On the surface, it can seem like Quaker worship is just sitting in silence. But as Lloyd Lee Wilson explains, something much more profound is happening.
God is always talking to us. God is always reaching out to us. Every time I stop to listen, I hear that God has already started. It’s not a case of getting God’s attention, but it’s a case of getting my attention.
Why Do Quakers Worship in Silence?
I’m Lloyd Lee Wilson. I’m a member of Friendship Friends Meeting in Greensboro North Carolina which is part of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative.
For many folks coming into a Quaker meeting for worship who aren’t already familiar with it, there aren’t many cues to indicate what’s going on and it sometimes seems like we’re having worship based on silence or something like that, but in fact something very different is going on.
Passing Through the Stillness
From the exterior, there may not appear to be very much different between a group of individuals doing individual meditation or individual contemplation in the same room and a group of Quaker worshiping together. But there are a number of things that are, as we experience them, different. One is that these practices that have as their goal achieving stillness of mind or perfect quiet or single-pointed awareness, as a goal, are actually quite different from what we are attempting and achieving in meeting for worship. For Friends, this point of stillness is only a way station, and we pass though that. It is not our goal, but it is how we get to a point of encounter with God.
Sometimes this is called “expectant waiting.” In my yearly meeting, it’s more often called “waiting worship.” So when I sit down and worship, yes, the beginning looks a lot like stilling the mind and coming to a place of silence—and it is a place of silence of body, silence of mind, silence of emotion, a stillness—but we do that in order to pass beyond that into an encounter with the Divine. That’s what we’re waiting for.
So we’re in waiting worship because we’re gathering to prepare ourselves and wait for the presence and guidance of the Divine to be made manifest among us.
A Group Experience
As we gather together, that presence is not just my experience, but in a way, again, that’s beyond words, one knows that it’s our experience. We are as a group having a particular kind of encounter. At its best, it becomes what we call a “gathered meeting.” No words may be said; outwardly it may still look like silence. But afterwards, one may find that everybody else that was in that meeting was thinking about the same thing and feeling the same emotions and experiencing that divine presence in a very similar way. Francis Howgill calls it “the Spirit gathered us in a net and hauled us to shore.”
A Life-Changing Relationship
So that’s what we’re getting at, that idea of a gathered meeting. We’re all human, we don’t all get to a gathered meeting every first day or even every month, but we are gathering and preparing ourselves and waiting for that encounter to happen, and we find that whether it is my individual encounter in individual worship, or this corporate worship, that it is a life-changing relationship.