What the Silence Is for

A number of years ago I was walking with friends through Circle Center Mall downtown. We’d just listened to our kids play a Christmas jazz concert in the Artsgarden—that beautiful glassed dome that spans Washington and Illinois streets in downtown Indianapolis. As we walked back through the mall toward the parking garage, we passed the enormous food court and it struck me that no matter where I looked in that massive space, I was somehow in full view of a television. Dozens of televisions, positioned at strategic points and angles, displaying music videos, sports, advertisements, and more.

That image sticks in my mind because it occurred to me at the time that this was where we were headed: an always on, full-scale media culture. Our days characterized by activity and busyness and noise—the more the better. I remember wondering, walking back to my car, what we are so afraid of. Why do we need so desperately to be constantly entertained, to have our minds and moments filled with other peoples’ content, all the waking hours of our days?

It may be that it is difficult, and stressful, and maybe even eerie, to simply be quiet. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Silence is all we dread. / There’s Ransom in a Voice – / But Silence is Infinity. / Himself have not a face.” Something about silence is daunting, mysterious, without limits, she seems to say. It’s far too big for us to fathom, too fleeting to grab and hold and understand.

Discomfort with silence is not an unusual thing. Just the week in a group I lead, a participant said, “I turn the tv on as soon as I walk in the door and it stays on until I go to bed. I don’t really sit and watch it; it’s just on for the noise.” Many of us might say the same. I asked him what it would feel like if he left it off one day. “It would be way too quiet,” he said.

We Quakers are generally pretty good at—or at least tolerant of–quiet, but even among us, results vary. Some are comfortable with silent time, and others are not. Some use the time to listen, to pray, to reflect; others do their best to just sit quietly and wait for it to be over. Our meeting would be characterized as semi-programmed, because we have what’s known as a programmed service—with our Welcome, Call to Worship, hymns, message, and more—and we also have time for waiting worship, for silence in the middle. I love the way we call it “Communion in the manner of Friends” in our bulletins, because that’s just what it is. An invitation and intention to wait humbly for God to be known among us.

Unprogrammed Quaker meetings don’t have any kind of structure or liturgy—after perhaps an opening prayer or reading, the whole worship time is spent in expectant waiting. This allows Spirit to lead. Worship in this manner follows the practice of Early Friends. In George Fox’s time, people settled into silence and opened their hearts, waiting for the leading of Christ’s spirit. In 1663, Stephen Crisp put it this way:

“With diligence meet together, and with diligence wait to feel the Lord God to arise, to scatter and to expel all that which is the cause of leanness and barrenness upon any soul; for it is the Lord must do it, and he will be waited upon in sincerity and fervency of spirit;…and let none be hasty to utter words, though manifest in the light in which ye wait upon the Lord; but still wait in silence, to know the power working in you to bring forth the words, in the ministration of the eternal word of life to answer the life in all.”

When someone felt the urge to speak, they discerned whether it was the leading of Spirit nudging them to do so. If they weren’t certain it was a spiritual leading, they’d stay silent. If they felt it was inspired by Spirit, they’d offer it to the group. Then the meeting would return to silence, with Friends reflecting on what was said and searching their hearts to see how the message connected to their lives. You can see why Early Friends felt their worship was completely led and organized—and any ministry was delivered—by the Holy Spirit himself.

But there’s something else significant here that people often miss about the silent waiting part of Quaker worship, then and now. This isn’t just about waiting on God to be with each of us individually, but also about waiting on God to be with us all. There is a communal aspect of waiting worship, a knitting together, what Thomas Kelly called “the gathered meeting,” when he wrote in 1940,

“In the gathered meeting the sense is presence that a new Life and Power has entered our midst…We are in communication with one another because we are being communicated to, and through, by the Divine Presence.”

In some times of expectant waiting, there can be a felt sense of unity and peace among all those gathered, when hearts feel tender and in some cases a feeling of joy and deep love comes to everyone at once. This beautiful sense of gathering happens not because we as a meeting did such a good job of waiting in the silence, but because our quiet cleared the way for a lovely awareness of God’s presence—which is already here—to shine through.

London Yearly Meeting’s 1925 Faith and Practice explains it this way:

“The living power of a meeting for worship depends not only on the sincere dedication of heart and thought on the part of each individual member, but also on united communion in the presence of God wherein each one overpasses the bounds of his individual self and knows a union of spirit with spirit, bringing him into a larger life than that which is known in spiritual separateness… We cannot come to a true understanding of life’s purpose apart from knowledge of one another in the deepest place of our being. This was the thought of George Fox as he gave counsel: ‘Friends, meet together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was’. Out of such fellowship there will arise a sense of the common purpose in life, and the united worship will be deepened and enriched by the consciousness that in varied fashion all are ministering in the service of God.”

But what happens for most of us in the moments of silence in the center of our worship? Externally, things grow very still. Here in our meeting room we can hear the ticking of the clocks, the circulating of air. Within me, my thoughts slow and grow quiet. I become aware of a peace spreading over all, among all. There is a sense of ease, of rest, a deep listening.

You may feel something similar as we wait together in the quiet. Or we might feel encouraged, less burdened, or more hopeful about something in our lives. We might feel more bonded with others in our meeting, more at peace with those we’ve struggled with, more optimistic about the state of our world. The psalmist wrote in our Old Testament reading, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress.” This is the point from which the answers arise.

As we wait together, we may notice thoughts or feelings that bring new ideas about situations in our lives or the state of our own souls. Sometimes the light reveals things we need to change, or heal, or see differently. I remember not long ago suddenly understanding how I was contributing to a problem I very much wanted to solve. I was getting in my own way, and in a moment of quiet, God helped me see that. The answer just appeared in my calm and resting mind.

In our New Testament reading, Jesus is teaching about what keeps people far from God. He explains that it is not what goes into people from the outside that defiles them—the food they eat, the clothes they wear—but rather what comes out of their mouths, because those utterings proceed directly from the heart. The unexamined heart, Jesus says, the heart where the truth of God’s light is not welcome, brings forth all sorts of awful things—evil intentions, false witness, slander, and more. In moments of quiet, with our welcoming hearts open to God, we can trust that anything that gets in the way of our relationship with spirit will be revealed to us and ultimately, removed. That’s what God wants. That’s where our peace is found. That’s how the world can change.

Rufus Jones was talking about this kind of personal, inner work of the Spirit when he wrote this in 1937:

“The early Friends made the discovery that silence is one of the best preparations for communion with God and for the reception of inspiration and guidance. Silence itself, of course, has no magic. It may be just sheer emptiness, absence of words or noise or music. It may be an occasion for slumber, or it may be a dead form. But it may be an intensified pause, a vitalized hush, a creative quiet, an actual moment of mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God. The actual meeting of man with God and God with man is the very crown and culmination of what we can do with our human life here on earth.”

Wow, isn’t that a remarkable statement? It also strikes me as so true. What if we approached our communion in the manner of Friends here in our own meeting as potentially the culmination of what we can do with our human lives here on earth? Right here, in the silence, meeting God, each of us and all of us together. It is what we’re doing, whether we realize it or not. It would be fitting for us to approach these moments of waiting worship as though we are entering the holy of holies, the heart of the tabernacle, because we are. These quiet moments are the very place in time where we will—not “maybe we will if we are lucky”—but we will be with God: hearts clear, minds quiet, spirit willing.

Arthur O. Roberts was the founding editor of the devotional magazine Fruit of the Vine, published by Barclay Press, and a long-time professor at George Fox University. He has written extensively about silence in Quaker worship and suggests that silence serves at least 10 different purposes that help us deepen our spiritual lives:

  1. First, silence fosters awe before the Almighty;
  2. Shows that we are submitting to God;
  3. Gives us a rightly ordered posture for worship;
  4. Allows us freedom from noise and distraction;
  5. Creates a feeling of ease;
  6. Prepares us for prayer;
  7. Shows respect for others;
  8. Refreshes our sense of wonder at the world;
  9. Provides holy space;
  10. And prepares us for effective social witness.

Roberts taught often on the benefits of silence and published his answers to the following questions that people new to the practice of waiting worship often wondered:

Q: Why is there a time of silence in our worship?
A: Silence lets us listen to the Lord, together. We center our thoughts on Christ and open our wills to his direction.

Q: What if nothing spiritual reaches me?
A. Try these disciplines: (1) pray beforehand; (2) get your body ready–it is God’s temple; (3) let your mind reverence God; (4) submit to the Spirit’s voice, whatever the means.

Q: What if a song or a testimony seems out of order?
A: First, make sure you haven’t missed God’s message. Then center down again. Be patient. Everything doesn’t depend on you. Your brothers and sisters are here, and, best of all, Christ in the midst.

Q: Silence is difficult, what if I get sleepy or my thoughts wander?
A: Acknowledge your limitations prayerfully, then read Scripture or a hymn. Don’t spoil communion for others.

Q: How do I know whether or when to speak?
A: It isn’t easy to discern true from false leadings. Faith offers the timid a nudge and the not-so-timid a restraint. Ask trusted friends to verify your leadings. In any case be joyful and not in bondage to your fears.

Q: How can silent worship be most fruitful?”
A:When you both hear and obey Christ’s voice.

Simple and profound. Ordinary and potentially life-changing. In all ways, worthy of our time and effort as we seek to live ever closer to the heart of God. In closing, I’d like to share with you a sweet, simple, truthful poem posted on Twitter this week by a British Friend named Elisabeth:

In the busyness of life
There is a space within us all
For stillness

Here is Peace
Here is Balance
Here is Love

Breathe deeply in this space
And it will fill you
With all that you need




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