10 August 2023

Silence, freedom, and trust

The Atlantic Ocean.

During the years we visited and lived in Russia, we were active in the Friends Meeting in Moscow. That small Quaker congregation was unprogrammed—we participants worshipped in silence, waiting on inner prompting before speaking.

Russian historian Tatiana Pavlova was the person around whom the Friends community in Russia gradually developed, starting in the late 1980's. She herself was strongly Christian (I interviewed her about her faith in Quaker Life magazine back in 1999) but the meeting did not require an explicit Christian commitment for participants, and its diversity reflected some of the spiritual ferment and experimentation that abounded in those early post-Soviet years.

Tatiana Pavlova herself was uneasy with some of that variety. Once she said, "When I sit in worship, I want to know that the person next to me is worshipping the same God."

I understand and sympathize, but I'm not quite ready to make the same sort of firm statement. On the one hand, I love the mutual inspiration and encouragement we can get from worshipping with a group of people who fully expect that (in George Fox's words) "Christ has come to teach his people himself." It's this experience that, to me, makes us Quaker, makes us ready to reject the world's reliance on power, violence, objectification of others, and social bondages of all kinds, in favor of trusting in God's leadership.

On the other hand, how will we provide access to this mutual inspiration and spiritual freedom if we don't dare let anyone in who doesn't already speak in Quaker terms? This is what I love about the silence. There's a time for talking and writing, for putting our minds and our creativity into expressing our faith and answering our critics. There's also a time to refer to others' words, whether they're from the Bible or from our more recent prophets and mystics. All that plays a huge role in opening access to our communities, and can serve as an invitation to those who would like to test the values we claim. 

What the silent part of our gatherings give us is this: a chance to put aside our own words, and the writings we love. In other words, it's a time for actual trust—that as we come together in wordless communion, we can trust God's witness to become real in ways that our arguments simply cannot do. In that silence, we are ready to risk precisely what Tatiana Pavlova was concerned about, that the person sitting next to us may not have the same spiritual understanding that we do. Can we trust the Holy Spirit to minister to whatever gap there really is? If we can trust God in unity, can we also trust God in diversity?

Let's say there were two possible ways to describe the ideal Quaker meeting.

One would be a community of worshippers of unlimited social diversity who cherish the values often associated with us—peace, simplicity, equality, decisionmaking by communal discernment, and so on.

The other description would add just one more feature: ... and who are united by that promise from George Fox, "Christ has come to teach his people himself," fully expecting that the community will experience this promise fulfilled.

Most Friends of that first variant use silent "waiting worship" as the main mode of worship in the community. Among Friends who practice this form of worship, some have become very clear that Christian language is optional and sometimes even unwelcome. How does this affect the freedom of silent worship?

The majority of the world's Quakers worship in programmed meetings, with singing and sermons and other planned elements, sometimes with a limited period of time for spontaneous testimonies and silent waiting on the Holy Spirit. Again, is there trust and freedom in the silence? Or is there an expectation of conformity? Or, honestly, has the silence practically vanished, its crucial demonstration of trust and freedom forgotten?

There are lots of historical reasons for the variety of approaches among us Friends, including internal disputes and personality conflicts, and external trends as well. As many others have noted, it's no big surprise that liberal/skeptical Friends meetings are often found where the wider culture is thoroughly secular and faith is belittled. And, conversely, the evangelical variants can flourish in the world's Bible-belt zones. But almost all of us now live in a very noisy world, and keeping a space open solely for quieting ourselves and listening for the Spirit, might not be easy to realize, whatever our local customs and conceits might be.

I know that my particular temperament loves silence, and I don't want to imply that I just happen to have the official Quaker temperament. (I remember a woman who was visiting Fresno Friends Church when we were there. About silent worship, she said, "I wouldn't last five minutes.") However, if something is important to the integrity of our claims and values, it doesn't have to have equal weight for everyone, just as singing and sermons and children's sermons and collecting money don't have equal value for everyone. All spiritual disciplines demand commitment and exercise, whether it's during our public worship or our lives at home and work.

In fact, all of our spiritual gifts and temperaments are exercised on behalf of everyone. Those who pray and listen intensely in silence are not just practicing an enhancement to their individual spiritual lives; their attentiveness and devotion is on behalf of all of us, including those with attention deficits. Thank God, there are those who excel verbally, those who are good with numbers, those who have a special care for children, those with the gifts of mercy and healing and discernment of spirits, those who are musicians and poets—we need everyone!

Silence is like spiritual oxygen to me, and I've written about it many times over the years. But in this post today, I'm particularly concerned about keeping that unprogrammed space open in our meetings for worship, because in the silence of waiting for God, we have an immediate experience of both freedom and trust. Those testimonies are at the heart of Quaker spirituality, and transcend arguments about theology and doctrine. If we don't believe God can be trusted to minister directly to each person who is truly listening, then we should not expect that our outward programming, however valuable on its own merits, will compensate.

Some related posts: Silences. Gathering to meet with God. Quaker communion. Return to silence.

Silence, freedom, and trust, part two.

Молчание, свобода и доверие (this post in Russian).

Windy Cooler: why support public ministry when we're all supposed to be ministers? (Be sure to scroll down to read updates.)

Juan Cole: how the Palestinian crisis became the crisis in Israel itself.

Anna Funder has written a new biography of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, "... a compelling figure strangely absent from her husband’s writing." The husband: George Orwell. The book (which I've pre-ordered): Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life.

Nancy Thomas's four-year-old theology professor.

Blues dessert: Steve Guyger in France.

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