Studies in Still Life

What kind of relationship do you have with silence?

When we settle into our silent worship time, is that comfortable for you or do you inwardly struggle with the quiet? For some people, silent time feels peaceful and nurturing. For others, it can be hard to sit still and hard to calm the mind. Instead we find ourselves making grocery lists in our heads, planning upcoming events, or replaying recent conversations. For many of us, it’s a combination of both—we have moments of stillness, broken up by thoughts that we follow down the road for a bit, followed by a return to inner silence.

Silent worship has always been an important part of Friends tradition, since the day young George Fox had his personal experience with the immediacy of Christ on the hillside in England. The idea of receiving is very important to us, waiting for God’s presence, making space and listening for the leading of the Light.

This sets Friends apart from other traditions—even the ones that include meditative practices—because it’s not simply about finding personal peace or a release from suffering by stilling the mind. In the silence, we’re actively waiting on the spirit of God to interact with us—to speak, and act, and touch our waiting hearts. And silent worship isn’t just a quiet time that blesses each individual person alone—it’s a shared, communal experience as all hearts yield to the God who loves them and feel themselves gathered and calmed, in unity in the holy presence.

In 1672, Early Friend Francis Howgill wrote that his meeting was surprised by the transformation they experienced after they began taking the words of George Fox to heart:

“The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in, and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration…And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and the bond of peace.”

In his modern essay, Listening for the Voice of God: Silence in Quaker Worship, writer Tom Rothschild describes silent worship in his meeting like this:

“At the start of the meeting, we sit as individuals, joining into the silence in our own particular ways. One may pray inwardly; another may begin with a meditation exercise, or by writing in a journal, or by taking time to sense the quality of light, the state of energy in the room. In these separate ways we gradually become more and more deeply attuned to the silence, which has its own quality—thick or thin, vibrant, pregnant, resisting, enfolding. Slowly, each comes to that deep, centered place where the mind becomes quiet, and each becomes more closely united with all present, more able to listen for that still, small Voice.”

Perhaps the easiest instruction we have for what to do in the silence comes from the beloved verse that is our Old Testament scripture today: “Be still and know that I am God.” This is a verse that is quoted often and it sounds so simple–almost too simple. Can it really work? Just by being still for a moment, can we take our minds off our circumstances and find God’s peace? Can we really feel the presence of God in just a little moment of stillness? We have to try it, to find out.

Being still doesn’t come naturally to many of us—and in our accelerated, media-saturated world, being still and quiet is something we have to plan for and take steps to create and protect for ourselves. We have to make an intentional effort to go into the silence.

But the psalmist is offering here a life-changing and faith-deepening idea—that God is truly with us, right now—and we can know that experientially if we will make the attempt to follow the instruction. Beneath the continual cascade of thoughts in our heads—why is the dishwasher leaking? Did I remember to pick up the cleaning? What should we have for supper?—God is present in it all, simply awaiting our noticing. As we get better at being still, we gradually start to recognize opportunities for quiet moments when we can turn naturally toward God for peace and rest.

Waiting for the Light to arise is something fruitful that we can do in the silence, and people experience the Light in different ways. Some people actually see light inside their minds, like someone is shining a bright light on their heads as they sit with their eyes closed and their minds quiet. Others feel a warming of their hearts, or suddenly have a sense of clarity or a leading about a problem or a prayer. Some people feel a sense of physical nearness—one person told me she felt something brush gently on her arm. No matter how the Light comes, it brings an inward sense of deep peace, and ease, and calm. We know deeply—even if our minds want to refute it—that we’ve been in God’s sacred presence.

My inspiration for this message came this week from remembering something I watched several years ago –an inspiring video in which a painter named Alden Heck talked about her process of painting still life. Her paintings are beautiful, simple and masterful and profound. The peace of the images just radiates off the canvas. My eyes were drawn to the perfect highlights on the bowls and saucers; the beautiful, simple colors and smooth textures, with all their precise detail.

The artist talked about being inspired by the Asian art of wabi-sabi, or “wisdom in natural simplicity,” and she said that philosophy was for her a continuation of her Quaker upbringing. Peace is central to her creative process. As she paints her still life images, she is painting in a meditative state of inner silence. I could feel that inner silence in my own heart as I looked at her creations. She commented about how right it feels that these objects seem to rise and come forward out of the darkness. Bright spots against a dark canvas. Inspiration and action, emerging from silence.

In the late 1700s, traveling American Quaker minister Elias Hicks, who placed the greatest importance on the leading of the Inner Light, said that his own process of waiting in the silence was to

“Center down into abasement and nothingness…This is what I labored after: to be empty, to know nothing, to call for nothing, to desire to do nothing.”

At first hearing, that may sound like waiting in the silence could take away our passion, our interest, our plans. In fact, being still to this degree takes us beyond ourselves and into the realm of God, where we need no additional thing and leave behind our very human feelings of lack and need and yearning. There is a place—and we can each find it—where we feel fully satisfied and at ease, simply because we rest in the presence of God.

This is how Jesus could sleep in the boat as the waves crashed and thundered around them. He was safely resting in the stillness of God. But outwardly, the disciples were terrified by the events unfolding, and they were sure that the boat would capsize, and they would all drown. In their fear, the disciples woke Jesus, who got up, and with a simple command, “Peace! Be Still!” he applied his inner silence to his outer world. The wind and waves had no choice but to obey him, and all was well.

It makes you wonder what we too might be able to do outwardly in our lives if inwardly we could be in that state of communion with God that Elias Hicks talked about.

At times we may feel at a loss about what to do or say, how to pray when we are waiting in silence. I take a lot of comfort in knowing that however I may stumble around or get distracted by thoughts, God knows my heart. Before I settle in, before I begin to pray, God knows the yearning, feels the feelings, knows my hope. The words we offer matter little when our hearts are open and warmed and ready for contact with Spirit. That readiness honors God—it is an invitation into the center of our experience. I think God values that more than any good deed we could ever do.

I love how early Friend William Dewsbury approaches this. He wrote these words in 1660:

And thou,
faithful babe,
though thou stutter and stammer forth
a few words in the dread of the Lord,
they are accepted.

And some of you may know Jan Wood, who is a friend of Western Yearly Meeting and has led workshops at various events. She offers a more contemporary take on this idea that God loves whatever we’re able to offer, imperfect though it may be. She writes,

We are clumsy, we are partial, we are wounded–
and you and I are enough.
You are enough to be fully faithful.
You are enough,
and God affirms you.

What a wonderful thought. In the silence, we may bring stuttered words and incomplete ideas, we may fail at quieting our minds, but it doesn’t matter. We’re enough. We’re doing our best to be faithful. God affirms us, receiving, accepting whatever it is that we’re able to offer just now.

In closing, I’d like to leave with you these lovely words of Thomas Kelly, from his book, The Light Within:

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illuminates the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.”

 

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