The first time people attend a Quaker Meeting, they often find Silent Worship mystifying. It looks like nothing is happening, and that there’s no apparent reason why everyone has gathered. There’s no minister guiding the worship, no liturgy lending structure, no music filling the soul. There are just Friends, each head down in her or his own private silence.
Without the obvious expressions of faith common to most worship services, such as hymns, Bible readings or sermons, it can be challenging for Quakers to explain why they choose to gather for Silent Worship. In some ways, the Society of Friends took the Protestant Reformation to its ultimate expression: they stripped away everything that served as a mediator between individuals and God so that each person could experience the divine directly, internally, in her or his own way.
As the Quaker Clarence E. Pickett wrote: “We who are members of the Society of Friends have little to fall back on except as our experience with truth. We cannot resort to ritual or creed or to ecclesiastical decisions for guidance. We must find our way by seeing the hand of God at work in the weaving of the fabric of everyday life.”
This month, when Reno Friends gathered for a day-long spirituality workshop, one of the first questions the group explored was “What is Compelling about Quakerism – What Draws You In?” The answers ranged widely but helped articulate what Quakers care about.
Many said they are attracted by the communal quality of Silent Worship; there is something powerful about sitting together in what Quakers call “expectant silence.” For many of us, the hour of silence Sunday morning calms the mind and focuses our attention on that “small, still voice inside,” whether we think of that as our conscience, our moral core, God’s voice or something else. The silence helps us take time to listen to that of God inside ourselves.
Some said they feel inspired by early Quakers’ willingness to seek this vital inner experience despite the threat of persecution and imprisonment in their day. Others said they are drawn by the absence of a specific creed or statement of belief, saying it makes room for the findings of modern science and keeps the individual experience of God at the heart of the faith. Others talked of the power of “turning the spiritual searchlight inward” and agreed that is stronger when done in community.
At the same time, Reno Friends said they are drawn to Quakerism just as much by the outward expression of Quaker principles as they are by the inner quest. From their earliest days in the 1600s, Quakers carried their beliefs into the world, supporting those who were hungry, homeless, needy or imprisoned. Many in our workshop said they like how the foundations of Quakerism – so full of kindness, compassion and love – lead directly to embracing social justice. Others said they are attracted by Quakers’ willingness to stand up to the established social order and speak Truth to power and empire. Some said they are inspired by the Quakers’ courage in following their principles, such as pacifism, despite painful worldly consequences. And for most Quakers, the idea of seeking that of God in everyone is a central tenet.
We invite you to experience “expectant silence” for yourself. Silent Worship may sometimes look like a blank slate, but inside there are many things going on.
Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting
email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.