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.
9 thoughts on “The Day I Removed the Meeting for Worship Clock”
Reminds me of the story John Darnell used to tell. His grandmother taught him that the way you could instantly tell a Hicksite meeting house from an Orthodox one was that the former had a piano and a clock in the meeting room. And the ticking clock kept saying “hicks-ite, hicks-ite.”
Did your grandmother explain the difference in viewpoint and demographics between the two Quaker bodies?? Orthodox were both (1) more affluent and (2) more “punctilious” about so-called Quaker “taboos” such as Music, from the original turning-away from the supposed musical dramatics of the Christian “establishment” (Catholic & Anglican). The Hicksites were by & large from small towns & countryside, less well-to-do, and less hung up on Rule Niceties. Also, since they were poorer, they didn’t have the pocket watches that well-off Orthodox Quakers had… thus the clock. Perhaps early clocks required an audible tick-tock (I recall grammar-school classrooms with same), but later clocks could be silent, and no reason at all for present-day Meeting-rooms to have audible clocks. And let’s not hear from grinches saying “no clocks at all.” If mandated timelessness is the impossible standard, then one would have to confiscate wristwatches and cell phones at the door. That’s just silly.
I grew up as a Quaker child near Philadelphia. There was a local radio station that made a practice of broadcasting from a wide variety of local churches during a certain hour Sunday mornings. The week they chose to broadcast from a Quaker meeting, they set a ticking clock near the microphone, so those tuning into silence knew the station was up and running. Every 10 minutes or so an announcer would very quietly explain in a few words, that we were at a Quaker Meeting. In my opinion, it was an appropriate use of a ticking clock and probably hardly noticeable to those in attendance. Any other time, I would thank you for removing it.
Great article…speaking of “clocks”… reminds me of a story unfolding on the old Jack Parr TV Late Show (1950’s)
Jack’s band leader at the time was Skitch Henderson…not only was he quite flamboyant, but he was an avid automobile enthusiast.
Jack had heard that Skitch just bought a new car, a Rolls Royce and was asking him about it.
Skitch was excited to tell him all about the car.
Skitch beamed as he explained that it had walnut trim on the interior and beautiful leather seats made of unborn calf skin and a short wave radio that pulled in stations from all over the world, the paint consisted of 30 coats of hand rubbed lacquer. He further said that the interior cabin was so well insulated, that at 60 miles per hour, all you could hear is the tick tock of the clock on the dashboard.
Impressed, Jack butted in…”wow, what’s a car like that cost? Skitch replied $25,000..
Jacked pondered a bit and glibly said ” gee, for $25,000. you’d think they would have done something about that clock”
Jules …Tick Tock, cheerio!
I am delight with how the Spirit led a change in the meeting without confrontation. A real move of Quaker at heart. Am trying to deepen my silence in worship now.
As I slip down between the covers into the peaceful quiet of my room, my mind fills with images of my ninety three years here on earth with my wife. We spent our 69 years together with love and laughter. What could anyone ask for more?
Our lives have been lived with love and laughter.
Covid 19 you can’t zap me
With my two shots
I’m now home free
My life on earth
May not be long
To my life in heaven
I’ll sing a song
And leave behind
My modest good works
For others to see and say
That was the way
What ho !
It is as things ought to be
Covenant Living –
My end of days is now in view
I can see it in my inner self
I can feel it when I take deep breaths
A cloud of memories encloses me
They drift through time
A universe of light in tiny spheres
And dark matter shines like an aurora
That permeates time and space
The Lord is risen, it is true everybody sing ALLERLIEU
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