Talk About Silence

Friendly Reminder: A Weekly Reflection from the QLC

By Andy Stanton-Henry

An elder Quaker recently told me about something he heard during a listening session with young Friends. One stated that we should stop using the word “silent” when talking about things like “silent worship.” It sounds too much like being silenced, they argued. The elder Quaker was quite disturbed by this suggestion. Silence is, after all, a central element of Quaker worship. Poet Gordon Yapp wrote that silence and witness are the two pillars of Quaker spirituality.

This conversation about of silence got me thinking about the way we talk or don’t talk about silence in the wider Quaker world. There are great workshops and writings on Quaker silence, but I have found that much of our talk about silence is interesting but unhelpful.

Some Friends are passionate about silence. It has a sacramental quality to them, like the Eucharist in Roman Catholicism. They consider a Quaker meeting to be invalid if they do not practice extended periods of silence.

Some programmed Friends, in the states as well as around the world, do not consider silence essential to Quaker worship, so it’s rarely mentioned.

Ironic though it may sound, I think we need to talk about silence. To have deeper and wider conversations about it.

Whether you think we need to replace the word, de-center silence, or deepen our understanding of silence, Quaker leaders need to talk about it.

I suggest three topics for our silence talks.

First, let’s talk about how we learned to enter and engage silence.

Writer and spiritual director Jane Vennard often opened discussions about prayer by asking folks to recall who taught them how to pray. We can do the same for silence. Who taught you?

Some Friends seem to think talking about silence takes the mystery and meaning out of it. It’s too intimate and spiritual, and perhaps too individual, to talk about in any general sense. We should indeed have an appropriate reverence for the Mystery and a respect for each person’s spiritual journey. And it’s often the case that much is “caught” more than “taught.”

Still, we need teachers. And we need teachings. We need distilled wisdom and facilitated discussions about things like:

  • Posture and embodied experience of silence
  • Dealing with distractions
  • When to break the silence
  • The mechanics of giving ministry
  • The psychology of receiving ministry
  • The role of images and the imagination

How did you “learn” silence?

Did you simply show up to worship one day and settle into the silence?

What ideas or instructions were helpful?

Can we pass this on to others or do we trust the Spirit to do it without us?

Secondly, let’s talk about different kinds of silence.

The writer and social critic Paul Goodman famously named nine kinds of silence in his book Speaking and Language: Defense of Poetry: sober silence, silence of resentment, baffled silence, musical silence, silence of communion, fertile silence of awareness, alert silence, silence of attentive listening.

Some Buddhist teachers talk about the twelve types of Noble Silence: endurance, listening, few words, appreciation, creativity, meditation, receptivity, solitude, stillness, silence of the night, silence of the sangha (“just sitting”), silence of wonder.

Writing from a more evangelical Friends perspective, poet and educator Arthur Roberts lists ten purposes of silence:

  1. Fosters awe before the Almighty
  2. Indicates submission to God
  3. Provides a posture for worship
  4. Provides freedom from noise and distraction
  5. Creates conditions for tranquility
  6. Sets the stage for prayer
  7. Signifies respect for others
  8. Renews wonder at the world
  9. Provides holy space
  10. Prepares for effective social witness.

Indeed, in Quaker worship, there is no static or single experience or expression of silence. There are stages to silence, as we settle into the stillness. And there are different approaches or “goals” in the practice of silent worship.

A short sampling of examples from the wider Quaker world include:

  • Sitting Silence – silent worship as a way to practice Buddhist-style sitting meditation. There is no “goal” other than perhaps to become more mindful or gain unforced insight.
  • Restful Silence – silent worship as a restful time that brings relief from the noisy and dominating society in which we live. We simply rest in the divine presence and love.
  • Wrestling Silence – silent worship as time of deep wrestling with our inner demons and distractions. We are searched by the Light in the depths of our being.
  • Reflective Silence – silent worship as a time for reflecting on a query, sermon, or devotional concept. It’s not emptying but sifting and integrating.
  • Expectant Silence – silent worship as a time of “waiting upon the Lord.” We wait to hear the divine voice, experience divine presence, or respond to divine leading.

There are many more, of course. And exploring those in conversation can enrich our practice and deepen our understanding of silence.

Finally, let’s talk about the shadow side of silence.

The young Friend I mentioned earlier does have a point. While I’m not ready to start word-policing silence talk, our emphasis on silence does have a shadow side.

There are individuals and marginalized communities who are systemtically silenced in our culture. They do not need one more place to feel silenced.

Cliche though it may be, silence indeed can be a form of violence. As Dr. Martin Luther King famously said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

May we do everything we can to prevent our love of silence from becoming the betrayal that comes from “the silence of Friends.”

Those of us who have a gentler or privileged place in our society do well to remember that admonishments to be silent can have unintended consequences.

Am I saying that people of color or marginalized folks can’t benefit from the practice of silence? Of course not. That assumption is condescending and dismisses many voices from those groups who have talked about the importance of silence in the spiritual life.  

All of this is complicated, to be sure. But it can be content for conversation.

For example, some Friends have critiqued the clerking practice of requiring silence when a discussion evokes emotion. When is this helpful or harmful?

A disabled Friend suggested the name “waiting worship” over “silent worship” because some neurodivergent Friends need a more interactive or sensory-friendly space to worship. A contest in stillness is not the point, anyway.

And, as “they” say so often, “think of the children!” How can we make our sytle of worship more hospitable to children?

How do we balance a kid-friendly approach with creating a space where they can learn the value of listening and waiting for God?

So many good questions and many sources of insight. So, let’s talk about it.