Quaker Practice

The Case for Silence

There is something about the stillness of midwinter that soothes the soul. Much of the natural world sleeps. Though the wind still blows and birds hop about searching for seeds, for the most part the cold and dark confer a deep, healing silence.

Many of us who attend Quaker Meeting on Sundays are drawn by the opportunity to sit in communal silence for an hour. The Quaker silence started, in part, as a reaction to church services of the seventeenth century, which were filled with ritual and liturgy. Early Quakers believed, instead, that each person must come to her or his own understanding and experience of God. The silence is a chance to listen for God – the stillness enables us to quiet the busyness of our brains and discern what God might want us to hear. It requires waiting.

Sitting quietly and waiting are not things we do much anymore in our twenty-first-century life. With our ever-present phones and ubiquitous Internet connections, we rarely allow ourselves to be bored. Instead of daydreaming while waiting in line at the grocery, we pull out our phones and fill our heads with news and gossip. Sadly, this barrage of information has taken something precious away. That is why I find silent worship so powerful.

There is no single proscribed way to be silent in Quaker Meeting. Some pray, others meditate, and many of us sort through the clutter in our minds. But no matter how you start, eventually a stillness descends. For me this stillness feels like an open sky – huge, empty, and holy. Untethered from my own wishes and worries, it’s much easier to listen for deeper messages that may arise in my mind. It’s a way of tapping into our truer selves, reconnecting with our own humanity and vulnerability. It’s a chance to renew our sense of wonder with the world.

The seventeenth-century Quaker Robert Barclay said this about silent worshippers:  “Each made it their work to return inwardly to the measure of grace in themselves, and not being only silent as to words but even abstaining from all their own thoughts, imaginations and desires.”

It is also within this space that Quakers listen and try to understand what the divine spirit would have them do. This kind of discernment works best within a condition of tranquility and freedom from the demands of one’s own ego and will, a state that the silence can help provide. The modern Quaker Arthur O. Roberts suggests that silence indicates submission to God and can help Quakers prepare for effective social witness. Silence can strengthen our souls and our resolve to “let our lives speak,” as Quaker founder George Fox famously remarked.

It is important to remember that Quakers sit in communal silence, not alone. Some religious traditions couple silence and solitude, but not the Quakers. We sit together in silence for many reasons, but part of it is to honor and support each other’s silence. When someone in the group feels led to share a message, those words carry more weight because they arise out of the conditions of our shared silence.

Yes, there are, occasionally, words in the Quaker silence. As much as we are drawn into the silence, we also worship together in expectation that someone else’s experience of God might speak to us through the messages they share. Check back next month for the Case for Words.

Wendy Swallow, RFM Blog Editor

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.