I was moved to write this after talking to a few Friends in our Meeting who bring very different perspectives to the Quaker practice of sitting in silence at Meeting for Worship. One said that it was difficult to know what was going on for others in the silence, because oftentimes no words were shared. It caused them to wonder: was anything happening for the others in worship? For them, Vocal Ministry allowed insight into the speaker’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs - their internal process, their spiritual inquiry. Another felt that, because no prayers were said aloud, the silence was not evidence of a spiritual gathering - it was folks sitting quietly in a group, without the outer direction that spoken prayer can provide.
I wanted to offer my perspective, out of a desire to prompt a conversation. I invite others to share their perspective on this practice, such an integral part of Quaker worship, where Friends wait in silence to listen for the voice of their Inner Teacher/God/Spirit.
I find that I’ve set for myself a difficult task - to put into words a practice that is without words. So, please forgive me if I struggle to express my humble and very personal experience.
To me, the silence feels rich and warming - the very opposite of the silence of a “cold shoulder” treatment. The silence often has an inaudible hum to it - more like energy that welcomes me and takes me with it, like something I can plug into. (Some of us have talked about God as a River, energy that is always there, always flowing, always welcoming. I tend to subscribe more to that school of thought.)
I can often feel lost in reverie, with little sense of time. My thoughts and prayers can be big (such as in domestic or world events) or small (as in personal struggles or family relationships). Sometimes I may have an insight, other times not so much. I want very much to hear the voice of the Inner Teacher speaking to me, and when I have an insight into something on my heart, assume that the insight perhaps came from such a place.
Often, Vocal Ministry offered by another may speak to me, and may foster further thought and clarification of my beliefs, and perhaps a resolve to take action. Sometimes, a Vocal Ministry may not speak to me and I just let it go. And then there are times when I am moved to offer Vocal Ministry, with some trepidation. But the need to speak what is on my heart is greater than any discomfort I may experience, and I am relieved to share it.
I appreciate the little sounds I hear from others in the room - a cough, a rustle of a coat, the regular breathing of the little dogs - or sounds outside the room like the wind, or traffic, or a dog barking. These sounds help to ground me and rather than break my reverie, increase my feeling warmed and comforted to know that I am not alone, but worshiping with others in this small group.
At rise of Meeting, I often feel my spirit has been greatly restored by the rich silence, and I experience a burst of energy. I also feel extremely grateful - both for the opportunity to worship in the silence and for the f/Friends who respectfully shared it with me.
Please consider contributing to this discussion on the silence. I recommend the September 2017 issue of NYYM’s SPARK which contains the article, “My Sudden Understanding of Early Quakers’ Mysticism (pdf),” by a Friend from Ithaca Meeting. It may be of interest.