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Quaker Practice

The Case for Words

In a blog a few months ago, I made the Case for Silence in a Quaker Meeting. Today I want to make the Case for Words.

When Quakers worship, the silence inside the Meeting House occasionally is broken by someone who rises to share a message they feel moved to say. These messages are usually simple, and most have a universal element, since messages should be shared only if they offer something to others. So, yes, we Quakers worship in silence, but we also listen – to God, to each other, to our own hearts – and share that with the community around us.

Why allow the silence to be disrupted in this way? Sometimes a Meeting for Worship is silent for the entire hour, leaving a deep sense of fulfillment. Silence is necessary to hear what God might be telling us, or to sift through the whirl of thoughts so we can make sense of our lives or the world. Sometimes, however, the silence is challenging, as we may be inclined to turn away from this inner voice; sometimes we might lose the inner voice in the comfort of the silence. 

Which is why words matter. Quakers call these messages Vocal Ministry, and the words are often what bring us together. We worship together –rather than alone in our homes — in part because the words we share enrich our experience. Some of the most simple and beautiful messages I’ve ever heard were shared at Quaker Meeting. A heartfelt message can open up a whole world in my head. When I am spiritually cold, the messages in Meeting feel like warm mittens handed to me by friends, and the wide range of spiritual insights can feed me for days.

Sometimes messages are shared using words that make some people uncomfortable, as we all have our own experience of God. When that happens, I try to remember this guidance from the British Yearly Meeting: “When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit; reach for the meaning deep within it, recognizing that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others.”

One of my favorite messages was shared by a Reno Friend who stood up one day to quote from the Quran: “If the day of judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.” She linked these words to her deep concern and love for the natural world. Her message speaks to me still.

Wendy Swallow, RFM Blog Editor

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