What happens when you try to sit in silence for an hour? These seven Quakers discuss the challenge of being alone with one’s thoughts in Quaker worship, and the opportunity for grace and true communion on the other side.
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- How do you describe what happens to you when you sit in silence, either in a meeting for worship, in meditation, or just otherwise?
- What is difficult about being still and silent? What value do you find in it?
I’m bothered when people say “I don’t like to sit silently because I go crazy.”
I want to respond by saying, “Good. That’s good. You should go crazy.” If you’re not going crazy, you’re not actually worshiping.
Quaker Worship Part 1: The Challenge of Sitting in Silence
I remember the first time I went to a Quaker Meeting at Guilford, I enjoyed it for the first part when someone was speaking, and then when I got to the silence, I didn’t know what to do. It’s just a really different way of worshiping and of being with people than what I have experienced in other life.
Rachel Ernst Stahlhut
It can be definitely challenging in our society of distractions, and it can be uncomfortable and it can be new.
I’m saying, “Oh, that’s anxiety. That’s utter terrified feelings. Oh, that’s me going off on some thought binge that’s going to lead down a really scary rabbit hole.” and, “Oh, this is where I am right now!” and just noticing those things.
But then eventually, if it’s a good worship, the observation, the mindfulness sort of transitions into an awareness of not merely my thoughts, not merely my body, but where I am sitting, the people around me. The fact that this is an artificial space that I’m in and that I’m part of a much bigger universe.
My sense that I’m in worship is almost a very physical sensation of being heavier than usual, of sinking into the chair. The chair feels different to me than it does when I’m just sitting and chatting or sitting and working at a computer or something and there’s this very strong stillness that is through my body and that also takes my mind with it.
“Like busting through the sound barrier”
The silence has come to feel very close to the metaphor that Friends have used of a river or of a body of water that we’re all immersed in, and so somehow it feels like the connecting, the connector, the blood running through the body. That’s how I experience the silence now. It’s very alive and very rich.
I remember the first time during open worship where I felt like I was able to touch the thing that Quakers have spoken to since the 1600s. It was like busting through the sound barrier. When you’re like “poof!” That has kept me coming back.
I’ve been in Meeting for Worship that people have called covered or people have called gathered. The feeling of the Holy Spirit is present. It is a different feeling than mere excitement or anxiety or joy or drugs. I’ve been in that world too and it’s not that. It’s a different thing. And I would name that as the Holy Spirit.
“A deep sense of unity and compassion”
And it’s not that I’m not thinking, but I’m not paying much attention to what I’m thinking. It’s not bothering me. It’s like a background noise. But this sense of stillness and heaviness is just all through me.
The awesome thing is that you’re doing this with other people and feeling crazy and vulnerable and weird and broken with others and there’s also this deep sense of unity and compassion that can emerge, when everyone else is also gotten themselves on the wave, because we see where we’re beautiful, as one body, even though we’re all broken.
We have, in those moments, a sense of what it means to be fully gathered as a people. There are tiny slivers of the kingdom that we become present to in the Meeting for Worship where people are not merely emotional but people see each other and themselves and hear the world as it was intended to be heard, as it was ordered in the gospel.
We love our brothers and sisters as full humans without those demons of sexism and racism and self-defeat, body image problems. We are present in that moment—even if it’s a tiny micro-moment—to the way that things are supposed to be ordered.
Rachel Ernst Stahlhut
It’s when I find energy. I leave Meeting for Worship energized to live, and I leave Meeting with a sense of clarity. It is a spiritual discipline, and it can offer surprising gifts.