I slipped off my shoes beside the door and walked gently into worship. It is a scene I am so familiar with: a room full of people, eyes shut, hearts open, facing inward to themselves and to the circle. I picked a seat as softly as I could and tried to settle into the silence. My eyes dropped seemingly by habit, and I took a deep breath and straightened my spine, put my hands on my thighs and pushed up. It seemed that presence must come with my leaning forward, that prayer might work best when my chin is lifted up a bit, and that God might hear me more clearly if my palms are open and facing up.
I was in college and though I’d been sitting through a full hour of silent worship since I’d stopped going to First-day school years ago, I still felt a bit awkward—as if time hadn’t mellowed out my mind long enough to sit uninterrupted for a whole hour, as other people seemed to do so effortlessly. This meeting—though not my home meeting—seemed to have all the familiar characters I’d grown up with. I didn’t know them very well; I didn’t even remember more than a few names, but they moved the same way in the silence; spoke the same ways in worship about their lives, and nature, and struggles; and cooked the same dishes for potluck Sunday.
This morning in worship, I sensed the light deluge into the room as if to say, “Open your eyes! Look at what I’ve made for you.” But I knew if I did that it would be too difficult to shut them again. I counted to ten slowly over and over again, and I said a prayer memorized when I was little—my settling-in techniques—but couldn’t find that sweet mellow place where the silent hour feels so easy. Someone coughed; bellies gurgled everywhere; a siren; everything was awake. Then came footsteps of someone late. I felt the breeze of her body puff toward me as she sat down beside me. The woman began her settling-in techniques, too: some rustling, shifting, a sigh. I brought my mind back to counting to ten—drifting thoughts, repeating the prayer, drifting thoughts. I soon realized that the woman’s breathing had become irregular. My eyes sprang open, and I looked at her: she was sitting next to me and silently weeping, so tender and so sad. Helpless in this silent room of closed-eyed people, I could only pray for her. Beyond that prayer I’d memorized and used as a tool to clear my mind, I didn’t know what prayer really was. But I tried. I envisioned her smiling and content. I envisioned a yellow light around her. I tried to focus on her with my brain and my chest and wondered if she could feel my attention.
But she continued to cry, now more audibly: long exhales and sharp, short inhales. I turned my body toward her. Maybe if my heart is facing her, she might feel that more. Maybe if I’m leaning toward her, it will direct my prayer more. But still she wept.
So I reached out and touched her shoulder. And as I did, she stood and spoke. Beautifully and gracefully, over snot and tears and hiccups, she spoke of how much she hurt, and how grateful she was for an hour of space each week without distraction to face her pain and broken heart and move forward through it. When she finally sat down and took my hand, we settled into deep worship for the rest of the hour.
I think of this day so often. Gathered by pulls and pulse of a longing for community, for one another, for something more, we sit vulnerably, silently, beside one another each week. We are doers; or singers; or clerks; or knitters; or moms; or homeless; or brand-new, birthright, or between; or just because. We use silence as a tool for bridging those parts of ourselves that are so different. We call it the Spirit, or we call it Spirit, or we call it Christ, or we call it the Light, or we call it the love, or we can’t find the word, or we find too many words. Each Sunday we come back, shut our eyes, sit together, and try again.