At the heart of Quaker spiritual practice is the notion of shared silent worship. Entering into communal silence without expectation. Wonderful. And terrifying.
Fifty years ago I went to my first Quaker Meeting when the Vietnam War resistance gathered at the Friends Meetinghouse in Pasadena, California. I expected the usual agenda but, because we were in a Quaker Meeting, we settled into an extended period of silence. I leaned back on the wooden pew and closed my eyes. A wave of energy washed over me. Baptized by the silence.
In the United States, there are two forms of Quaker worship: the most common is the unprogrammed Meeting; a gathering without a minister, centered around an hour of communal silence. (That’s the form I’m used to.) There are also programmed Meetings where there is a minister and the service usually follows the Protestant format: singing, bible-reading, and a sermon.
Unprogrammed silent meeting begins on the hour and extends for roughly 60 minutes, ending when the Clerk shakes hands with the person next to him. The hour may be entirely silent or punctuated with messages, unprogrammed leadings.
Quakers believe their form of worship was practiced by early Christians, immediately after the death of Jesus. First-generation Christians, living outside Jerusalem, would gather in silence and wait for the spirit of Jesus to speak through one of them. Contemporary Quakers refer to this process as “waiting for the Holy Spirit” or “waiting on the Light.”
Quakers frequently use the metaphor of “the light.” Illumination. A message comes when your consciousness is enlightened.
Preparation for Meeting
Participants show up for silent Meeting with varying levels of preparation. Typically there is no handout to explain Quaker practice. Of course, if you’ve already been to a Quaker Meeting you know what to expect; if you haven’t, good luck figuring it out.
Zen Buddhists practice communal silence but it’s actually individual meditation occurring in a group setting. There’s formal preparation for the Zen form of silence. Quakers have no formal training; they’re taught to swim by being thrown into the water.
Some silent Meeting participants cushion the impact by reading the Bible or some other spiritual document. Some practice a form of meditation, such as focusing on their breath. Others silently repeat a mantra, such as Om mani padme hum.
I’ve Employed several different strategies to settle into Meeting, to clear my consciousness. (I visualize this as using one of several different swimming strokes after entering the spiritual water). At the moment, I focus on what is on the surface of my mind — consciousness debris — and try to move it aside. For example, if I am worried about a member of my family, I say to myself, “I’m worried about Jim; I’ll return to that later.” If this doesn’t work, I focus on my breath.
Sometimes there is an event that dominates the news, and the collective consciousness, that makes it difficult to sink into the silence. For example, the election of Donald Trump or the white-supremacist violence at Charlottesville. Initially I will cope with this by acknowledging it and trying to move it aside. If this doesn’t work, I ask, “what part of me is involved in this event.” As in, “what is my inner terrorist?” That’s usually enough to settle in.
What happens in the silence
If you have practiced long-distance running or swimming, you know about “the zone.” After strenuous repetitive exercise one sometimes settles into a domain of no thought. That’s what I try to achieve in Quaker Meeting, settling into a mental state where I am unaware of my surroundings. My eyes may be closed but I’m not asleep; I’m literally spaced out.
Historic Quaker teaching, on preparation for silent Meeting, is to make the self an empty vessel that can then be filled by “the light” or “the Holy Spirit” or the equivalent. Preparation for an ecstatic experience.
The preparation isn’t always successful. Sometimes I’m aware of my body — aches and pains of a septuagenarian — and I can’t get to the zone. Other times I’m too agitated by some personal concern; a part of me is acting up and will not let go.
Most times I get to the zone and nothing happens.
Because Quakers share communal silence, sometimes I will get to the zone and be interrupted because a participant will rise and break the silence with a message.
I’ve been attending Quaker Meeting for 50 years and I’ve heard all kinds of messages. The sublime and the ridiculous. Glorious and disturbing.
Quaker gatherings are uniquely democratic and that means that everyone has the right to speak. Of course, not every Meeting participant is spiritually mature; as a result, people may speak inappropriately. This happens, but not as often as you might think. Most Meetings are predominantly silent and when participants rise to speak, most messages are heartfelt – even if they may not resonate with everyone in attendance.
While there are many circumstances that cause someone to stand and break the silence, three seem worthy of note. First, occasionally a participant will speak about a traumatic event: for example, a death or a serious illness. I remember a Meeting where a participant spoke about his cancer diagnosis.
Second, sometimes a participant will speak about a leading. American Quakers — in unprogrammed Meetings — are in the liberal wing of Christianity; ethically it’s a religion of social action. When a Meeting attender rises to share their leading, usually this means they are stepping away from the usual course of their life and going on a mission to pursue peace and justice. For example, becoming part of the Standing Rock action. (Sometimes a Quaker Meeting will provide financial support for a particular leading, for example, permitting a Meeting member to quit their job.)
Third, I’ve had the experience where I feel moved to speak in Meeting and before I do, someone else rises and, in effect, delivers the message that I had imagined. Experienced Quakers talk about gathered Meetings, where a particular message — perhaps as broad as gratitude or as specific as response to particular violent event — hovers over the silence and influences all the messages.
Speaking in Meeting
If you are involved in Quaker Meeting, a regular attender, there are opportunities to speak that prepare you for silent Meeting for Worship. For example, once a month the Meeting meets to take care of business. That provides a vehicle to speak in a particular form of Meeting. In addition, during any given month there are usually opportunities to meet with Quakers in smaller worship groups. One format for these ad hoc groups is worship sharing.
Typically a worship sharing group meets for an hour to address a prearranged topic. For example, a group might meet to consider the topic: What keeps me from being the nonviolent person I want to be?
The rules for the worship-sharing groups are applicable to all Quaker gatherings: Speak out of the silence. Allow silence between messages. Speak from your personal experience. In other words: speak from the heart not from the head. And, do not respond to the message (messages) that came before you speak; speak authentically. Speak only once.
Of course there are important differences between delivering a message in a small — typically less than dozen participants — worship-sharing group and a large Quaker Meeting for Worship — often more than a hundred participants. You are expected to speak in worship-sharing, although you don’t have to. You are not expected to speak in Meeting for Worship, unless the spirit moves you.
How do you know when the spirit moves you? It depends upon who you ask. Historically, Quakers have described the impetus to deliver a message as a physical experience; that is, the inclination to rise and speak in Meeting is first a visceral sensation. Although their formal name is “the Religious Society of Friends,” participants in a Friends Meeting are usually called Quakers. Historically, participants in a Meeting for Worship recognized that they were called to speak because their body shook; they quaked.
In my 50 years of attending Quaker Meetings, I’ve probably spoken less than once per year. Over those five decades, my experience has migrated from the intellectual to the physical. The last couple of times I experienced a leading, I felt it in my body before it registered in my mind. (I’ve discussed this with other long-term Quakers and they’ve usually had the same experience: the longer you attend Friends Meeting, the less often you speak and the more likely that, when you speak, the impetus is primarily physical.)
So, what happens in the silence? The religious scholar Huston Smith described Quakers as “mystical Christians” and said they occupy a relationship with Christianity that parallels Zen Buddhists’ relationship to Buddhism, in general — they’re both on the edge of their mother religion.
Participating in the silence is a mystical experience, but it doesn’t have to be viewed through the lens of Christianity. I know a number of professed Quakers that are not Christocentric; that is, they are not immersed in the traditional symbols of Christianity such as “the holy trinity: the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost.”
Participating in the silence can be an ecstatic experience. However, to have this experience, you have to accept certain conditions. One is toleration of silence. If you cannot sit still for 10 minutes — let alone 60 minutes, you are unlikely to have an ecstatic experience in a Quaker Meeting.
Sitting in silence presupposes a deeper concern for personal health. I believe that taking time in silence is as important to my health as getting exercise, eating proper food, and having adequate sleep. (If you don’t believe in getting out into nature, you are unlikely to value taking time in silence.) Silent Meeting energizes me.
Of course it is one thing to sit in silence for 60 minutes, follow your breath, and attempt to slip into “the zone.” It is another thing to go through all this and harbor the expectation that you may receive a leading — one that you may or may not feel like expressing. In other words, one has to choose whether or not you expect the reality of “ecstatic experience.”
Recent research indicates that somewhere between one-quarter and one-half of American adults have had an ecstatic experience. So, it’s not weird to sit in silent meeting and hope that you have one.
Ecstatic experiences — emerging from the silence — come in several flavors. Two seem worthy of mention. One I’ll characterize as the answer. That is, I go into Meeting carrying a problem, such as how do I deal with one of my children. I sink into the silence, enter into the zone, and the answer emerges: do such and such. The other form of ecstatic experience is the leading. As I’ve indicated, this typically begins as a physical sensation.
What happens in the silence? You’ll have to go to a Quaker Meeting to find out.
A word of advice: If you decide to attend a silent Meeting, don’t form your opinion on one experience. Imagine talking a walk in nature for the first time. Perhaps it’s a cloudy day or you get caught in a thunderstorm. Even though your walk may be spoiled, that probably wouldn’t deter you from going out again. That parallels the experience of going to Quaker silent Meeting. The first Meeting you attend may be chatty — have an unusual number of messages — or you may not feel well that day; that shouldn’t deter you from attending another Meeting. What you are aiming for is a completely silent Meeting.
When you eventually experience deep silence, ask yourself: What’s happening? Am I comfortable in the silence? Do I feel energized? What are my expectations? Have I come home?