I practice periodic disciplined silence throughout the week and on Sundays, so silence is familiar to me. I enter a primordial, spacious place after about ten minutes.
My first Quaker worship took place at Santa Cruz (Calif.) Meeting in 1990. The deep, collective silences of these meetings for worship in the 1990s began my love affair with silence. I shared this with friends who sometimes attended worship with me. My love affair with silence led to numerous extended silent retreats at a variety of religious centers: from St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado; to Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey near Lafayette, Oregon; to Desert House of Prayer in Tucson, Arizona; to Saint Francis Retreat Center at the base of the Teton Mountains in Wyoming.
I recently moved to a new meeting. On my first Sunday, I settled into the delicious silence. After a few minutes, I became aware of an ever-present tick tock, tick tock. I thought to myself, I am new to this meeting. I should put up with it. I also told myself, It will fade away into the background. Yet every Sunday was the same. I would settle into the exquisite silence, then notice the ever-present ticking. A natural sound like running water, bird chirps, or frog croaks would fade into the background, but the precisely timed ticks were not fading.
Because of COVID-19, less than ten people attend the worship, and we are all six feet apart with masks on. We also prop the meetinghouse doors open for ventilation, so it gets cold. Everyone comes bundled with down jackets, and there are courtesy blankets for anyone who wants one.
Because the doors are ajar for ventilation, the noise of the vehicles that pass reverberate in the meeting hall. I am okay with the car noise because it can’t be helped. I am also fine with the occasional siren, rustle of a purse, or someone shuffling past to go to the restroom, which also can’t be helped. What bothers me is unnecessary noise, like the clock, which can be prevented: all that would be required is to replace it with a silent clock or to remove the clock during worship. My family had a ticking clock like this in our family room and swapped it out for a silent one.
I know there are some Quakers who believe that any and all noises are part of the worship experience and that the silence is necessarily intermittent. I agree with this view up to a point. Yet what about when the subtle noise, like a clock or the drone of a refrigerator, is incessant? I used to practice silent prayer in my office, which had a small refrigerator that always buzzed. I simply got into the habit of pulling the plug on the refrigerator during prayer times. I have a friend named Sarah who practices Zen and travels to a remote zen-dō far away from cars, sirens, buzzing machines, and the like, so she can enjoy unbroken silence.
Over the years I have come to value balance more and more in all aspects of my life. Balance comes in many forms, and wherever it appears in the natural order it is commended. When it comes to silent prayer during waiting worship, I am looking for a balance somewhere between the totally silent environment Sarah seeks and the one found at my meeting with the ticking clock.
Over the years I have come to value balance more and more in all aspects of my life. Balance comes in many forms, and wherever it appears in the natural order it is commended.
One recent Sunday, I went in with my usual resolve not to rock the boat and not to bring up the ticking clock. Then I settled into the silence and heard the tick tock, tick tock again. For some reason that particular morning I just couldn’t take it. I pulled off the blanket, quietly walked to the clock, took it off the wall, and laid it in the back of the cavernous kitchen where it could no longer be heard.
I went back to my seat. And it was the best worship yet. I accepted the necessary noise of the cars outside, the sporadic cough, and the occasional seat shuffle. About ten minutes into the meeting I felt what I have come to love about Quaker worship. My mind finally let go of all the thoughts of the morning and settled into delicious silence, where we can encounter what Quaker mystic Thomas R. Kelly called the Real Presence.
Once our minds settle in the silence, there is a spaciousness and great peace, an exquisite quiet. Yes, it is interspersed with occasional noise that we cannot prevent. Yet that silence remains our unique testament, our unique channel to commune with the Great Mystery. Sixteenth-century Christian mystic St. John of the Cross wrote, “Silence is God’s first language.” A modern Trappist monk, Thomas Keating, has added, “everything else is a poor translation.”
So, if I might, I suggest the following balance: We protect the sacred silences as best we can, by moving the ticking clock, unplugging the buzzing machine, and closing the window that faces the street when appropriate. Then when we settle into silence, we accept the noises we cannot prevent—the seat shuffles, sneezes, and coughs. This is the creative tension: we accept noise during worship but not all noise. In order to deepen the Quaker testament of sacred silence, we eliminate unnecessary noise and accept necessary noise.
After worship on the Sunday when I removed the clock, I went to fetch the clock from the kitchen to put it back on the wall. At that point the meeting elder approached me. I worried she was thinking, This upstart newcomer. Why is he rearranging our furniture? Yet she simply asked me why I removed the clock then patiently heard my story. Then she graced me with the following response, “Well done, Amos. I am hard of hearing. If I had heard the clock, I would have taken it down myself.”
On a recent afternoon the elder and I got some tea and went for a walk. During our conversation she informed me that she had ordered a new clock. Now even the clock will be silent during worship.