The Importance of Noise During Silent Worship

Illustrations © sidop.


A nasty, late autumn storm was coming through Philadelphia, making everything cold and slushy. The radio meteorologists promised the slushy would change to snowy and then to icy any time now, and the mayor had declared an emergency, shutting down the highways until tomorrow morning at the earliest.

It was promising to be a wonderful day. The dog had been walked; the house was stocked with groceries, and I had all of next week off from work. My wife and daughter had picked out a lineup of sci-fi and horror movies for us to watch and ridicule. My new pajamas were practically begging me to spend the day basking in the comforts of flannel while eating popcorn and drinking warm cider.

The only hitch was that it was Sunday, and we live just three blocks from the meetinghouse. I was sure no one would come out in this weather and risk getting stuck in the promised ice storm, but the meetinghouse had just gotten a new door with a new lock, and only about half the members had a key.

“What if they came all the way in this ick and could not get in?” my wife reminded me.

I debated various things:

  1. What were the chances of anyone even showing up? Low, but not low enough for me to stay home.
  2. What were the chances I could convince my wife to go instead? She went last time something like this happened, so the chances were even lower.
  3. Was five years old old enough to send my daughter alone to open the meetinghouse by herself? It was not.
  4. On the other hand, if someone did show up, there was about a 50 percent chance they’d have their own key, and so . . .

My wife could tell that I needed more coaxing, so she made a deal with me. If I went and no one showed up without a key, she would make brussels sprouts noodle bean casserole for dinner; otherwise I had to cook. I really like brussels sprouts, and her casserole was definitely worth an hour or so of my Sunday morning.

So on went my boots that were coated with a “potion” my daughter made from plants and food coloring. She insisted it would not only keep them waterproof but would protect me from alligators, pirates, and that scary clown she saw in a commercial once. On went the wool scarf I claimed to hate because I could “feel the torture of the sheep” that provided the wool. But someone left it behind at the last holiday party, so what am I going to do—throw it out? Secretly though, it was my favorite thing to wear, because I thought it made me look like a know-it-all young college student. On went my coat with my worn copy of Faith and Practice in one pocket and an almost as worn anthology of Philip K. Dick stories in the other, because I certainly wasn’t going to sit by myself and read Faith and Practice when no one was around to see how good of a Friend I was being.

On went my coat with my worn copy of Faith and Practice in one pocket and an almost as worn anthology of Philip K. Dick stories in the other, because I certainly wasn’t going to sit by myself and read Faith and Practice when no one was around to see how good of a Friend I was being.

Properly shielded from the not-quite-winter weather, I trekked out into the cold and slush. The sidewalk was slippery, and the wind was blowing right at me, but I still managed to arrive just before 10:30 a.m., which is when we typically start worship. As expected, no one else had arrived to join me. I opened the doors and did not even take off my coat. I decided I would finish the short story I was reading, and in about 15 or 20 minutes, when no one else came, I would lock up and go home and sit in my warm house wearing my warm jammies, drinking warm cider, and listening to the storm rage impotently against the wonders of modern insulation, unable to reach me.


I had just about finished the first page of “The Electric Ant” when the door opened and in walked John, dripping wet and looking quite cold. John did not drive; John walked everywhere, and apparently, John did not care that it was cold and John did not care that it was wet. John felt the need to get his quiet on, and he was not going to let a little bad weather stop him. John also did not have a key to the new front door yet, which meant I would be cooking dinner tonight.

It was at this point that I cursed, silently. I cursed the Friend that was supposed to make enough copies of the new key and distribute them to all the members. Why would they volunteer if they did not follow through? I wondered if they should be read out of meeting. I wondered if I had grounds for a lawsuit. I wondered if there truly was that of God in literally everyone. Mostly, though, I wondered why I had volunteered to be the one to make and distribute the keys in the first place.

But John is a good man, a good friend, and a good Friend, and I was happy to delay my winter comforts for a bit to enjoy silent worship with him. So I tucked my book back into my pocket and turned up the heat, and we stripped off layers of personal insulation and got to worshiping.

Our meetinghouse is at the intersection of two streets that are frequented by buses with loud diesel engines; automobiles with loud souped-up stereos; and pedestrians with loud . . . well, some of them are just loud. It is nearly two centuries old, and we have never invested in widespread sealants, filler, or anything to keep the noise at bay. Our sessions of silent worship are often punctuated with the sounds that are native to this community.

Today was different. The storm kept everyone indoors that had a choice in the matter. The snow was falling softly now, and it muffled whatever noise was still finding purchase. The meeting was silent, and we drank in that silence in our meeting as a rare occasion that should be savored.

We sat for five minutes before I had to shift, making the bench creak. The benches are old and they creak; they creak a lot. This time the sound of the bench seemed so much louder than normal. It was more than just a creak: it was an accusation. The creak had a sentience to it, as if the bench itself was calling into question my ability to be calm and settled.

No matter. I would just be still and show the bench what kind of mettle I was made of. Surely I could stay still in order to appreciate the silence.

I sat very still. The quiet was glorious. I was sure John and I would find this meeting to be one that we would remember for ages.

John coughed.

It wasn’t a loud cough, as coughs go. It was barely more than clearing his throat. It should not disturb a pair of seasoned Quakers like us, but the cough seemed to echo mysteriously. I never noticed an echo in the meetinghouse before. I listened to see if it was still echoing. There was no way such a small noise could still be echoing, but I was certain I could hear it lingering, hiding in the corners, drawing my attention to that little sound.

No, there was no sound. I just imagined it; it was all in my head. I took a deep breath to recenter, which caused the bench to creak again—even louder this time.

I caught John looking at me. Did John blame me for the creak? Creaks happen all the time. But he stared. . . . Did he think I creaked intentionally? Did he think I was working to disturb the silence intentionally? No, of course he didn’t. John wasn’t that sort of person. There was no way he thought that.

I settled. He settled. The silence grew.

Soon we were fully settled. We had to be. It was so quiet, so peaceful; there was no possible way that we could be unsettled. No chance of us not being a tiny gathered meeting. It was so perfect.

Did I leave the stove on? I heated the cider before I left, expecting to come back to it any minute. I was pretty sure I turned the stove off before I left, but . . .

Another creak. Another cough.

I surreptitiously checked my watch. I was pretty sure it was almost 11:30, and we would shake hands and wish each other well. I knew I couldn’t take any more of this glorious silence, and besides, maybe I left the stove on.

10:45. It was only 10:45! We started at 10:35.

The creaks, the coughs, the idle thoughts took only ten minutes. In ten minutes, we who had sat for so long surrounded by the cacophony of this neighborhood had been reduced to anxiety with no more ability to sit still than a child on Christmas morning.

John and I shared a look and knew we were done. We shook hands, said our “Good Mornings,” and wandered off into the storm to seek shelter elsewhere.

I need that chaos of life to surround my meetinghouse. While it swirls outside, I find the peace inside amplified. The noise is a part of my life every day, and my worship is not an attempt to escape my everyday life but to understand it.

That was the day I learned the value of noise in my silent worship. Don’t mistake me. I have worshiped in the woods; I have worshiped on mountains; and I have worshiped at meetings large and small with Friends from all over. I appreciate the harmony of nature and the bliss of true silence. But in my meetinghouse, in my spiritual home, I need buses, and stereos, and dogs, and even the occasional mildly inebriated neighbor shouting about whatever they want on a Sunday morning.

I need that chaos of life to surround my meetinghouse. While it swirls outside, I find the peace inside amplified. The noise is a part of my life every day, and my worship is not an attempt to escape my everyday life but to understand it.

I know I am home when I hear the J Bus loudly proclaim its arrival on the corner and the neighbors calling out from a block away to see who is going to the store, “can you bring me back a bag of chips and some ice tea?” These are the sounds of home, and for me, they are the sounds of harmony and a source of peace.

Ben Handy

Ben Handy is a member of Frankford Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. He has a boring job and a lovely family. He mostly spends his free time trying to figure out where he put his glasses, and why he can never seem to get anything done.

17 thoughts on “The Importance of Noise During Silent Worship

  1. Ben, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It made me smile and I’m sure it resonated with many Friends. Also, the illustrations by sidop are glorious. Just what I needed this Feb 1st.
    Thank you.

    1. What a delightful article! The comments on your own idiosyncrasies are so funny, like showing the bench what kind of mettle you have! So apt! And such a familiar experience of finding deep worship more easily amid noise.One of the most fruitful worship times I had was when I lived in Manhattan, with all kinds of noises below.

  2. Thanks for sharing this so well known experience of noisy moment during a silence meeting. Because it is a frequent situation in our life of “practitioner of silence” to be disturbed by everything around.

  3. Dear Ben,

    This reader is glad you heeded the nudges (godly and wifely) to go to meeting that day, or we’d not have this sweet and funny article to enjoy.

  4. Lovely, honest and amusing article.Quite different urban atmosphere from my eighteenth century Meeting House in an English market town.. Nearly everyone has to come by car from out of town as there is no other transport on Sundays. But if the weather conditions were as described it would just be too dangerous. It is also encouraging to be let into someone else’s thoughts in the silence

  5. The Sounds of Silence; a good name for a song. Sometimes, we hear the music as noise and sometimes the other way around.

  6. I have tinnitus – two different tones, one in each ear, or so it seems. I’ve found that I don’t really hear it because I pay no attention to it, but in MfW you can’t get away from it. Then I found that at the centre of the noise there is the stillness I seek. The Quaker quote that I find the greatest inspiration in my life is an anonymous ministry that was given in a 17th century Meeting in Scotland: ‘In stillness is fullness, in fullness is nothingness and in nothingness are all things.’ This for me is the process I follow in Meeting. It is not always given to me, but when it is I feel a deep calm.

    1. Dear Phil. As a fellow Quaker with chronic tinnitus (who is lagging far behind you in making my peace with it) thank you for your comment and this quote. Perhaps I need to stop feeling so “ripped off” by this obstacle to silence and start seeing it neutrally, as a part of the fullness of life.

  7. The minimalist composer John Cage produced a three-movement composition 4’33” in which the performer(s) were instructed not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the piece. The sounds of the environment were the actual piece.′33″

    Cage discussed this one of the one-minute stories in his 1958 work “Indeterminacy”, a performance of which is available from Smithsonian/Folkways.

    I was fortunate to have known Cage slightly when I was an undergraduate student in Astronomy at Wesleyan University, and unwittingly played a small role in enabling Cage to write another piece, “Atlas Eclipticalis”. What happened was that he came to the observatory, looking for a star chart. I happened to be there and showed him a beautiful new one that we had just received, which he used as the basis of his composition. I attended the US premier of this at Connecticut College with one of my professors, who was also a Friend.

  8. This is such a lovely essay. I loved the humorous spirit of it. I live near Philadelphia, and can appreciate the description of city sounds. Is there any chance your wife would share her recipe for brussels sprout noodle bean casserole?

  9. Here in Exeter,England we have lately conducted Meetings for Worship outdoors in the city centre. A circle of chairs and half a dozen worshippers with Friends on the periphery ready to answer questions, to invite anyone interested to sit down with us.Few did. Yet, it was a form of witness and there was a distinct sense of beng a stone in the stream of humanity’s business. The external hubbub intensified the internal silence. Silence needs the noise of context: noise needs the context of silence.Both are meaningless without the other.

  10. This is simply priceless. And oh, how the struggle is real.
    Thank you so much for offering a reality check. All along I thought it was only me who heard benches creaking. Thank you.

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