For a number of years, the thought of attending a Quaker meeting crossed my mind from time to time; the little I knew about them had caught my interest. And yet, I hesitated, imagining how uncomfortable I could end up being, sitting quietly for an hour in a group of quiet people. Raised eyebrows and turned heads with every little noise, I imagined. And additionally, the Eucharist is not celebrated in Quaker meetings, and I would miss that. After all, this was what had kept me in church over the years. However, knowing from retreat experience what a profound place silence can be, I decided to give it a try eventually.
I walked into the presence of God in a way I could never have imagined. I sat there stunned by the realisation that, in Quaker meetings, silence is worship and worship is silent. I found myself in the silence of people for whom feeling the need to worship is their common ground, who know that God is present and that there is nothing that could possibly have to be said by anyone else but him. This silence felt like the most honest and right worship I had ever experienced – no liturgy to get between me and God, no distractions, no words trying to describe a reality beyond the limits of language and imagination.
This is my experience; it is personal and possibly very different from that of others. God speaks to each of us in a particular way. Quakers know this and respect and value each other’s differences. They honour ‘that of God’ within themselves and in everyone else. They do not feel the need to agree on theological definitions and interpretations.
Sitting with a group of meditating people usually makes me rather tense. I feel unable to uphold the inward focus at the same time as participating in a shared experience. In the Friends’ meeting, I found a silence in which I could rest, and in which I was alert and active at the same time – my back did not begin to ache and my mind did not wander. The silence of a Quaker meeting is not restricted by advice to use a mantra or to maintain a certain posture and pattern of breathing. There is no ‘method’ setting out what the experience should be like for everyone. Quaker silence feels neither like silence for the sake of silence, nor like a discipline to bend the Self into. This silence is a place beyond our Selves. My whole being is in tune with God who I listen to, and with everyone who listens with me. God is here, and has calmed the storm in my mind. God is here, and creates order and clarity and peace.
God becomes so spacious in this silence that I know again how small I am – and that I do not have to pretend to be anything else but small. Quite often the much repeated advice of “Just be yourself” comes in combination with a rather narrow reality of what various people, in groups or individually, feel are acceptable ways of being. Here, I rest in the silence and have a voice when I am asked to speak. I am welcome to speak, as a woman, as a lay person, as a visitor. This is a place as free of judgment or prejudice as it can get between people, and therefore it is a place surprisingly free of anxiety. I am free to be as I am. What a rare gift. We all left our egos at the door for an hour, and I was glad to get a break from mine.
This silence can be scary though, because it is so powerful. God is at work here, shifting and revealing the threads of my being. And I allow this to happen while I do not know exactly what God is up to. The humility and simplicity of the meetings make it possible to build trust. We all sit, listen, and allow God in as much as we can. And maybe we are able to do this, maybe we are able to take the risk of such intimacy, because we are here together. We all hold each other’s individual encounter with God.
When I left after the meeting, I knew that everything I needed had been given to me. I had experienced Communion, in the most direct and uncomplicated way. This kind of silence is hard to describe and, I find, hard to forget.
I wrote this as an article a few years ago; a friend was involved with a contemplative group of young people who published a booklet from time to time about various forms of contemplation. The text never got published there, but the experience still stands, so I thought I’d share it here.