Last year, in my "February shorts," I mentioned the Moscow Friend who told us that forty minutes is about all the unprogrammed worship that she can take. A few weeks ago, I was talking with a newcomer to Friends for whom even forty minutes might seem like an eternity. She was formerly a Baptist, and came to the evangelical Friends church I was visiting because she found out she had Quaker family roots and was interested in finding out whether we still existed. She was happy to find that church.
It emerged in conversation that she knew that there was an unprogrammed "silent" Friends meeting in town as well, but as she told me, "Everyone tells me that I talk constantly. They're right. Silent worship? I wouldn't last five minutes."
If you've been following this blog for a while, you know how much I resist the idea that traditional unprogrammed "open" worship is for a special sort of person and unsuitable or simply too difficult for most others. If you've tried this approach to worship and found it lacking, there is nothing I can or should say to persuade you that you are wrong! But if you've not yet given it a try, consider these thoughts:
- Quakers don't sit in passive silence but in active waiting. We trust that the Holy Spirit will provide the divine companionship, guidance, and prophecy that we need. We listen in our own minds for guidance that we may be the ones chosen today to express something that others might need to hear; likewise, we wait to hear a necessary word from someone else in the group. On any given day, there may be no outward speech at all, but we have nevertheless been active in our attentiveness.
- If you're new to Friends, you might think that all of us long-time Friends descend effortlessly into that zone of divine attentiveness, and the fact that for you it isn't effortless at all proves that "waiting worship" is not for you, or that you would make a bad Quaker. Not so! I love the journey into and through silent worship, but I certainly can't pretend it's easy. My particular path into that zone includes a list of 144 people or groups (I just counted for the first time) for whom I'm committed to pray daily. Often I find myself distracted by one person or situation in that list, and I have to pry myself gently away from that distraction and back into the stream. Only after those 144 prayers am I free to turn to God in unscripted waiting.
- Maybe the person "who wouldn't last five minutes" thinks that it is her desire to speak that is the "problem," rather than an inability to listen. If so, then maybe we should reassure her that she can speak quietly directly to God. Quaker silence isn't meant to do violence to our personality, but to train us, to disciple us, into directing our efforts toward life with God rather than ourselves at the center. In fact, that's what we're doing when we gather--learning (however gradually, imperfectly) to live with God at the center of our lives, and encouraging each other in that adventure.
All forms of worship involve some kind of training in discipleship. The practice of waiting is no more demanding; it may just be a bit harder to hide our unwillingness to learn.
- We don't need or expect some kind of clinical perfection in our meetings. Children make endearing noises and keep us from worshipping the silence itself; the sound of the world outside reminds us that our faith is connected to real life and real neighbors; someone gets up and says something, either sublime or stupid, that reminds us we're not all at the same place in our spiritual development and never will be. Learning patience is not a bad thing! Neither is learning to be tender with ourselves and returning without shame back to the center--over and over if necessary.
- A Friends worship service is usually linked with an educational hour--a Sunday school or First-day school that provides access to the teaching voice of Friends, and gives the biblical and historical background for what we experience in worship.
In all I've said above, my point isn't to say that unprogrammed worship is better or purer than the programmed worship I've known most of my forty years as a Friend. Friends who use music and preaching in worship are bound by the same disciplines of listening and waiting for the Holy Spirit, but we just exercise some of that discipline ahead of time as we prepare! (I hope we always remember to leave space for the Spirit to work through the whole assembled group, not just those serving in worship leadership.) My point here is a plea to anyone who has not tried silent worship: yes, it is different from what is offered by most forms of religion, but it doesn't require a different "special" kind of person. It's simply a different way of offering God the undivided attention our hearts already yearn to give.
(Also see Pierre Lacout and silence.)
Deborah Lewis, "Who wants to pray?" "... I began wondering about how we are teaching people to pray in context."
"Archbishop of Canterbury offers monastic gap year at Lambeth Palace."
In the USA's current political cycle, "Religious divides persist heading into fall campaign."
To educators: please help me research the topic of cheating by filling in as much or as little of this questionnaire as possible. (Russian version here.) I hope to tabulate the replies by about September 20. Heartfelt thanks!
Hans Theessink sings and plays his beautiful song "Shelter From the Storm." (And at 9:09 he sings "Down in the Hole.") You can hear Terry Evans and Hans Theessink perform their album version of "Shelter From the Storm" here.