Listening to Silence

“Sit in silence for five minutes and write down everything you hear.” That’s what the professor said to our freshman survey course, a course that had nothing to do with stillness or meditation. It’s about all I remember from that class.

I took a Field Trip on Sunday. Two friends have recently became Friends, I’ve long been intrigued by the Quakers, and my calling didn’t need me this week. So I signed my own permission slip and trotted off to a silent meeting. And it was silent. Only one person was moved to speak – a brief message on the expanding universe and patience with the “Lord’s time.” For the remaining hour and 14 minutes, fifty people sat on hard wooden benches facing one another, heads bowed. Silent. I tried to listen.

Here’s what I heard in the silence:

1) My loud LOUD thoughts. Do I always bellow so vociferously?

2) My anxious prayers. Quakers query. They sit with questions. Great idea, I think — so I flood God with lots of BIG QUESTIONS to fill the silence. Ouch. My fragile peace decelerates with each shrill worry. No “living and vital holy hush” (Bill 21). Except a thought does emerge: Start simple. Pay attention to your body.

3) OK, so what does my body say? I’m sore, it says. My back hurts, hamstrings hurt, jaw hurts. As I sit in stillness, my body begins to correct its posture, to release sore muscles until the only discomfort left is my stomach. Huh? I don’t have a stomachache. But it feels anxious. I let it go, pop it out a little – my own Buddha belly that I unconsciously “suck-in” at all times. I trained myself to do this in high school. Great for the stomach muscles, not so good for the body image muscles. I feel sheepish that this “popping out” felt like an act of courage.

4) It is nicer to sit quietly with others than to sit quietly alone, I think. I have stacks of unopened yoga videos, discarded mantras, and Windham Hill CDs. I am bad bad bad at meditating in private. It feels much warmer to sit quietly in a group. My spiritually a-religious husband asks, “Why a church?” For whatever reason, I worship better in community.

5) A gut-worry emerges about an upcoming meeting at work. I ask myself, “What’s so scary? It’s an ordinary event that you’ve managed a hundred times before? It’s just . . you hate to disappoint people – you live in dread of disappointing people. Old story. So why did you try to guilt your husband this weekend with intimations of “disappointment?’” That’s a practical insight for my marriage.

6) Silence. For at least a minute, all I heard was . . . nothing. Soft silence. Something I haven’t heard in a long time; something I hope to find again during the sacrament next week.

Ever wonder what the silence would say to you?

Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality, J. Brent Bill, 2005.


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. John says:

    I’m so glad that you had this experience! And I agree. Meditating in a group is much easier than alone.

    We have nondescript but comfortable office chairs in our meeting. No wooden benches for us!

    When I attend LDS meetings, I use the sacrament time for silent worship.

    After thirty minutes or so, I start glancing all too often at the clock on my cell phone (set to silent mode, of course).

    I’ve learned to keep my expectations low. Silence can be subtle (but it surprises me sometimes).

    I try to carry the silence into the rest of the week. To listen to others more, and more intently. To speak less out of insecurity, and more when moved on. To listen, and to think of that of God in each of us.

  2. jana says:

    I’ve been trying to think of an eloquent way to reply to your post, Deborah, and nothing has come to mind. So here are some random musings:

    I am not sure _why_ I am so drawn to Quaker silent worship. I enjoy singing, I enjoy listening to well-crafted talks, I embrace ritual. However, I have discovered a part of my self in the silence that I wasn’t acquainted with before–the part of me that hungers to be still.

    During Silent Worship I rarely have huge insights. Generally I am just quiet and moving around inside my head. Bringing up the various issues in my life and examining them from all sides. As I leave one topic and move to the next I open my eyes for a moment and look out at the faces of the Friends around me. I send my love to them and feel their love beaming back to me. Then I watch the birds circling around the building tops outside (our Meeting is on the upper floor of an old office building in Santa Ana–right across the street from an old clock tower. There are huge windows along two sides of the Meeting Room) for awhile before I close my eyes again.

    I feel as though, in the silence, that God is working in me in ways that s/he doesn’t when I am hearing talks, singing hymns, or participating in a ritual like the sacrament. It is a way of stripping bare of all of that. Of getting to the most essential issues that I need to face. Of intimately coming to know the promptings of the Spirit. For me it is the freshness of the Celestial Room in the temple. A feeling of being distanced from the world and enveloped in love.

    I have never been very comfortable with spoken prayers (though I have, of late, been quite attracted to The Lord’s Prayer). I find that sitting in silence is a much more effective way of communicating my feelings, of seeking answers, of expressing hope.

    Each time when Meeting closes I feel ebuillient, literally (en)lightened by the Spirit. That feeling of joy and peace persists throughout Sunday and on into my week. When I feel that light beginning to fade a bit then I find the time & space for silence again and it returns.

  3. Caroline says:

    Sounds like you had a good experience at Quaker meeting. I must admit that I’m a sucker for good music and a thoughtful sermon, so the one time I went and listened to silence at the Quaker meeting, it didn’t do as much for me. (Though I love Quaker values!)

    I wish I were more into meditation, and silently contemplating my life. Maybe someday I’ll get there…

  4. AmyB says:

    I wrote a response and thought it had posted, but it seems to be lost in the ether. So here goes again:

    I love the beautiful sentiments expressed here. I’m hoping to visit a silent meeting soon. I’m nervous when it comes to trying new things involving groups of people, but I’m working on it.

    I did attend a buddhist temple service a while back, which consisted of about an hour of silent walking and sitting meditation. There was also ritual bowing and chanting (which I thought was very cool). There seemed to be a “right” way to do the meditation, and I was a bit preoccupied with that. I wonder if I might feel a little less pressure at a Quaker meeting. Will definitely have to try it soon.

  5. Deborah says:

    “I don’t know how to respond eloquently” quoth Jana before responding with beauty and depth!

    I very much enjoyed my experience and, to echo Jana’s comments, I was surprised by how raw the silence felt at times. I have a hellish commute, and often try to do a half-baked “quiet time” in the car. But NPR’s at my fingertips, and my iPod, and my cell phone, and the honks from the Turnpike truckers. I can be quiet for as long as I feel comfortable and then escape into noise. I like to pause during and after prayers, but I end this quiet on my own terms. The meeting gave me space and time for silence — but I couldn’t just “stop” when my attention ran out. There I was, nowhere to turn to escape my own being. It was both calming and a bit overwhelming, honestly — which tells me I need to make more time for this kind of worship.

    Amy: For all my extrovertness, I’m a bit shy about going to new communities. On that front, this was about as unitimidating as it comes. I’d be curious your impressions, given your study of Buddhism.

    And John: I loved the wooden benches! It felt properly removed from modernity. Not that Quakers oppose modernity, but there is a simplicity to woodcraft that fit my (limited) smental chema and thus felt comforting.

    Speaking of Caroline’s comment. Remy’s: Do you miss the music?

  6. jana says:

    I have so much music in my life already. I listen while I drive, while I work at my computer, etc. I don’t feel a lack for it. I’ve also taken to attending choral performances a few times/year and this is satisfying, too.

    Our Meeting has singing once/month for all who are interested. I’ve yet to feel inclined to attend the singing. A few weeks ago a Friend sang a song acapella during silent worship. This is about as unusual as someone doing this in testimony meeting. I was very moved by her song and can still vaguely remember the refrain that went something like, “Make my heart and altar and let the Spirit be the flame” (fyi, so I just googled those lyrics and came up with this link:
    Lyrics-121.html )

  7. John says:

    I look forward to trying the wooden benches. I like the idea of distancing myself from modernity in worship. (more cathedral or New England chapel, less megachurch!)

    I’ve never been into the LDS hymns (I didn’t grow up with them). I do have some favorites: Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy, I Need Thee Every Hour (sung both of these in men’s quartets), Abide with Me, All Creatures of Our God and King. What I really miss is singing on choirs with great directors who picked pieces (not in our hymnbook) like When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and Still, Still, Still. Even in the Church, these choirs are few and far between. Writing these titles, I feel a pang for them, like good friends I haven’t encountered for years.

    I do like to visit other Christian congregations on occasion and sing from their hymnals. I wish the LDS Church would include songs like “Down by the Riverside.”

    I also belt out a lot of tunes, sacred and secular, during commutes to Long Beach. Like you, I fill a lot of the silence in my life with NPR, mp3s, podcasts, and the straining of my own voice.

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