The Silence Within the Silence

Deep within us all is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a Speaking Voice to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life.
—Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

When I read these words for the first time, I knew that their meaning was real and true for me. I was only 22 years old and was comfortable with my membership in the church I was attending. Thomas Kelly’s message in his spiritual classic A Testament of Devotion spoke to me and changed my life forever.

It is said that when you have a spiritual awakening your life cannot go on as usual. At that time, I’m not so sure if I realized that I was having a spiritual awakening. (Now, at 68, I know that I needed more than one spiritual wake-up call in my lifetime.) With the inspiration of Thomas Kelly’s message fresh in my mind, I was determined to find a Quaker meeting and learn more about the “Light Within.”

With a little research, I was able to locate Summit (N.J.) Meeting. The year was 1966, and at that time, Summit Friends met in the basement of the local YWCA. I remember clearly when my wife, Jane, and I attended our first meeting and how warmly Friends greeted us before worship began. I remember that initial silence as we fell into worship; I felt peace and exhilaration at the same time. I believe that I already knew at that first Quaker meeting that I had found a new spiritual home. The meeting opened its new meetinghouse in 1969 in Chatham Township, and I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends in 1971.

It is this same Silence that I have grown to love and explore to this day, some 45 years after finding Summit Meeting, both in meeting for worship and in my everyday life. We changed the name to Chatham-Summit Meeting in 2006, in order to fit the name of our location while maintaining our history. Throughout these changes in our meeting, as well as changes in my own life, the Silence remains the same, but it has taken on a deeper meaning for me.

I received a leading to visit other Quaker meetings in the area just about a month after retiring from my 43-year career at The Seeing Eye School in September 2007. For several years, one of my spiritual mentors from meeting, Mary Alice Benson, had encouraged me to visit other meetings and share my ministry with them. It wasn’t until after Mary Alice died that I was awakened to this leading and began visiting other meetings and sharing the message of the Light as revealed to me by the inspiration of Thomas Kelly.

Two years have passed since I began this wonderful journey, and a member of my anchor committee often accompanies me on these visitations. During a recent visit to Trenton Meeting, a question by a Friend caused me to take a look at the experiences that I had shared at various meetings during the past two years. The question was simply, “What are the differences that you have noticed about the meetings you have visited?” The first thought that came to me was not the differences that I have found, but the sameness that I have experienced in the silent worship in each meeting. There is a seeking Spirit among Friends that brings us together in our silent worship.

Of course, the people in every meeting are different. We come in an assortment of ages, from different ethnic groups, and with a variety of religious backgrounds. Some are lifelong Quakers, but most are convinced. Another difference is the various structures of the meetinghouses. Without exception, though, all of them reflect our Testimony of Simplicity. Due to our long and intricate history, many of the meetinghouses are quite old and have an historic feel and smell to them. I often reflect on the love and commitment of those Friends who built these wonderful, unique structures, as well as those Friends who now care for them. I cannot help but wonder what it would have been like to worship with the early Quakers at the Dover-Randolph Meeting in New Jersey in 1750.

Another difference I observed is the outward noise that surrounds the silence of each meetinghouse. At my home meeting of Chatham- Summit, we are fortunate to be located on a cozy, wooded hillside in a residential area. Although we often hear nearby traffic, it is relatively quiet on First Day mornings. Outside of our floor-to-ceiling windows in the meeting room, birds, squirrels, rabbits, and deer visit us; I once even saw a red fox scamper through the woods during worship. It is natural for me to think about the Peaceable Kingdom during these moments in the silence.

In some of the smaller meetings, such as Quakertown (N.J.) Meeting, I noticed very little outward noise. The meetinghouse, which has a cemetery behind it, is located at the top of a hill in a small, quiet town. When I visited in February, it was a cold, blustery day, and I could hear the wind blowing through the fir tree just outside the window. My thoughts turned toward John 3:8, where Jesus said to Nicodemus: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

Meetinghouses in urban areas are often surrounded by a cacophony of city noises. I found this to be true of Plainfield (N.J.) Meeting, which is located on the edge of the business district. The meetinghouse is across the street from the local train station, and trains pass through every half hour. It was a warm summer day when I visited, and the windows and doors had been opened in hopes of catching a breeze. The train’s noise, as well as the sounds of traffic and people, created quite a “surround sound” for the meetinghouse. It made me think of the different levels of silence that I have experienced over the years in meeting for worship. At first, I found myself distracted by these outward noises, which I believe was my ego paying them too much attention. Now, with more practice in centering in the Silence, I find that I welcome these outward sounds as signs of life and release them to God, the Source of all life.

As I reflect upon the differences among meetings I have visited in the past two years, I perceive that each has its own vibrant sense of community. I have found that within the Silence of worship is the sameness that pervades every meeting. Despite the variation in our communities, in our meetinghouses, and in the surrounding noises, it is the Silence that speaks louder and leads us deeper into the spirit. It is when we are blessed to find the Silence within the silence, where “Deep calleth unto deep” (Psalms 42:7), that our differences melt away and we become one with the Light Within. At the same time, the outward sounds remind us of a world in need. As Friends we are called to reach out and share the message of Light, Love, and Peace with our world, while giving of ourselves to those who are suffering. It is from the Silence within the silence that we find the Presence of the Light, which brings us together as a blessed community. Although as Friends we may have many differences among our meetings, we are all connected in the Light.