my problem bearing a gift.

The most important ingredient I can bring with me to worship is an attitude of expectancy. Meeting for worship is a time I choose to spend in the presence of God. Silent worship is about becoming friends with God. I glance across the room, and God meets my eye. Attracted, I glance again, and shortly we are conversing. I begin to change, and I like my new self so much, shortly I am making regular dates to meet my new Friend. We meet in the silence more and more often. I change some more; I am unmade and remade—several times. I like who I am with God, who I am becoming. In the silence I am comforted, given new thoughts to think, challenged to become whole in spite of brokenness—whole with the brokenness. I become more a person, and I love the Person who taught me how, who first called me to personhood. Just as in being with a dear friend, being with God is full of variety. It’s never the same twice. There’s no agenda, but something special happens each time. Just as I come to be with my friend with expectancy, I come to be with God with expectancy. I hang out with my friend God, becoming more who I am as I learn more about who God is. Silent worship is about relationship with the Author of all that is.
This is the unrevised text of an article that appeared in Friends Journal in January 2000. ©2000 Mariellen O. Gilpin