When Quakers sit down to worship, they settle into silence. Many religions include short moments of silence in their services, but for the Quakers, silence is the heart of worship. The room goes still as we let go of everyday busyness. Individuals may rise occasionally to share a message out of the silence, but for the most part quiet reigns.
And yet, inside our heads, thoughts dance and twist about. As anyone who has tried to meditate knows, silencing one’s thoughts can be a challenge. Everything from grocery lists to worries about loved ones parades through the mind. Sometimes the procession makes a clatter; other times, a steady whisper of thoughts. But either way, it can be hard to settle.
At a recent “Quakerism 101” class on Silent Worship, our leader asked the circle gathered inside Reno Friends Meeting how they centered themselves during worship. The responses were illuminating.
While not all Quakers pray in a conventional sense, prayer is still one of the most useful ways of centering. One woman talked of using prayers of gratefulness to pull her attention inward. Another man said he looks around the room and prays for each person attending, and finds that when he is done his mind has settled.
Instead of praying, one woman said she tries to quiet her mind by listening for what God might be saying to her. This listening often yields surprising suggestions, messages that her conscious mind can only hear when she quiets the chatter in her head.
Some people said they try to clear the mind with simple meditation techniques, such as counting the in breath and out breath, then counting only the out breath, and finally not counting at all. Some try to relax their body bit by bit, releasing tension gradually, feeling themselves growing heavy in their chair. Others say they don’t try to stop the thoughts but instead consciously step outside them so they can watch the thoughts pass by without attaching to any of them.
The most moving suggestion came near the end when one man said he asks questions of the beloved family and friends he has lost during his lifetime. He said he used to wish he could get just another five minutes with love ones who have passed, but then came to understand that they were right there in his heart and in his head, waiting to talk. And so he has conversations with them. When he is done, his mind is centered.
Whatever it takes to quiet the spirit, Quakers figure out what works for them. I find that the great benefit of an hour of silent worship is that, no matter how long it takes to settle, there is always enough time for that deep, abiding silence that comforts and heals.
Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting
email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.