The Heresy of Silence


Recently I was looking at a Protestant website because it had some articles on the Bible Version Issue that I am interested in.  I noticed that the site also has articles on other topics.  One of the articles was about the heresy of silent prayer.  The site referred to silent prayer as a ‘Roman Catholic’ practice that good Protestants should not indulge in.


I found this interesting because silent prayer, or more accurately the prayer of inward silence, has often been labeled a heresy by the Catholic Church and has been the subject of investigation by the Inquisition during several periods of its history.  Both the Alumbrados in the 1500’s and the Quietists in the 1600’s were condemned by the Catholic Church and the advocates of those movements pursued by the Inquisition.  One of the charges leveled against advocates of inward silence by the Inquisition is that they were actually crypto-Protestants.  Nor is this simply an historical relic.  Quietism is still an official heresy for the Catholic Church.


From the Catholic perspective the issue is that the prayer of inward silence bypasses the necessity for a sacrament-based worship.  In addition, the prayer of inward silence bypasses the need for intermediaries such as priests and saints.  The idea here is that inward silence draws us to God, or makes us aware of God’s presence, and that therefore we do not need to engage in outward ceremonies in order to practice the presence of God.


From the Protestant perspective, the prayer of inward silence bypasses the strong emphasis the Protestant movement has placed on rationalistic theology.  The prayer of inward silence is explicitly non-conceptual.  Furthermore, one does not need to be an Arminian or Calvinist or a Lutheran or etc., in order to practice inward silence.  For those Protestant traditions that place a high value on theological correctness the prayer of inward silence would appear to be an heretical approach.


I suspect also that the prayer of inward silence is viewed as subversive to the teaching of sola scriptura, only scripture, which is such a significant part of a Bible-based approach to Christianity.  In the Quaker tradition the experience of the inward light, found in the practice of Silent Worship, is the foundation upon which scripture is interpreted.  This was also true for the Quietist Madam Guyon, whose commentaries on scripture are grounded in the experience of interior silence.  In a sense, those who practice the prayer of interior silence view scripture as a vast and extended metaphor or allegory for the experience of inward silence.  This contrasts with a rationalistic approach to scripture, which is non-metaphorical, and views allegory as a kind of betrayal of scriptural truth as allegory and metaphor undermine the necessity for a literal interpretation of scripture.


In both the Catholic and Protestant traditions outward forms take precedence over the experience of inward silence.  In the Catholic tradition the outward forms are a system of sacramental ceremonies whose efficacy rests upon intermediaries to the divine.  In the Protestant tradition the outward forms are systems of creedal beliefs deduced from scriptural study.  Both approaches seek Christ in the world of sensory and/or mental experience.


As a Quaker I see the application of the prayer of inward silence in the Quaker tradition, and why it marks the Quaker tradition as distinct.  Just as Catholics would predict, the Quaker tradition has minimized, or done away with, outward, or ceremonial, sacraments.  Even such broadly agreed upon ceremonies as baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been removed in the Quaker tradition, displaced by the centrality of inward prayer.  And from the perspective of Protestant theology, the Quaker tradition’s offerings are meager.  There is such a thing as Quaker theology, but in comparison to the vast and meticulous systems of thought found in Calvin, Luther, or Arminius, Quaker theology is pale.  In the history of Quaker thought, Barclay’s ‘Apology for the True Christian Divinity’ still remains the singular work of what is recognizably systematic.


Quaker writing is not weighted to the theological.  Quakers write a lot, but the writing tends to be Journals, occasional essays, and letters.  These are records of the life experiences of Quakers rather than chains of deductive reasoning.  In the Journals I have read there are, at times, theological insights; but I rarely find the kind of tightly reasoned syllogistically based networks of abstract thought upon which systematic theology relies.


So in a sense I can understand both the traditional Catholic and the traditional Protestant view that the prayer of inward silence is heretical.  If one defines orthodoxy in terms of outward ceremonial forms, then the prayer of inward silence, a formless land from which all forms spring, will not support such an approach.  And if one defines orthodoxy as agreement with and adherence to a system of beliefs and deduced consequences, then the prayer of inward silence, a silence that is beyond all affirmations and negations, will not support such an approach.


On the other hand, if one wishes to enter the heart at the void of the world, to dwell in the presence of eternity, to journey into the kingdom of God that is found within, a kingdom which is not of this world, then the prayer of inward silence will show the way.




Views: 1943

Comment by parise on 9th mo. 23, 2011 at 4:57pm

quietism and silent prayer are two completely different things.  silent prayer occurs in most catholic churches on a weekly basis in the form of eucharistic adoration.  moments of silence are employed several times during a mass.


many religious orders of the catholic church use silent prayer on a regular, if not daily basis.


what might once have been true for anything is not always true.


judging the present by the past gives you a skewed picture.


what would happen if we judged modern day quakers against george fox or john woolman.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 9th mo. 23, 2011 at 6:50pm

Greetings Parise:


I think you overinterpreted my remarks.  I was struck by the site I visited declaring silent prayer a Catholic heresy, while at the same time, historicallly, Catholicism has declared Quietism, a form of inward silent prayer, as heretical on the basis that it was crypto-Protestant.  I wasn't judging Catholicism any more than I was judging the Protestant tradition.  I was simply reporting on what I thought was an interesting online encounter.  I didn't mean to generalize from that one interaction.


Perhaps I should have incorporated remarks by some Quakers that are negative towards inward silence and that would have rounded out the presentation.  But I thought it was interesting that both of the main European Christian traditions have had difficulty with the prayer of inward silence at times in their histories. 


My post was not meant as a critique of contemporary practices or traditions.  I'm well aware that there are those practicing the prayer of inward silence in both Protestant and Catholic traditions today.  But I am also aware that there are those who oppose it and I find that interesting.


Perhaps my post was badly written and I should have been clearer.  I hope this response is clarifying.






Comment by William F Rushby on 9th mo. 24, 2011 at 6:47am
I appreciate Jim Wilson's comments on silent prayer, but I question the emphasis he places on silent prayer as "heresy".   In the Conservative Quaker tradition, spoken prayer is highly esteemed when it is offered under Divine inspiration and anointing.
Comment by Jim Wilson on 9th mo. 24, 2011 at 12:38pm

Thanks for your responses, William and Joseph.  As my engagement with the period of Quietism in Quaker history grows, I have become more aware of how controversial the ideas of inward silence, inward light, were at the time they emerged either among the Quakers in England, or among the Quietists on the continent.  The response to a basically inward movement in spirituality was strikingly similar whether among Protestants or Catholics; that is to say both the Quakers and Quietists met with initial hostility.  What I found on that website that I was viewing is kind of a remnant, or echo, from that early hostility. 


But I have begun to understand that we are all, culturally, inheritors of that period where there was a great deal of strife generated by the claims of a basically interior, contemplative, spirituality.  I feel a strong attraction to the period of Quietism in Quaker history and the works that come from that period, such as the 'Guide to True Peace".  I see this period as a resource for securing the contemplative dimension of Quaker spirituality.


Well, I can see I'm rambling a bit.  Thanks again for your responses.


Best wishes,




Comment by William F Rushby on 9th mo. 24, 2011 at 5:11pm

Jim Wilson: See Ted Campbell, *Religion of the Heart*

This book will offer lots of context for your interest in Quietism.

Comment by Bill Samuel on 9th mo. 26, 2011 at 8:14am

Quietism had both positive and negative aspects, IMHO. It did focus on direct experience with God, which is the heart of true religion, but also from my reading of Quaker history it was over-suspicious of vocal ministry and fostered a cultishness which make working with non-Quakers for the common good into an evil.

There is a real danger in focusing on just one aspect of the spiritual life. Silence is only a means, not an end. It's purpose is to put aside distractions which keep us from focusing on God and how God is speaking to us. That is the root of the practice in both the monastic and Quaker traditions. And it is very valuable in that.

But there are also other ways in which God communicates to us, including liturgy, music, etc.  This is fact which can be shown by the experience of those close to God through the ages. In early Quakerism's revulsion at the misuse of  practices by the institutional church of their day, they mistakenly jumped de facto into assuming the practices themselves were wrong.

I don't think that the exclusive use of any means of worship is scriptural or healthy.  I reject the idolatry of many Quakers of a particular style of worship. There is a tendency to regard different forms of worship as competitive, when a more healthy approach views them as complementary.  I think the Eucharist and the practice of silence are particularly complementary.

Within Quakerism, we have seen increasing rejection of the practice of silence as an exclusive form of worship, which I think is a natural development (albeit the development has been with a mixture of good and not-so-good reasons). This is obvious in pastoral Quakerism, but to me is even more noteworthy in "unprogrammed" Quakerism. There has been an exponential growth in this sector of Quakerism in the use of other ways to worship. Granted they often nominally accept the historic taboo by placing them outside what they label "worship" but nevertheless the participants do generally feel them as worship. Outside of the very small meetings (which are a large proportion of the total number of meetings, but only a small proportion of Quakers attend these), most meetings have adopted some such practices, most notably hymn singing and sharing of joys and concerns (the closest heterodox Quakers seem able to come to a time of public prayer).  Much of this movement has occurred in the last half century or so.  It is an amazing development which I don't think has gotten adequate attention.  And it has implications for the unity of Friends, especially since at the same time there has been a significant movement among pastoral Friends for greater use of silence.  These two streams of Quakerism have been moving closer together in their actual practice.

In the wider Christian community, both Catholic and Protestant, there has been a rapidly growing interest in contemplative practices.  Of course, there is resistance, notably charges that these are "New Age." But the spread of interest continues. There is a thirst for silence to engage with the divine.  These practices, as customarily used, involve some technique, like the "sacred word" in centering prayer. That can be a help for some, particularly beginners, but there has been insufficient recognition that it can also be a hindrance.

My church is one that has embraced contemplative practices. They are used sometimes in the main worship and in our discipleship groups (small groups which most active in the church participate in). There is also a contemplative gathering monthly, at which there is a minimum of 20 minutes of silence. This last time, there were two 20-minute periods of silence. A contemplative day recently held attracted perhaps a fifth of the active people in the church, and was well received.

I have found at my church that some people get tripped up by the techniques used. I am trying to encourage that those techniques be seen as optional, to be used only if he

Comment by Jim Wilson on 9th mo. 26, 2011 at 7:53pm

William, thanks for the book reference.  I've ordered it and look forward to reading it.


Bill, your knowledge of Quaker history and practice is more extensive than mine, so I enjoyed reading your post as it filled in some of my understanding of Quaker history.  I have a different take on silence and on the period of Quaker Quietism.  When you say silence is the means, not the end, I think I would resond with both 'yes' and 'no'.  My take on the practice of inward silence and prayer is that it is the practice of cultivating awareness of, or union with, God.  From that perspective silence isn't a means.  Or, one might put it, that silent contemplation is a means that is consistent with the end of awakening to the presence of eternity.  The result is not inevitable and can be subverted, just as good gardening can be subverted by neglect or through misinformation.  What I'm getting at is that I see silent prayer as a causal basis for an intimate relationship with God. 


It was intriguing to read about your monthly 'contemplative gathering' as the meeting I attend also has a monthly 'meeting for silence'.  The silence is 1/2 hour.  This is followed by reflection on this kind of practice.


Thanks again,




Comment by Alison Irving on 6th mo. 23, 2012 at 2:12am

Thank you for this, Jim. I attend a Quaker meeting, but still have a foot in the Sydney Anglican community where the church leadership is emphatic in its statement that silent prayer is not prayer. Since I cannot agree with them, I appreciate your writing as helping to give an articulate perspective to what I believe. Thank you.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 6th mo. 23, 2012 at 10:21am

Friend Alison:

Thanks for thy appreciative remarks.  I am curious as to the basis of an Anglican critique of the prayer of inward silence.  Do the critics refer to certain creeds, biblical references, or other sources? 

Thanks again,

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Timothy on 6th mo. 23, 2012 at 12:01pm

I find myself, being new to the ideas and practices of Friends, not really qualified to speak as of anything definitely or conclusive; but, nevertheless, I speak from our own little systems of experience and that being limited. . .

We are in a unique place where God hath planted us to grow in. We were never taught this Active Silence, and Silence in Family Worship or in Meeting for Worship. Being raised up in Pentecostal persuasion, attending Baptist persuasion, Episcopal persuasion, Full Gospel and such in my own past conversation; we have since left the city for rural country life as of First Month 1st, MCMXCIX (1999).

My wife, being raised in a rather plain Mennonite community, she also, never was taught to observe this Silence in Worship or Family Worship. How did we then come to see this as something wanting in our own situation? Simple. We Seek the LORD God our Father, as closely as possible, and in our own dark times, this Silence is actually more than anything a Refuge and Solace. It is Silent Prayer and much deeper. I would not say it is heresy to practice Silence in prayer. For from what little knowledge we have about Friends, seems to show that the spoken prayer is esteemed when offered under Divine inspiration and anointing.

However, we never "empty" our mind, as that is dangerous, but Actively engage in Silence in our Worship at home. When at the Mennonite church, we have very little opportunities to engage in Silent Worship. There is much programmed singing, praying, or preaching—which do not entirely disagree with, but long to see there be opportunities for Silence—and we enjoy attending there. I play piano, at home, for there are no musical instruments in the Meetinghouse. I enjoy singing the hymns, but I need also to have time for the Lord God and His Son to speak to me. If I am constantly making noise, will I hear the "Still small voice of calm"?

Our findings in scripture to back up our Silent Worship at home are the following: "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, slow to wrath. . ." James 1:19b "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon the earth: therefore let thy words be few." Ecclesiastes 5:1—2; also in Habakkuk 2:20, and divers other Old and New Testament places.

I write as one who is still learning, and not that I have ascertained unto all knowledge. But quietness, to me, is essential to our Inner Man. It is a healing balm. Another benefit, if thou hast a family, thou shan't interrupt anyone else during Silent family Meditations, Devotions, or Worship.

Thy Friend Timothy.


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