Every now and again I take part in a Quaker Meeting for Worship that is totally silent: a whole hour where not a word is spoken. To an outsider looking in, all these occasions may look the same, but to the worshipper these experiences can vary wildly. Sometimes I rise at the end of worship with a sense of nourishment, and have at times been graced with a renewed sense of connectedness to my Friends, God and everything. I vividly remember one totally silent Meeting where I felt a palpable, heavy presence of love in the room, and the glances, smiles and excited words I exchanged with fellow worshippers afterwards confirmed that everyone felt the same. It was a truly gathered Meeting. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, I have also experienced silent worship that was silent for a very different reason. These silences were dead.

A research project is beginning in Britain Yearly Meeting to better understand what makes a Meeting vibrant. Why are some silences vibrant, alive, feeling-full, and others dead and drab? Although the felt presence of God in a Meeting for Worship is ultimately a grace, and not something we can control, I think the way we approach the silence is important. In many secular contexts, silence is a space to be filled. I have witnessed many Meetings for Worship where this attitude is apparent. The silence is a blank canvas for us to paint with our witty aphorisms and pious observations. This idea of silence only leaves us paddling in the shallows of God’s ocean. The silence is not the space into which we speak, or even a space to think. Silence is a response to the Divine. Indeed, it may perhaps be the most perfect response.

God dazzles Job with a sweeping poetic glimpse of the unfathomable mystery of creation. Job can only respond, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” The Psalmist knows the limits of human knowledge when confronted with God’s presence: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” [Ps. 139:5-6]. I have heard ‘ministry’ that is so wordy or intellectual as to be incomprehensible. We can struggle so hard to formulate our thoughts in worship that we miss the mystery altogether.

Silence is a response to mystery. I feel here that Quakers have an affinity with the higher end of the church, as another response to mystery is music. C S Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters imagines a Hell where there is only noise, music and silence belonging to Heaven. Silence and music are the most appropriate responses to mystery, acknowledging unknowing and the limitations of words and concepts. Silence is not a blank canvas, it is an offering. In worship we offer our silence as we would offer a hymn or a dance. I’d like to continue the art metaphor by suggesting that the blank canvas idea of silence is anesthetic – it results in a numb, feeling-less space where nothing grows. Conversely, silence as response, as offering, is aesthetic – a sensuous, feeling-full experience as one might experience through the arts or sexual intimacy, with vocal ministry flowing from and adding to its transformative power.

I’m not advocating that we should experience mystical ecstasy every time we worship together. Deep silence can also be characterized by obedient listening, and there may often be times when God seems absent, protecting us from addiction to spiritual thrills, as John of the Cross so wisely describes in his Dark Night of the Soul. However, in my experience, an anesthetic silence contains neither listening nor expectant waiting, but is simply dead.

Does vibrancy in a Quaker community flow from the quality of worship, or from the quality of everything else the Meeting does together? I’m becoming more and more convinced that vibrancy arises from relationship, and God is love, so God is relationship. I rarely feel called to minister at a Meeting where I am a stranger, and I think my lack of relationship with those present is part of that. The quality of our relationships with each other effect our communal worship. Jesus said that “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” [Matthew 5:23-24].

If we are experiencing ‘blank-canvas’ Meetings for Worship week after week, we must examine our attitude to the silence and our relationships with each other. How often do we see each other outside of Sunday morning? How willing are we to give our time to eat together regularly? Do we know the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives? We should not be satisfied with Meeting for Worship feeling continually like a dentist’s waiting room.

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Comment by Stuart Masters on 5th mo. 23, 2012 at 4:37am

Thank you for this Mark! I agree with you about the importance of making a commitment to being a community. Too often the silence can merely  mask  our differences and our ignorance of one another. I also think that you a right to say that Quaker worship is 'high' since it has traditionally been based on an expectation of the real presence of Christ in the midst of his people. Arthur Roberts has argued that Quakers are sacramental without being sacerdotal and ‘high church’ without being liturgical (Roberts 2008, (Roberts 2008, Through Flaming Sword, p.44 & p.121).

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