Words, Silence, and the Body in Quaker Worship

I have loved the work of Rex Ambler, the English Quaker who has developed Experiment with Light groups, among other things. In particular, I remain attracted to one of his key concepts, presented by Ambler in his lecture/essay entitled The End of Words, about the state of Quaker theology in the early 1990s. Ambler argues for a dimension of Quaker spirituality that would help Friends discover renewed ways to express our faith. In an approach that appeals to me in many different ways, Ambler asserts that for Quakers, the most important moment of faith occurs precisely when words end and experience begins. Ambler highlights that Quaker theology is one of action, enactment, and what I have come to call — Ambler doesn’t use this phrase — an embodied form of knowing.

I would take his idea about the importance of expressive experience and the end of words a little further, being clear that this is my take and not his at all. In my own research about how Quakers think about silent worship and its meanings, I am struck by some parallels between silence and words. As with biological symbiosis, there’s a necessary interpenetration of silence and words in Quaker worship. In my own research study, Quaker worship participants said that the point of silent worship wasn’t just to become still; instead, not far underneath the surface, there was always the possibility of offering words out of and connected to the silence. Somehow, in ways that are not always rational, as when participants in silent worship allow the silence to penetrate them and flow through them as if a gift from the Divine—a form of the Inner Light—the words may be congruent with and even formed by and through the silence. In their published version of the 1992 Swarthmore Lecture, Images and Silence, Brenda Clifft Heales and Chris Cook argue that if the meeting for worship goes deeply enough into a centered and creative silence, the words will reflect that transformation.

Based upon their severe critique about the lack of deep worship in British Quaker Meetings, Heales and Cook urged Quakers "to reject discussion and therapy talk in order to return to God in some via negativa, a potentially painful apophatic manner." They call British Friends to "the unknowableness, the mystery of God in order to counteract the dominance of the therapeutic culture." They want the words and images of the worship setting to "become prophetic, a contemporary version of the logos, as a word that cleanses and renews because it originates from this mysterious unity with God in silence."

After all, it can be a wonderful thing to turn over one’s body, heart, soul, and mind to the Divine, "to wait upon the Spirit." While worship participants, as they did in my study, will use various words, including biblical phrases, a mantra, or nothing at all, it can be a relief to let go of an obsession with words and to turn over one’s heart and mind to become an instrument upon which the Spirit can play.

Even though words may appear out of the silence of worship, the main point is not about words per se, even given vocal ministry in worship, but about an experience in which the body and its meanings play a primary role. As Rex Ambler argues, the worship goes well beyond words, and in many ways, even the words from vocal ministry present only a small slice of the embodied, experiential meanings. As worship participants said to me in my research, only a very small part of the meaning of silence and worship comes through the medium of words. Eugene Gendlin, a psychologist and founder of an approach called Focusing, writes about the additional "felt sense" of our bodily experience and how we carry so much more than words to reflect meaning. Les Todres, director of a center on Embodiment at Bournemouth University in Dorset, England, also describes this in his book Embodied Enquiry. This embodied knowing emphasizes personal experience and a knowledge that is holistic and kinesthetic, so that—for example—the Quaker worshiper feels and knows more than can be expressed in words. And that is precisely what many of my own research participants said to me.

This embodied knowing provides ways to think about how some participants in Quaker silent worship might become, in Ambler’s words, "expressively exuberant." It makes so much sense to explore beyond words themselves, to open up the experience of worship. But so much of the time such ways to overcome words come only with difficulty.

For a year or more, I struggled to make sense of my research findings about Quaker silent worship, mainly because I realized that even though I had the words of 47 Quakers from transcripts, many of these individuals had cautioned me or even insisted that Quaker spirituality was not about words.

"You know, Stan, Quaker silent worship is not about words at all," one participant said.

I would nod and listen as best I could.

One woman said: "It’s how you feel inside."

I tried to listen deeply, absorbing the message about how words were not the definitive markers for the meanings of silence. As it happened, I had a breakthrough about all of this a year or so after I had finished the interviews with these 47 Quakers, which I describe in my book The Meanings of Silence in Quaker Worship. One of the shifts occurred in a serendipitous manner, and I documented some of it in my devotional book, Voices from the Silence. After finishing the conversations and transcribing the interviews, I struggled with what to make of the words, and couldn’t do it until one afternoon, in a second-floor apartment in the Fairfax-Pico section of Los Angeles, I lay on the floor and started to dream and write:

Something other than the usual happened, lying on the floor, tuned to whatever channel picked up his dreams, allowing the flow, the water and its associated memories, the sunlight, all of the movement in his hands and fingers reaching back from his entire arm, connected to the whole body, his heart, loins and right now to the strange toes, carrying all of this into the fingers, writing, or at least making somewhat comprehensible marks on the papers, flowing from dream to memory and back, embodied, powerful and compelling.

At that point, surely, the writing originated from another place, not only from the head; rather, the energy in the writing flowed out from the entire body, as he dozed on the floor, lying on his stomach and the words appeared from him as if within some elongated stream of fluids, overflowing almost from this centered place on the floor, lying on his stomach, gazing at the mountains, bathed in the wondrous light, feeling the pulse of his heart move through the very tips of his fingers and onto the blank page of paper, pulsating there on the floor, with the breathing itself, the throbbing in his heart as the blood flowed through him and out of the tips of his fingers and onto the page, pouring out of himself and into the remarkable Southern California light.

This experience on the floor of my West Los Angeles apartment had consequences. One outcome was that the book I called Voices from the Silence just poured out of my dreaming body while I was lying on my stomach. In addition, as I came to understand later, this experience on the floor represented a form of embodied knowledge, a version of bodily or tacit knowing that had originated in my entire body and just poured out onto the pages through my hands, arms, stomach, and heart, as if in a series of pulsations, matching the breathing, in a flow of words and images.

This represents a form of embodied knowledge in the sense that the meanings flowed through me and entered into my consciousness. It reminds me of the research about creativity completed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Eventually, I started to read and think about what it might mean to know from this grounded, embodied position as I read feminist scholar Mary Keller’s book about spirit possession, The Hammer and the Flute, and other people including Les Todres. As I learned from them and others, embodiment had many meanings and represented a form of tacit knowledge in which one’s bodily experience (like what happened to me in that West Los Angeles flow) contained a kind of knowing that carried layers of meanings far beyond what words could say.

For me, this became an "aha" moment that offered a way to understand what many of my research participants had said about silence and words: I should understand the meanings of the worship silence from embodied experience as well as from words. It felt liberating: embodiment became one way for me to think about how Quakers know things and what it means to sit together in the worship silence, feeling and being more than words, on the level of the feelings, through one’s body, open to the Spirit, to God and its influences, flowing through the heart of these worship participants.

This meant that the focus upon experience took on new meaning, at least a little. The ideas about how our knowing reflects an "embodied" dimension allowed me to think about authority differently. It wasn’t a matter of a text or a creed or even the Quaker testimonies as the primary sources of power in Quaker spiritual practice; rather, the sources of authority, while inward, got carried along through the experience, through the possessed body, so it provided additional ways to reflect upon the layers of meanings in experience. This provided a key to open up experience as a kind of text through which to "read," as it were, the continuing revelation, offering a source of power and authority coming through such an embodied knowing.

This brings me back to Rex Ambler and his assertion that Quaker theology is "intellectual illumination." He writes that theology, "as intellectual illumination, assumes that the relevant truth is given in our human experience, initially in experiences ‘beyond what words can utter,’ but then also in the words and actions and lives that bear witness [to] that inner revelation." Theology is that interplay with an experience beyond words, as well as our human attempts to assign meaning through words, yet always staying connected to the silence of the Divine. This interchange can be made fruitful, as the spiritual discipline in worship of being open to the Divine and becoming deeply centered in the spiritual listening in worship, allowing the worshipers to enact their faith out of the silence, through a possessed body and in transformed words at times.

Stanford J. Searl

Stanford J. Searl Jr., a member of Santa Monica (Calif.) Meeting, is the author of several books, including The Meaning of Silence in Quaker Worship and Voices from the Silence. He has taught as a member of the core doctoral faculty at Union Institute and University since 1987.