04 September 2014

Silent worship: "I wouldn't last five minutes."

Have you wondered about attending a traditional Quaker meeting for worship but are a bit put off by the prospect of sitting in silence?

Last year, in my "February shorts," I mentioned the Moscow Friend who told us that forty minutes is about all the unprogrammed worship that she can take. A few weeks ago, I was talking with a newcomer to Friends for whom even forty minutes might seem like an eternity. She was formerly a Baptist, and came to the evangelical Friends church I was visiting because she found out she had Quaker family roots and was interested in finding out whether we still existed. She was happy to find that church.

It emerged in conversation that she knew that there was an unprogrammed "silent" Friends meeting in town as well, but as she told me, "Everyone tells me that I talk constantly. They're right. Silent worship? I wouldn't last five minutes."

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know how much I resist the idea that traditional unprogrammed "open" worship is for a special sort of person and unsuitable or simply too difficult for most others. If you've tried this approach to worship and found it lacking, there is nothing I can or should say to persuade you that you are wrong! But if you've not yet given it a try, consider these thoughts:
  • Quakers don't sit in passive silence but in active waiting. We trust that the Holy Spirit will provide the divine companionship, guidance, and prophecy that we need. We listen in our own minds for guidance that we may be the ones chosen today to express something that others might need to hear; likewise, we wait to hear a necessary word from someone else in the group. On any given day, there may be no outward speech at all, but we have nevertheless been active in our attentiveness.
  • If you're new to Friends, you might think that all of us long-time Friends descend effortlessly into that zone of divine attentiveness, and the fact that for you it isn't effortless at all proves that "waiting worship" is not for you, or that you would make a bad Quaker. Not so! I love the journey into and through silent worship, but I certainly can't pretend it's easy. My particular path into that zone includes a list of 144 people or groups (I just counted for the first time) for whom I'm committed to pray daily. Often I find myself distracted by one person or situation in that list, and I have to pry myself gently away from that distraction and back into the stream. Only after those 144 prayers am I free to turn to God in unscripted waiting.
  • Maybe the person "who wouldn't last five minutes" thinks that it is her desire to speak that is the "problem," rather than an inability to listen. If so, then maybe we should reassure her that she can speak quietly directly to God. Quaker silence isn't meant to do violence to our personality, but to train us, to disciple us, into directing our efforts toward life with God rather than ourselves at the center. In fact, that's what we're doing when we gather--learning (however gradually, imperfectly) to live with God at the center of our lives, and encouraging each other in that adventure.

    All forms of worship involve some kind of training in discipleship. The practice of waiting is no more demanding; it may just be a bit harder to hide our unwillingness to learn.
  • We don't need or expect some kind of clinical perfection in our meetings. Children make endearing noises and keep us from worshipping the silence itself; the sound of the world outside reminds us that our faith is connected to real life and real neighbors; someone gets up and says something, either sublime or stupid, that reminds us we're not all at the same place in our spiritual development and never will be. Learning patience is not a bad thing! Neither is learning to be tender with ourselves and returning without shame back to the center--over and over if necessary.
  • A Friends worship service is usually linked with an educational hour--a Sunday school or First-day school that provides access to the teaching voice of Friends, and gives the biblical and historical background for what we experience in worship.
Speaking of the Bible: some Friends meetings provide Bibles within easy reach during the meeting for worship. Or you can bring one of your own with you. If you spend the time reading prayerfully, you will certainly not have come in vain; but next time, check to see that you're not hiding inside the book. At some point, close the book and let the words search you personally; invite the Holy Spirit who inspired the words now inspire you to see their application for you and for the whole group.

In all I've said above, my point isn't to say that unprogrammed worship is better or purer than the programmed worship I've known most of my forty years as a Friend. Friends who use music and preaching in worship are bound by the same disciplines of listening and waiting for the Holy Spirit, but we just exercise some of that discipline ahead of time as we prepare! (I hope we always remember to leave space for the Spirit to work through the whole assembled group, not just those serving in worship leadership.) My point here is a plea to anyone who has not tried silent worship: yes, it is different from what is offered by most forms of religion, but it doesn't require a different "special" kind of person. It's simply a different way of offering God the undivided attention our hearts already yearn to give.

(Also see Pierre Lacout and silence.)

Deborah Lewis, "Who wants to pray?" "... I began wondering about how we are teaching people to pray in context."

"Archbishop of Canterbury offers monastic gap year at Lambeth Palace."

In the USA's current political cycle, "Religious divides persist heading into fall campaign."

To educators: please help me research the topic of cheating by filling in as much or as little of this questionnaire as possible. (Russian version here.) I hope to tabulate the replies by about September 20. Heartfelt thanks!

Hans Theessink sings and plays his beautiful song "Shelter From the Storm." (And at 9:09 he sings "Down in the Hole.") You can hear Terry Evans and Hans Theessink perform their album version of "Shelter From the Storm" here.


Jon Watts said...

Hi Friend! Funny you should choose this topic to blog about today. We are exploring this same thing this week over at QuakerSpeak... I asked a bunch of Friends about the challenges they face when sitting in silence and the rewards on the other end and cut it up into a 5 minute video. http://quakerspeak.com/quaker-worship-challenge-of-sitting-silence/

Mackenzie said...

"Quakers don't sit in passive silence but in active waiting."

This is why I'd really like to see us retire the phrase "silent worship" and stick to "waiting worship." Calling it "silent worship" gives people the wrong idea, I think. At least if you say "waiting worship" they ask "waiting for what?"

Johan Maurer said...

Jon Watts, thank you for providing the link to this video. It's a wonderful set of testimonies.

I have a question--it's a question I asked in the Russian-language study materials on Pierre Lacout's "God Is Silence." Here it is: What is the difference, if any, between how we understand the silence of waiting worship, and the way early Friends understood it? I had in mind the testimony of Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers: "We said, we had thousands at our meetings, but none (of us) dare speak a word, but as they are eternally moved of the Lord; and we had Miracles, the Blind receive their sight, the Deaf do hear, and the Dumb do speak, the Poor do receive the Gospel, the Lame do walk, and the Dead are raised."

(More about them here.)

Johan Maurer said...

Mackenzie, I agree that waiting worship is a more accurate label. "Silent" has the advantage of honestly reflecting the outsider's own observation. "Waiting worship" is the language of the community and not of the world. I try to use both variants in the same conversation in order to build a bridge.

In a perhaps related matter (perhaps not), I sometimes get gently scolded for using the word "pacifist" in referring to Friends. If "pacifist" implies "passive," of course it is not a completely adequate word. However, it is a word that has some valuable public weight, and can serve in a conversation that can hopefully go deeper than first impressions.

broschultz said...

Excellent article. I too talk too much and that's why I like the unprogramed meeting it forces me to listen. I spend the week singing and talking and for a good part of one hour I try to just listen to the spirit and others.