Silence is different than not doing anything. Our local Quaker community, called Rochester Friends, taught me that and much more on a recent Sunday morning.
This week for the Lent series, we’re focused on the spiritual practice of silence. In order to learn more about why it’s important, I reached out to the Quakers. I’d heard somewhere along the way that their worship services included a fair amount of silence. I sent an email requesting a conversation to learn more, and in response, they warmly invited me to join them for Sunday morning worship before the interview.
The worship experience was powerful and beautiful and unlike anything I’d ever been part of before. There were about 15 of us in attendance. We sat in chairs in a circle in the living room at 1300 10th Ave. NE in Rochester. What followed was a sacred space of holy listening.
During most Quaker worship services anywhere in the world, those gathered spend the majority of the hour sitting in silent contemplation. There is no pastor. Quakers believe that the Holy Spirit can move within anybody anytime. Everyone in worship is free to speak if they feel moved to do so.
The service that I participated in ended after about an hour. After contemplation came announcements and the singing of a few hymns a capella. We transitioned to coffee and treats after that. Then four members of the community (Bob Hoxie, Rich VanDellen, Mike Resman and Jan Wiersma) sat down with me for a brief interview so that I could learn more about the spiritual practice of silence.
"For me, silence has become where worship really happens. It’s where God can work," Wiersma said.
Resman said, "Many people talk to God. Quakers also place a strong emphasis on listening."
VanDellen then added a helpful point of clarification about the purpose of Quaker worship. It isn’t just about being quiet.
"Our worship is often called silent worship but it really should be called waiting worship," he said. "We are trying to ascertain the Spirit/God’s will."
Several with whom I spoke that morning differentiated between meditation and stillness/contemplation. The Rochester Friends were quick to express the value of both in a spiritual life. Meditation is often thought to be a practice of quieting one’s mind. Contemplation seeks to quiet the inner and outer world with the specific goal of listening to the voice of God. Both meditation and contemplation make good use of silence.
"In the cacophony of our modern world, silence is something that may be helpful to people," VanDellen said.
For those interested in incorporating contemplative silence into their lives, Resman recommends praying every day for five minutes. "Spend 2½ minutes speaking and then spend 2½ minutes listening," he suggested.
The Rochester Friends also want the wider community to know that they welcome everyone to their worship. In addition to being a peaceful space to contemplate and worship with others, the community also has a library full of great spiritual reading material.
I’ll leave you this week with a bit of wisdom that Hoxie shared after worship: "Between all our thoughts, there’s a millisecond of space. That’s silence. The practice of silence/worship/contemplation … whatever you want to call it, that’s where we learn to expand those spaces. Those spaces are where we give God room to work."
May you find such spaces in your journey this week.