Reno Friends gathered online earlier this year for a spiritual discussion about Quakers and Prayer. Newcomers to Silent Worship, puzzled by the unprogrammed quiet, often ask me if Friends are praying. I can understand their confusion, because it’s not clear during Silent Worship what, exactly, we’re doing. Some of us would say we’re sitting in silence waiting to hear what God might have to say to us. Others say they are meditating, and some might say they are praying.
What we do not do is pray together, as many church services with a specific liturgy routinely do. You will not hear us say “let us pray….” You can thank the early Quakers for this. When they broke from the Church of England in the 17th century, they purposely rejected having priests or clergy, and tossed out the liturgy, the music and all recited prayer. They also rejected the sacraments, believing that every moment is sacred and that there was no reason to elevate certain transitional moments – such as marriage – as more sacred. As Protestants, they had already rejected saints and the divinity of Mary. The Quaker idea was that every person could speak directly to God and listen to God, without need of a priest or sacred figure as intermediary, and without proscribed prayers or liturgical readings. The individual experience of God was what mattered.
Quaker-founder George Fox was wary of recited prayers and liturgy because he believed any form of spiritual worship could easily become stale and routine. Susanne Kromberg, a Quaker from Seattle who works as a hospital chaplain, says in her blog Susanne’s Quaker Musings:
“What I understand Quakerism to say about prayer is that we can encounter God at any time, in any place, or in any circumstance…. This means that there is no human condition in which God cannot speak to us. God can use any form – verbal and non-verbal, sensory and non-sensory, intuitive or tangible. What sets us apart as a denomination is that we are not surprised when we encounter God outside of the Meeting’s agreed-upon times and places of worship. Being a Quaker allows me not to be surprised – indeed perhaps to expect – that God may appear in any kind of situation and transform that moment into a moment of prayer.”
The truth is, many Quakers do pray. They talk and write about it, as any library of Quaker books will demonstrate. Many of our group gathered for the spiritual discussion that night said they sometimes prayed. Others said they usually waited in silence to hear God’s voice, or they meditated, or perhaps even followed a spirit guide in their mind. It was clear in the discussion that all of these forms of spiritual focus and communication could be meaningful, and different approaches could serve the soul in varying ways.
Many come to Quakerism and Silent Worship because they are tired of – or feel unmoved by – more traditional church services. I grew up in a standard, liberal Christian church; services were filled with recited prayer, liturgical readings, sermons and hymns. But over time, this approach began to feel meaningless, as it didn’t spring from my own experience of God. In particular, I always felt awkward praying to God because it felt like asking for favors. Even at age sixteen, I was pretty sure God was not waiting around just to meet my puny needs. Attending Silent Worship with the Quakers allowed me, for the first time, to really listen to God rather than petitioning him.
Others in the discussion that night shared my concern, but several people pointed out that prayer is not, by definition, a request. We talked about prayers of thanksgiving, or of healing, or of intercession, when we might ask God to hold a person, or problem, or group of people in the Light. When other religious groups might say “we will pray for you,” Quakers say “we will Hold you in the Light.” The Light, for Quakers, refers to the divine light in all of us.
Prayer – like sitting in Silence – is a channel, a conversation with God that allows us to open our hearts to Divine presence. For many Quakers, Silence is the central channel, during which it is important that we listen for what God may have to say to us, keeping our minds and spirit open. Some Quakers refer to the voice of God as the “still small voice” inside each of us, which we cannot hear unless we quiet our hearts and the world around us. That is the purpose of Silent Worship. When we do that – and really listen – we often find the voice tells us something different than what we expected.
For me, that is the miracle, the surprise insight that helps me see something anew. This “still small voice” feels like an inner teacher, one that guides my discernment about all the questions that rise in my soul. And I need that voice to say the unexpected; to challenge me, to open alternative doorways. To help me see what I am ignoring. To open my heart to a new understanding.
So, do Quakers talk to God? Yes; but we also listen.
Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.