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.




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Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 17, 2013 at 2:19pm

Strictly speaking, what I see you doing is assuming that you know what I think, and that my disagreements are absolute, so that you need to explain your position again while not taking the time to understand what I happen to say. Fenelon and Merton both said some delicious things. If you want to contemplate, you don't need to justify it to me...

Writing clearly and to the point is sometimes a curse. I assume I'm being understood; and readers are assuming they understand me -- and neither is necessarily true!

One simply shouldn't become an istist! God is too wonderfully varied for us to waste time arguing past each other, yes?

Comment by William F Rushby on 10th mo. 17, 2013 at 7:48pm

Hello, Jim Wilson!

You wrote: " Personally, I find the Quietist Quakers to be inspiring, nurturing, and worthy of emulation."

In my rather fumbling attempts to answer some of the questions you posed to me,  I got stuck on who we are talking about when we reference "quietist Quakers".  Could you define this population more specifically.  I am not talking about Madame Guyon, Fenelon, etc., but about Friends.

(I may not surface again immediately; too many matters to attend to on the farm.)


Comment by Olivia on 10th mo. 18, 2013 at 2:57pm

I second William's question above....

and wanted to say that this speaks to me  from you, Jim:  "Activist Quakers create a dichotomy (a false on, in my opinion) wherein getting involved in various causes is 'activity', but sitting in silence is 'doing nothing'.  I don't see it that way.  Sitting in silence is doing something; it is an activity, just as much an activity as cooking, baking, and getting signatures on a petition.  From the perspective of Quietism, it is the single most efficacious activity one can engage in to reform the world.  Activists will find that view incomprehensible; I get that.  Nevertheless, that is the Quietist view."

My own experience of the power of stopping was that strange good things started to happen in the lives of my loved ones when I quit taking care of them.  :-)   Synchronicities like they would never typically experience...and all I did was quit worrying about mom and start sitting in the silence of Christ.

But then if one sits in silence of that sort, as the default and guide to any action, there must be an accepted mode of action-as-led....instead of any external requirement that "no, we just sit."   When we truly sit, God truly starts to do stuff and that may move us.  But I am guessing that if one sits for 20 minutes a day and then things it's God that's making them want to get up, they are probably mistaken.   The joy and power of that inner silence is only when you are commited in some sense to never getting up again.  There is nothing but the Present of "I give up, God".   Giving up and allowing whatever comes may be the conclusion.   But then stuff does come, and there must be allowance for it.

More on who you mean by "Quietist Quakers," Jim?

(and then doing only from a place if inner deep rest and connection) was that


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