Silence in the Noise

Photo by Flickr/santos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I came to Quakerism in 1995, a new mom overwhelmed by the gobsmacking spiritual earthquake of having brought a brand new human being into the world. Religion and I had long since shown each other the door, but I felt my soul hungering for a way to engage with a world that now seemed so crammed with layer upon layer of miraculous meaning. After some initial experimentation I found myself at a traditional unprogrammed Friends meeting and realized I had found my home. The absence of liturgy and creed allowed me to experience uncoerced worship, which in turn allowed me to confront the inward raw and broken places that most needed the healing of the Light. I found the silence of meeting for worship both provocative and comforting, a space that rewarded courage and exploration with comfort and peace. I’m a highly verbal, quick-witted person with a strong and arrogant ego. The silence of meeting for worship stripped away my customary barriers against uncomfortable truths and held me up as I faltered toward an understanding grounded in something deeper than words, deeper even than thought.

In the next decade I deepened my spiritual practice and participated in Friends activity in all the places where I lived. Upon becoming a nurse, I stopped going to meeting because I worked on Sundays, but my spiritual growth continued, firmly anchored in the Quaker teachings and traditions that had answered my call initially. Those years were ones of great personal upheaval; pain and grief became my intimate friends, and the lessons they taught became integral parts of who I am. Silence was hard to come by, and when it arrived I was often unable to lower my defenses enough to reap its solace. It became a stealthy friend, available at 3 a.m. or in hospital waiting rooms late at night, or in the car. I gradually learned to embrace it even when my heart was in turmoil, sipping from it some potent combination of perspective and respite. I learned to see trouble as the thing that happens between the silences, and I grew stronger.

A few months ago I started working at a job that leaves my weekends free, and after some fearful reticence, I have returned to meeting. My life is very busy, but from the moment I first stepped back into that quiet room and felt the familiar stillness enter my spirit, I have known that this must be a part of whatever I do from now on.

The world is so noisy, especially now. Those of us who want to fight against ignorance, prejudice, war, and poverty are surrounded by so much racket that it’s hard to discern how we are to proceed. The institutions that wield power over our lives announce their agendas so loudly that we are unable to hear the details. The suffering of others is so vast and so deeply rooted in our fundamental culture that the dissonance is deafening. We are bombarded with voices that lure us to paranoia, to oppression, to denial. In the midst of this cacophony, silence is not only golden, it is oxygen, food, and water. In the midst of voices that interrupt and contradict and harangue each other, the Spirit starves. We must learn to make silence for ourselves, to turn off the TV, shut down our computers, calm the endless conversations in our brains.

The still, small voice doesn’t clamor for our attention very often; its ways are subtler and more nuanced and easy to overlook. We know we are drifting from the Light when we feel our spiritual lenses darkening, when despair and anger and frustration drive our thoughts, when we find ourselves unable to dislodge the claws of fear in our guts. Although instinct drives us to push harder, to run and fight or curl up and hide, this is the time to simply stop. Listen. Trust. Our task is not to fight like soldiers, aspiring to victory through brute physical or mental force. Our task is to obey the still, small voice that speaks love and wisdom into our hearts, to recognize the humanity we share with all our fellow travelers regardless of their opinions, and to answer the call of justice, equality, and peace. For me, this is impossible without returning to the silence whenever I can.

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