When we polled newcomers to Quaker meetings, these were the 8 most frequently asked questions they had about Quaker worship when they first walked through the doors of a meetinghouse.
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Kenyatta James: Sitting in silence doesn’t mean it’s quiet all the time. It doesn’t mean that your mind is quiet, it doesn’t mean that the spirit is quiet, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the surroundings are quiet. It’s more about focus, it’s more about where you place your attention, and I think the quiet of a Quaker meeting is the quiet of an inward focus.
Frequently Asked Questions About Quaker Meeting for Worship
Why do Quakers worship in Silence?
Amy Kietzman: Silence is rare these days, it’s really rare. Emptiness is another way to think of it. Emptying yourself out so that you can receive something.
Ayesha Imani: There is the admonition in the Old Testament of, “Be still and know that I am God” and sometimes in our moving, sometimes in our speaking, we get so bound in our own egos that we aren’t able to experience the peace of God, the love of God—and so sometimes we just have to get still.
What are Quakers doing while they are sitting in silence?
Melinda Wenner Bradley: I think of worship every time we sit down together as being an opportunity, and there’s something deeply hopeful about gathering in that space. If each of us are listening inwardly, waiting and listening for the truth that’s within, that we bring some new truth to bear whether anyone speaks a message or whether anything happens in that time, there is something very hopeful about reaching in and doing that in community.
Laura Kinnel: One thing I did as a child which I still do occasionally, particularly when I’m in a new situation, was to imagine drawing a web, a line from my center, my heart, to the heart of everyone else in the room, to recognize that I’m not sitting here in silence for an hour by myself.
Why do some people close their eyes in meeting for worship?
Amy Kietzman: Some people close their eyes in worship–I do it because the visual can be distracting. I like to look at leaves and sunshine but if I start to look at faces I start, you know… I mean I do like to look at faces, too, but I think that’s the main thing, is just temporarily blocking out all stimulation.
Melinda Wenner Bradley: It’s not about sitting in silence, it’s about gathering, and waiting and listening, and sometimes closing our eyes helps us to focus inward.
What should I do with my body during meeting for worship?
Ayesha Imani: I think that you should do whatever you’re comfortable doing that will allow you to receive, that will allow you to receive what the spirit is bringing. If you need to open your hands in order to open your mind and heart, then do that. And if you need to close your eyes to hear what the spirit is saying to you, then do that, but do whatever makes you comfortable in terms of being in receptive mode.
How do I know if I should speak?
Laura Kinnel: Some people say that Quakers have no ministers. That’s what you might think initially when you walk in and say that there’s no one in charge here, there’s no minister. In fact, as Quakers we believe that we are all ministers, and therefore the silence gives each of us an opportunity to either be a minister or be ministered to as the spirit leads.
Melinda Wenner Bradley: We are all invited to both be listening inwardly and sharing outwardly. Friends speak about being moved to speak, being moved by the spirit, hearing a message. We often talk about asking ourselves 3 questions as a test, as a way of querying ourselves and testing whether or not to stand. The first question is, “does this message feel like it comes from spirit? Does it feel like it comes from within? Does it come from here and not here ?” The second question would be, “Is this message for me or is it for others? Is this message for me to share?” The third question is, “Is this for now or is it for later?”
How should I receive other people’s messages?
Kenyatta James: In a worship environment, I think that the best thing to do is listen to a message and feel how the words affect you. If you formulate a response to something then you’re not really listening. So hearing it and paying attention to how you feel will give you the ability to listen.
Laura Kinnel: Quakers think that there is that of the divine in every person, so if someone is saying it in a situation like this, it’s coming from a divine place. So there’s something of God in that message for me and my job now becomes to figure out what that is.
Ayesha Imani: This is a message to the community and I need to be under the weight of this somehow. So my prayer needs to be, “Help me to hear, help me to see. Help me to be a vessel.”
What do children do during meeting for worship?
Melinda Wenner Bradley: You absolutely should bring your children to meeting. There are a couple of different answers of what to expect might happen with young people who come to worship with their families. One is that they are certainly welcome to be in worship with the gathered body. In many meetings you will find that there also is a program for young people.
Kenyatta James: At Green Street, the children join the adults at the end of meeting. I feel like that’s really great, positive energy. Children that have been in a group and then come together are almost always happy, so it means that your meeting experience ends with happy energy.
How do I know when worship is over?
Amy Kietzman: Most Quaker meetings for worship end with a handshake. It’s usually the people who have care of meeting that start the handshake and then everyone is invited to shake the hands, basically greet the people around them with a handshake, sometimes a hug.
Laura Kinnel: When people start shaking hands, you should start shaking hands with the people next to you, turn around and shake hands with the people behind you. Say good morning. They may introduce themselves. They are happy to meet you.
Kenyatta James: That means that the quiet part of meeting is over, and then there will be announcements. Sometimes there might be a space for people to share sorrows or joys so that a relative or situation can be held in the light. Many meetings have some sort of coffee hour, but some don’t. But that’s the general flow. So if you see everyone starting to shake hands around you, chances are meeting is over.
- Did you have any of these questions when you first attended a Quaker meeting? How did you figure out the answers?
- How did the answers in the video line up with your experience? Are there any that you would change or expand on?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.