I was reading the other day the book 'Keeping Silence' by C. W. McPherson who is an Episcopal priest and spiritual director.  McPherson found himself guiding people in their spiritual practice.  One of the most difficult practices, he found, was for people to be silent:

 

"If I ever thought that keeping silence was easy, my congregation taught me otherwise.  From time to time as a parish priest, I recommended they try spiritual pracices, such as memorizing a psalm or reading the Bible daily.  But one simple suggestion proved dificult or impossible for most people to follow.  During Advent and Lent, I advised that they keep silence for just a few minutes each day: turn off the phone, close the door, and be silent for ten minutes.  It seemed like such an easy suggestion -- something people would find refreshing.

"I thought wrong.  Many people found the assignment impossible . . . The only people who could carry out my suggestion were those who were already used to keeping significant periods of silence in their lives." (Page 1)

 

I found this passage revealing of how demanding Quaker practice is for most people.  The idea of sitting silently for an hour (or more) is daunting.  It feels unnatural and is often experienced as highly stressful.

What I have found, though, is that the Quaker community does not seem to offer much assistance in negotiating this silence.  There is a lot of assistance when it comes to social engagement, political commitments, and the faith witness of things like peace and simplicity; but when it comes to guiding a newcomer into the realm of silence, my observation has been that people are left pretty much on their own.

That is one of the reasons why I find the 'Guide to True Peace' so useful.  For it is a guide, a practical manual, that assists one is finding one's way in silence.  Such guidance is, I think, needed for most people.  My experience is that people need as much guidance and assistance with entering into silence as they do when coming to terms with faith commitments like the peace testimony.  The 'Guide to True Peace' indicates that the Quaker community used to offer such guidance; but for some reason that seems to have fallen away.  By returning to the 'Guide' we can recover a powerful resource for showing people the way into this silent realm of true peace.

 

Jim

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Comment by Clem Gerdelmann on 4th mo. 19, 2013 at 4:31am

Jim, I can not agree with you more - why aren't Meetings offering even the most obvious helps(see my blog, "Pedantry") to benefiting from being "children of Light"? And, of course, addressing our childish(as opposed to child-like) pre-occupation with solipsism.

Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 4th mo. 20, 2013 at 11:15am

We need to offer instruction in being still, a term I prefer to silence. It may be a technique like centering prayer or simply sharing our own experiences.

Early Friends encouraged members to maintain daily practice in their homes. For myself, I find this essential. It also serves as a gentle example for children. I can still remember finding my 4 year old sitting with a circle of stuffed animals playing meeting for worship. I joined her.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 20, 2013 at 11:50am

Clem and Stephanie:

Thanks for your comments.  Stephanie, the 'Guide' advocates for a daily practice at home, and I get the impression that stillness was widely practice by ordinary Quakers on a daily basis, though I'm not sure when that began to fall away.  Centering Prayer is a wonderful technique and is very close, almost the same, as what is taught in the 'Guide'.  There are other approaches as well, but the thing is these need to be offered to people and my sense is that at this time that rarely happens.  There does not seem to be a mechanism in place for introducing people into the land of stillness and silence.

Clem: I think there are a number of reasons why assistance is not offered.  First, the strongly anti-hierarchical commitment of the Quaker community makes it difficult for someone to step forward as experienced in interior silence and having the knowledge to 'direct' others.  The role of such a person would, I suspect, look priest-like to many.  Note that McPherson is an Anglican Priest so he has a certain authority in his community just by the role he occupies.  I can't think of a similar role in the Quaker community.

There used to be 'Elders' and from the little I have read about how Elders ideally functioned, that would be a way for the Quaker community to allow for guidance in interior silence; through a system of some kind of Eldering.  I'm not sure exactly how it would work though.

Thanks again,

Jim

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