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: 1899

Comment by Forrest Curo on 6th mo. 23, 2012 at 1:35pm

One form of education: listen to teacher & accept what you hear.

Another: listen to teacher; think about what you hear; ask questions; repeat as needed.


Comment by Alison Irving on 6th mo. 23, 2012 at 11:44pm

Me too, Friend Jim, but that bit wasn't provided, just a rather disapproving comment from the pastor and another from an assistant pastor.  Sydney Anglicans is a rather fundamental set up, unlike many Anglican churches. 

Comment by Jim Wilson on 6th mo. 25, 2012 at 9:40am

Friend Timothy:

I enjoyed reading thy response.  I have a very different background; for many years, decades, I practiced Budhism, primarily Zen.  Zen meditation is silent meditation.  But what I discovered when attending a Quaker Meeting is that there are different types of silence.  Quaker silence is what I would call 'porous'; it is open to the world while at the same time calming to the mind and heart.  Zen silence is kind of brittle because Zen meditation, and Buddhist meditation, is about training the mind to hold a particular state and/or content (depending on the specific program).  In contrast, Quaker silence is more like waiting for an honored guest to appear. 

Sara Maitland wrote 'A Book of Silence' which details her journey into silence and solitude.  She has insightful things to say about different types of silence and how different traditions create conditions for those different types.

Thanks again,

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Bill Samuel on 6th mo. 25, 2012 at 10:03am

"Quaker silence is more like waiting for an honored guest to appear."  That's beutiful. Thanks for the image. The traditional description of the form of worship is "waiting worship" which unfortunately has fallen largely into disuse.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 6th mo. 25, 2012 at 11:17am

Friend Alison:

That's interesting, and consistent with what I have observed.  Conservatives or traditionalists tend not to like quietism or inward silence because it seems to undermine ecclesiastical authority by offering a path to God that bypassees their structure.  On the other hand, Liberals or activists tend to diss quietism because it undermines their focus on being socially engaged.  I think of the period of Quaker Quietism as one of the few times when Quietism found a nourishing home and a culture that was congenial to that approach (another would be Lutheran Pietism).  That is one reason why I have become so enthusiastic about this period in Quaker history, because it feels to me like such a rich and rewarding heritage for a more contemplative turn to the Quaker tradition.

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Forrest Curo on 6th mo. 25, 2012 at 11:47am

Liberalist Quakers tend to idealize silence because it spares them exposure to uncongenial ideas. More conventional church services tend to crowd it out, with much the same effect.

Something more like 'Worship Sharing' may be the best practice... but requires an intense degree of detached attention to sustain on a regular basis!

Comment by Jim Wilson on 6th mo. 27, 2012 at 9:30am

Friend Bill:

Coming from a Buddhist background, I wondered why the Quaker tradition hadn't developed specific instructions regarding how to maintain a silent mind.  Such instructions are prominent in Buddhism, though they vary with the specific Buddhist tradition.

When I began to understand Quaker silence as Waiting Worship, this absence began to make sense to me.  If I am waiting for an honored guest, I might do various things while waiting; empty the trash, read a poem, set the table for the guest, etc.  But I won't stray too far from home because the guest is coming.  Looked at in this way it makes sense that the Quaker tradition has not developed the kind of instruction found in Buddhism because Quaker silence isn't about fixating on a particular mental state.  It's about being ready for the honored guest who is always there.

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Olivia on 6th mo. 28, 2012 at 6:59am

Forrest -- What is worship sharing?

Comment by Forrest Curo on 6th mo. 28, 2012 at 11:19am

"Worship sharing" is a practice I'm familiar with from quarterly and yearly meetings:

This is best done with a small group. Some question has been prepared beforehand -- and if that question happens to be lame, there's often the option of speaking to something more personally significant. (Or to choose from a list in the first place.)

The expectation is that people will speak (although passing is acceptable.) Participants sit in silence; the leader  distributes/reads the question; they remain in silence until they're ready to respond from a deeper level than conversational.

The order of speaking may be: When it's your deal (which can be desirable with shy participants) or: When it seems the right time to you (which can mean having to ask at the end, has everyone intending to speak done so.)

In the classic form, interaction between speakers is deliberately minimized. One person, one turn, until everyone has spoken. This does help guard against getting caught up in conversational or adversarial modes...

Several days of doing this with the same small group can get really intense.

Comment by Olivia on 7th mo. 2, 2012 at 10:19pm

Bill and Jim:  thank you each for your comments on the honored guest.  I love this and to learn how that compares to your Zen Buddhism, Jim.

Forrest:  thank you for the clear example of how worship sharing might go.  I do believe that there is something powerful about the full hour of silence at meeting (and any times we do this, in between Sundays) -- for me more powerful than the more structured approaches, even worship sharing.  I think group sharing can be very powerful but what I mean is that I would never want it to replace the time of silence.  Some people will always take silence as an opportunity to "do nothing."    But it would be wrong to fill it so that they couldn't misuse it.  It is too powerful and potent.   My own experience of the power of the silence is through what I kind of organically experienced but later discovered was like a Buddhist sitting with whatever pain that comes up and moving into instead of out of it, or what the Catholics understand as Centering prayer.   I am sure we've talked about this somewhere....You pick a word, for example "Christ" -- and every time a thought or distraction occurs you gentle speak the word to remind yourself that this intention is all that matters, and to remind yourself not to chatter.  There's a visual with it too:  whatever thoughts or distractions come up you throw them in the stream. me all these practices just happen organically if you sit down and be silent and mindful about it.  You will have pain and irritation, you will need to recenter and be gentle with yourself, and you will eventually feel the flow (the river, the electricity, the Christ?)

Jim, thanks again for this original post.  I completely agree with your conclusions.


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