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 Jim Wilson on 7th mo. 6, 2012 at 8:52am

Friend Nicholas:
I appreciate thy comment. One of the reasons I like Maitland's 'Book of Silence' is she presents a typology of silence. Silence is not a uniform appearance; there are different kinds of silence. Maitland discovers this, but it's not easy to communicate this because silence of any kind is unusual in our current society.
I like the metaphor of opening the sails to the wind; that's used by Quietists and by Quakers at times.
I also practice the Jesus Prayer; I use it as a gateway to inner silence, or sometimes it is simply and quietly constantly present. I think it would be useful for Quakers at this juncture in their history to discuss the various ways to maintain inward silence. There are a variety of techniques to do this and I think Quakers are in a unique position to take advantage of them, even those that come from other traditions such as Buddhism, as long as it is understood, as you point out, that the technique is not the goal. I keep returning to the feeling for me that Quaker silence is 'porous' and 'open' to the presence of others. In my own experience the gathered silence of a Meeting has a different feel than when I practice solo silence. Others have told me the same thing. I can't quite put my finger on what to call the difference, but it manifests for me in a sense of greater attentiveness and also I feel more relaxed in body. It's worth exploring these differences and what they might mean.
Thanks again for thy comments,
Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Bill Samuel on 10th mo. 12, 2013 at 5:07pm

It is interesting that the prayer of inward silence should be a Catholic heresy since it is so strong in the Catholic tradition. Can you provide support for that? I can't find any support for that using Google, but I can find many Catholic figures, including popes, recommending prayer of inward silence. It is fundamental to the monastic tradition. Also, the Catholic mass, if done properly, has a period of silence after each of the other elements.

It's popularity is growing across the Christian spectrum.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 12, 2013 at 8:27pm

Since "God is not a concept of 'God'," silence can open the door for the reality to slip in past a person's concepts.

Silence can also be used as a refusal to consider concepts that might help people recognize God and let themselves be better aligned with God's purposes. That is how I believe it has been working in many contemporary Meetings.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 10th mo. 14, 2013 at 11:06am


The heresy I am referring to is the heresy of 'Quietism'; which, I believe, is still considered a heresy by the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Encyclopedia has very negative things to say about it.

The issue seems to be that one can read the works of the Catholic Quietists in such a way that they are saying it is possible to access the Divine, to approach God, without using the sacraments.  Personally, I don't believe that the Quietists believed that; but it is true that you can read their work in that way.  Molinos wrote a short work on frequent communion which demonstrates the importance he attributed to that rite.  Madame Guyon's work 'A Short and Easy Method' makes no mention of the sacraments and it is her central work, the one most widely read.  This is also true of Molinos' 'Method of Prayer'; that is to say it does not mention the sacraments or their necessity.  A lesser known, but influential, Quietist, Malaval, in his two dialogues, also does not establish the necessity for sacraments.

Modern Catholics who teach and practice the prayer of inward silence are very careful to emphasize that such prayer does not replace, or displace, the sacraments.  It is a point that Father Keating, for example, emphasizes over and over.  It is on this basis that modern Catholic practitioners distinguish themselves from the Quietists and distance themselves from them as far as possible.

Quakers, of course, had not problem with reading the Quietists in this way.  The absence of an emphasis on sacraments fit smoothly, and easily, into the Quaker view of the sacraments which was, and reamains, largely negative.  This is one of the reasons why Quakers found the continental Quietists so congenial and why Quakers were so willing to reference them.

I hope this clarifies.

Best wishes,


Comment by Bill Samuel on 10th mo. 14, 2013 at 11:36am

Jim, thanks for that clarification.  I think you wrongly generalize from the rejection of Quietism, which I think in fact is heretical and did a lot of harm among Quakers, to a rejection of inward silence which in fact is something the Roman Catholic Church upholds and is incorporated into the mass.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 10th mo. 14, 2013 at 1:00pm

Greetings again to Bill:

The way I wrote my post could be misunderstood in the way you indicate.  Sorry about that.

We have a different perspective on Quietism.  Personally, I find myself very attracted to the period of Quietism in Quaker history.  The works written during that period are the ones that I find most resonate with my own Faith and Practice and understanding of Quaker views and tradition.  I have discovered that this is not widely held.  Most Quakers today hold your view; that the period of Quietism did a lot of harm, that it is a heritage to be overcome and left behind.  So we see things differently.

I am curious, if you want to discuss it, why you think Quietism is 'heretical' because I have found your posts thoughtful.  I don't mind disagreement, but I can also understand if you don't want to go into at this time or on this forum.  'Heretical' is a strong term; it's stronger than 'incorrect', or 'wrong-headed'.  So I am interested in why so many consider Quietism to be so off base.

Best wishes,


Comment by Bill Samuel on 10th mo. 14, 2013 at 1:53pm

Quietism essentially seems to deny the outward portion of the journey, and thus is heretical looked at the wholeness of the Gospel and the way it was understood by early Friends. Quietism was used in 19th century Quakerism (particularly in North America) to oppose any sort of activism against things contrary to Gospel order for society. It resulted in activists being read out of meetings, divisions of meetings, etc.  As a reaction to that, there developed the Progressive wing which borrowed heavily from Unitarianism, and which eventually largely supplanted the Hicksite wing of Quakerism. I think Chuck Fager has shown from his research that FGC is basically Progressive not Hicksite. So now we have essentially a Unitarian-Universalist wing of Quakerism with some element of mysticism added to the U-U thought. Personally, I think that was a sad development in Quakerism, which might not have occurred had it not been for Quietism.

Comment by Olivia on 10th mo. 15, 2013 at 7:45am

Hi Bill and Jim,

I find your discussion interesting and would be interested in learning more from each of you along these lines:

- Jim, what books / authors do you find meaningful from the Quietist period?

- Bill, where can I learn more about the Progressive wing you refer to and Chuck Fager's research?

I attend an urban meeting that gives all outward appearances of being a diverse but deeply UU affected meeting, with many non-theists (based on the idea that God = white guy on cloud?  but also just based on people's Buddhist inclinations sometimes which I respect, and an interest in science which they have learned is a different vantage point than those who believe in God or some such thing).... but in this meeting there is a powerful lot of social justice work always going on in our individual and collective lives.  This is the first time I have heard of UU-inclined people being connected to Quietism and opposing activism.  I do feel that they tend to want to hear the PC, non-Christian version of one's faith story / have their knee-jerk reactions.   But these are very socially involved people, simply people who feel burned by or suspicious of Christianity for some reason.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 10th mo. 15, 2013 at 11:50am

Good Morning:

Bill, I don't see Quietism that way, though I know that most Quakers these days configure Quietism in the terms you stated.  For example, I don't see the divisions that arose among Quakers as a result of Quietism.  Rather I see them as a result of an outward turning which took one of two forms; first, an absorption of Evangelical doctrines, and secondly, a progressive view absorbed from developments in modernity. 

I see the presence of Quietism as going all the way back to the beginning; particularly with Barclay.  Quakers did not call it Quietism but the view is there because the ultimate purpose of the Quaker Faith and Practice is to turn inward and reside in the presence of God.  In other words, I don't see Quietism as a turning away from early Quaker views; rather I see it as an articulate realization of those views.  The turn to activism (whether of an Evangelical style or a Liberal style) as the central feature of Quaker presence, is, to my mind, an abandoning of the central place of the realization of the light within and dwelling in the presence of the Divine.

What I'm getting at is that I think modern Quakers have lost, not completely, the contemplative dimension of their Faith and Practice.  It is this contemplative dimension which the Quietists secured.  I would like to recover that.

On another note; I'm wondering if we can talk about this without using the word 'heresy'?  I realize I started it by titling this post 'The Heresy of Silence', but I think that was probably a mistake.  I don't think the liberals are heretics; I just think they have lost an inward grounding and, lacking this inward dimension, political activism becomes the be all and end all of how they construe the Quaker tradition. 

Olivia:  My favorite work from this period is 'A Guide to True Peace'.  I have recently re-issued the 1815 edition, which is the most authentic version available.  You can find it at Amazon for a mdoest price if you are interested.  It is a manual for the practice of the prayer of inward silence.

I enjoy reading Hugh Turford, a British Quaker of Quietist inclinations.

William Shewen is another I enjoy.

And the Journal of Elias Hicks, surprisingly to me because he is often pictured as a kind of 'liberal', shows strong leanings toward Quietism.

I am still exploring this, though.  It is surprisingly difficult to locate the works from this period that put forth the view of Quietism that is not touched by the highly critical views of modern Quaker historians.  Most modern Quaker historians view the period of Quietism as a setback for the Quaker tradition and have a negative evaluation of it.  For this reason, I have come to distrust what they have to say about the period.  But their negative evaluation has had the effect of making it difficult to find the actual sources so that one can read what they have to say on their own terms, in their own voice.  Tentatively, I would like to put together some kind of anthology of Quaker Quietist Thought.  My idea is that it would be a collection that would illuminate the contemplative dimension of that period.  And they would be speaking in their own voice, free from the projections that modern Quaker historians have foisted on them.  I don't know if I will ever find the time, but it is something I hope for. 

My view is that modern Quaker Faith and Practice has become too immersed in politics and activism.  For many modern Quakers to be a Quaker means to be an activist.  I resist that kind of equation.  Again, I would like to recover the truly contemplative depths out of which the Quaker tradition emerged.  But there are not many who share my view; not that I am distressed about that.  It's just the place of religion in America these days and Quakers are part of that activist and politically involved wave that is so strong at this time.



Comment by Bill Samuel on 10th mo. 15, 2013 at 12:35pm

Both quietism and over-emphasis on activism are unbalanced. There has to be a balance of the inward and the outward, and I think you can see that in early Friends.

I don't think that Friends were part of the contemplative tradition. Where do you find evidence they were in the writings of early Friends? There are some synchronicities, which I became acutely aware of when I was in the Spiritual Nurturer Program of School of the Spirit, because the majority of what we read was from the monastic tradition because that's where the bulk of writing on spiritual nurture comes out of. But early Friends didn't seem to see themselves as very related to that ancient tradition, and the Quaker use of silence is quite different from the contemplative use of silence.

The early Friends I think, were closer to what has come to be the charismatic tradition (which has traditionally considered early Friends to be their forebears), than to the contemplative tradition.

Friends have a history of a tension between being active in the wider world and being a peculiar people who demonstrate a different way by living differently not be influencing the wider social order. This may be a healthy tension, but Friends have tended to swing back and forth. I think the tension largely held very early. In America, Friends quickly became extremely politically active. When this created a real dilemma for them, they swung towards the other extreme. Today, some parts of American Quakerism are way over on the politically active side, but others are not.


You need to be a member of QuakerQuaker to add comments!

Join QuakerQuaker

Support Us

Did you know that QuakerQuaker is 100% reader supported? If you think this kind of outreach and conversation is important, please support it with a monthly subscription or one-time gift.

You can also make a one-time donation.

Latest Activity

Hamilton Lindley updated their profile
Michael H Boulton updated their profile
6th day (Fri)
Kirby Urner posted a video

"The Industry Industry Missed" (A Meme)

School of Tomorrow. Dymaxion House thread. American Transcendentalism, from Emerson to Bucky Fuller. Heuristics for Teachers (Fall 2020)
9th month 24
Theodore Schmidkonz liked Kirby Urner's video
9th month 21
Kirby Urner posted a video

New England Transcendentalism: Bringing It Forward

The history of American literature includes the philosophy, and futurism, of R. Buckminster Fuller. Given our historical framework, let's give that philosoph...
9th month 20
William F Rushby replied to William F Rushby's discussion 'Recapturing Initiative for Conservative Friends'
"Wow, Marcia!  Your email is packed with issues we could discuss.  I am still laboring…"
9th month 2
Marcia P Roberts replied to William F Rushby's discussion 'Recapturing Initiative for Conservative Friends'
"I am curious to know what rituals Conservative Friends hold dear, William, when you talk about…"
9th month 2
Scott MacLeod liked Laura Rediehs's profile
8th month 26

© 2020   Created by QuakerQuaker.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service