My friend and colleague Maud Grainger asked me this the other day: when people in Quaker settings, like a workshop or a discussion session, say things like ‘let’s just have a moment of stillness’ or ‘we’ll start with a bit of quiet’, are they really introducing a period of Quaker worship? And from that question she drew out a deeper one: is Quaker worship really about being still or quiet, or is something else going on?
Thinking about these questions, I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I was facilitating just that sort of workshop, and we’d just started – we were in silence to begin the workshop – when someone who was running late knocked on the door. I went to let her in and said as quietly as I could (probably not very – I’m better at being loud and clear!), “Come in, we’re just having some worship.” She came in, we had our worship and our workshop, and at the end of the session, she sought me out to say: “I really liked the way you introduced that. You made worship sound completely ordinary, like having a cup of tea.”
I didn’t do that on purpose, but she was picking up something which is true in my life – worship is part of my ordinary day. In my worship life, I do use silence as a tool. But silence is only one of the tools available for worship, and it isn’t automatically related. I usually live alone, and I like to be in silence most of the time – I’m writing in silence now, in the quiet of an early Saturday morning before other people are mostly awake; I spend time in silence to read, to think, to go to sleep… you get the idea. Of course I try, as Thomas Kelly wrote, to keep up a practice of “inner, secret turning to God” throughout that silence – but silence doesn’t really have much to do with that. Kelly goes on to talk about keeping it up while you “walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends”: he’s writing about a habit which exists in the mind and can be maintained through many situations, rather than an outward practice. I can be as distant from the inner Light in a silence which allows me to get distracted and wrapped up in worldly concerns as I can be close to the Light when I’m holding close to my leadings and inner sense in order to navigate a crowded place or complex situation.
The phrase ‘outward practice’ raises a more difficult possibility. Do we sometimes risk making the unprogrammed, open, listening space of Quaker worship into an outward ritual – just the kind of ritual early Quakers were rejecting when they threw out the practices of previous generations of Christians and created unprogrammed worship instead – by focusing too much on the fact of silence or sitting still? I think we sometimes do. Actually, I think it can be useful to admit this and to be aware of the liturgies of Quakerism, the ways in which we do have a ritual structure and for some of us that’s really helpful in our worship lives. People who study and create more complex rituals talk about the structure of them – the way a good beginning can help us move from everyday concerns into focusing on the purpose of the ritual, and so on. In Quaker worship, we often have to find a natural structure for ourselves, or we may fall back on using things which are not essential to the process as markers. Moving to online worship has sometimes made this more obvious: for example, I realised that the walk to meeting had been a more important part of my process than I thought, because when it was taken away – because the meeting for worship was right here in my house, on Zoom – the period of time I needed at the beginning of worship to settle and centre myself was longer.
Moving online also came with new freedoms, though. Although there was no longer any need to walk to meeting, I could pick up my colouring book for the first five minutes without disturbing anyone else – since they couldn’t see the book or hear me moving. Walking and colouring aren’t at all the same, and yet for me they can serve the same purpose: engaging my body in something simple and relaxing. Like silence, they’re tools which can help me move into a worshipful perspective.
In that worshipful space, of course, there might not be silence or stillness. “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts,” George Fox instructed, but life isn’t always like that. Sometimes apparent calm is the swan paddling furiously underneath the water, and sometimes our worship is successful but not at all still – Jane Fenn heard God’s voice and found not only that “my soul and all within me trembled at the hearing of it” but even that “my outward tabernacle shook insomuch that many present observed the deep exercise I was under.” Others find that physical stillness and inward closeness to the Divine don’t go together for all sorts of reasons – as the Quaker Disability Equality Group have recently written (link goes to a PDF document; a Word version can also be downloaded from their resources page).
So what is happening when we open a Quaker session with a request for ‘a bit of quiet’ or ‘a moment of stillness’? The aim, I think, is good: to offer people a short period of time to set aside concerns from outside the session and focus; to give people a space in which to tune in to their inner Light; and to use the tools of unprogrammed Quaker worship, including silence, to do that. However, when we name the tool – quiet, silence, stillness – rather than the goal or the process – settling, worshipping, listening – I worry about two risks. One is conflating them: assuming that for everyone, those are the tools which work. The other is diminishing them: leaving out some of the richness and the complexity of unprogrammed worship, in which anything can happen and we might be stirred up as well as calmed, in favour of a weaker version, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we know in advance that there will only be silence.
When I ask a group of Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition for a short period of worship, rather than a moment of quiet, I know that there will probably be silence. I’ve participated in hundreds of two minute silences and ten minute silences in which we were open, but nobody had a message to share. However, I’ve also been in just a few where there was a message: either something which came directly to me and for me alone, speaking to my condition even if I was anxious or fretful or clock-watching or whatever, or something which was shared with the group, such as a request to uphold a person or situation or a reading which set the tone for what came next. Whatever words we use to introduce our practice, I want to keep that possibility. Into our lives, through our listening and waiting, can come surprisingly possibilities and divine guidance. Stillness and quiet can help us be responsive to that – but so can anything else which helps us listen and be open, whether that’s walking, colouring, singing, dancing, the outdoors, friends and family, TV shows…
Quakers say that of God is in everyone and everywhere. Our task is to notice that and act on it, in whatever way works for us.
For answers to more questions about Quakers, see my new book, Quakers Do What! Why?