Today marked my sixth Quaker meeting; for each of the previous five weeks I have waited anxiously for someone to feel moved by the spirit of God to offer what the Quakers call “oral ministry” by sharing with us all an insight or revelation gleaned during our hour of worship.
During the course of those five weeks, while I waited in vain for someone to speak, I grew more and more accustomed to the silent hour of worship in the Quaker house—and more and more appreciative of it. Part of my reflections during the hour of silence focused on the silence itself, and upon the value it had for a spiritual life.
I have noticed that my first thirty minutes of sitting in silence in the Quaker house are usually spent struggling to remove distracting thoughts. I try not to focus on anything in particular during the hour, in order to be open to whatever messages I might receive from the spiritual realm, but that lack of focus makes it easier for all kinds of irrelevant thoughts to flit in and out of my head.
After thirty minutes of silence, though, with my eyes closed and no distractions, I do find that I enter a state of quietness and concentration unlike any other that I experience during the week. In that state I find my thoughts turning towards people I know that need prayers, or towards religious convictions that I have held or considered, or towards the bigger questions we can ask ourselves about what it means to be a human being.
As I descend into that state of spiritual concentration, tensions in my body seem to release, and I find myself in a deep state of calm and relaxation, an immensely pleasurable and contented feeling. It is only after I have reached this state that I feel open to communicating with God, or that I feel that my thoughts may come from some inspired place beyond me.
And this has begun to make good sense to me. I have never had a really rich prayer life, and I am only now beginning to understand why. Perhaps others can offer up prayers in the middle of a busy day and feel themselves connected to God, but I can see now in retrospect that such prayers never felt like much more to me than lip service.
What kind of connection can I find with God if I am trying to establish it while I am driving, drinking coffee, and listening to the radio? Should I expect God to be grateful for a little corner of my mind when I am washing dishes and thinking about class tomorrow?
So the Quaker practice of silent worship has come to seem to me like an ideal way of preparing one's mind to communicate with whatever God you might believe in. It makes good sense to me that our minds need cleaning our and purifying before we can really open them up to a God.
These reflections have evolved over my five weeks of silence, and today I was happily anticipating the hour of silent worship that I have come to savor in the Quaker meeting. Hence I was quite astonished when, around ten minutes into today's meeting, someone began speaking.
My first thought was that maybe some new guy had come in and didn't understand how things work around here. But then I opened up my eyes and saw that it was one of the meeting regulars, and I realized that he was offering a testimony. The new lover of silent worship in me immediately gave way to the writer and student of Quakerism, and I listened with great anticipation for my first testimony. According to Quaker beliefs, this was the voice of God that I was hearing.
After all that buildup, do I even really need to say how disappointing it was?
I don't want to criticize what other people may believe that God is saying to them, and no doubt I had set the bar pretty high in terms of what I expected from my first testimony, so I will not articulate specifically what this person said. I will just note that it kind of reminded me of the type of slice-of-life observation that you might hear from a late-night TV comic. Interesting, but not quite what I expected from the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe.
I was hopeful that the first testimony might lead to a flood of others, but the remainder of the meeting progressed in its usual silent mode. During the last ten minutes I felt a particularly deep spiritual connection to something beyond me, and when the end of the meeting was called the transition back to the reality of sitting in a room with a bunch of other people was a tough one to make.
In the end, I suppose I have to remember that the Quaker religion, like every other religion, consists of imperfect human beings seeking divine perfection. I have found much of value in the Quaker service and the literature of its believers, so for these final few weeks I have with them I will do my best to absorb what seems most valuable to me in their spiritual practice—which may be, first and foremost, the silence I have come to love.