The Way We Sit in Meeting for Worship

Sitting is essential to life as a primate. The fact that we have the ischial tuberosity—the "sitz bone"—is perhaps as important to the evolution of Homo sapiens as is the opposable thumb. We can sit, eat, and ponder—it’s what makes us human.

But no one pays attention to sitting. People write books about almost every aspect of human movement but sitting. Walking, talking, throwing, running, eating, and sleeping all have their Thoreaus. Sitting has only farcical metrics like the most people sitting in one chair (722, set in Missouri in 2007) or the longest atop a flagpole (51 days). It is a dull, unnoticed part of human existence. But it is at the core of Quaker meeting for worship.

I was in college when I first began attending meeting for worship. I luxuriated in the silence. Meeting was at ten in the morning—the equivalent of dawn for an undergraduate. Sitting on a folding metal chair, I slumped into a low-riding, hunching, drooping sag, more horizontal than vertical. I took off my glasses, only to put them on again at a quarter to the hour when all the children from First-day school burst into the room. I did not fall asleep in those somnolent hours, but I got close.

As I grew older and went to bed earlier on Saturday nights, my meeting position evolved into a two-part pose: arms crossed and folded, legs scissored one over the other, so that a foot dangled. I would hunker down with my head nestled into my sweater. Often I would not move the whole hour, though the leg on top usually fell asleep—or I would not move until the first message was given, which I would take as a signal to shift legs. "Sink very low and become very little and know little," wrote Isaac Penington. I relished my weekly arrival at a quiet, spiritual pool, dappled with my own fleeting thoughts, my arms resting on the oars of my soul’s boat.

Parsing the language of the body is not easy, but arm folding is generally understood to be an expression of pushing back, disagreement, closing out, or shielding. Some body language experts think that when people cross their arms, they are actually listening less. Others claim that it is a sign not of defensiveness but of passivity.

Modern discussion about body language originates from experiments in the 1960s by Albert Mehrabian, a professor of Psychology at UCLA. Mehrabian’s theory was "7-38-55": that 7 percent of a message comes from the words themselves, 38 percent from the tone, and 55 percent from the speaker’s body language. Since his theory came out, scientists have argued about those nonverbal communication percentages— like the percentage of heat lost through the head it’s an ever-fluid number. Researchers have tried different experimental setups (Mehrabian used only female subjects, single words from a tape recorder, and photographs of facial expressions) and come up with different percentages.

Still, there is no doubt that some part of your message is delivered by your body. And your body, during meeting, is giving a message when you are just seated and not speaking. "I quietly resign myself to complete listening," wrote Douglas Steere. But how could my mind be listening, if my body was not? Arm folding meant distancing, as damaging to the meeting as the habit of reading a book or pamphlet, or falling asleep. Edward Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, described one particularly famous sitter, Saint Simeon Stylites, the fifth-century Syrian monk who lived for 37 years on a 50-foot pillar. The reason he did this was to escape acolytes who pestered him with questions. Sitting high atop his pillar, he closed himself off.

Simply being in the room and every once in a while delivering a short message was not enough. I had to contribute to each meeting, for the entire hour. I had to be accepting, open and vulnerable. I had to join in the communal sacrament. And I had to support the Spirit.

Specifically, I had to address a neglected word in perhaps the most famous passage of Quaker wisdom—the George Fox Journal entry from 1656:

Be Patterns, be Examples in all Countries, Places, Islands, Nations, where-ever you come, that your Carriage and Life may preach among all sorts of People, and to them: then you will come to walk Cheerfully over the World, Answering that of God in every one, whereby in them ye may be a Blessing.

Many Quakers have eagerly glommed on to the creed-like adage that comes from this passage: "Let your life speak." There are books with that as a title, days at Friends schools devoted to elucidating it, coffee mugs and women’s cap-sleeve T-shirts with it emblazoned for the world to see. Only after having seen Fox’s extract countless times did I realize that for me the most important thing was not that my life may preach but that my carriage may preach. Fox was a believer in body language—his Journal is replete with mentions of people’s "evil carriage," "bad carriage," "uncivil and unchristian carriage," "the baseness of their carriage towards us"— so he surely must have seen that how you sat in meeting was as important as what you said.

My new carriage is to sit with both feet on the ground, shoulder-length apart or tucked under the bench, and my hands folded in my lap. In this position I feel open and I am ready to receive everyone else. "Sitting on my own not by myself," sings Cat Stevens in his song, "Sitting": "Everybody’s here with me / I don’t need to touch your face to know and I don’t need to use my eyes to see." We are all on our own, separate individuals, with our specific bodies, energies, and thoughts. But we are not alone. Everybody’s here with us.

Emily Dickinson is my meeting lodestar. She is a wonderful poet to ponder with her short, vivid brushstrokes and her lapidary phrases that contain great depth of meaning. "Hope is the thing with feathers" comes to mind, for instance, when the messages veer towards the idea of doing good in an often bad world. With regard to sitting, I think of her poem about the jaybird, "Sitting a bough like a Brigadier, / Confident and straight." That seems the proper posture, though with a softer, more welcoming edge.

During the "joys and sorrows" part of meeting for worship, I think about my carriage the most. I need to be able to hold someone in the Light. I need my arms and legs out, my hands unfurled, my back confident and straight, in readiness to embrace and carry a friend in need. The Light is always there; it is the holding that we need to do. For years, when I heard the phrase "let us hold so-and-so in the Light," I imagined that the Light was some sort of gargantuan sun lamp that I would thrust the person toward, to receive a spiritual tan. Now, as my emphasis is on the holding, the Light is everywhere and I am just cradling people in need as the Light crashes over them like a warm, continuous, cleansing wave.

Zug James

James Zug, a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, is the author of six books, including The Long Conversation: 125 Years of Sidwell Friends School, 1883-2008. His latest book, Run to the Roar: Coaching to Overcome Fear, was published in November 2010.