Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Quaker Child Can't Escape the Silence

Silence was what drew me back to Quakerism after a long time away from meeting.

Quakerism as I've experienced it is about as no-frills as it gets.  "Friends" as they call themselves (as in Religious Society of...) sit in silence and wait.  When the Spirit moves someone to speak, she or he stands and talks. That's it. Occasionally a whole Meeting for Worship will pass in which no one is prompted to speak.  At the end, a key person shakes hands with the person next to him, and the handshake spreads around the room.  Now let's go get some coffee.

The process is hard to write about, because waiting in active silence involves no stuff-- no liturgy, music, ceremony, ritual--though the format being the same, week after week, is a kind of ritual--instead it involves a deep, corporate listening.  When I started writing fiction, I realized that my words and stories came from the same inner silence that, despite the tedium, must have impressed something on me in those First Day (Sunday) meetings as a child, and in mid-week meetings at school.

Though meeting at school tended to be more lively.  In high school, for weeks my friends and I discussed the possibility of one of us sitting next to the Head of School, and at the handshake, offering him a rubber severed hand complete with bloody stump.  Then there was the laughing fit that seized my friend L. and me in 7th grade. We were ushered out of meeting and made to hang out on the porch, which turned out to be boringer than the meeting.

Apparently, the word mystic derives from a Greek word that carries a meaning of silence.  If nothing else, mystics hunger for God, and they tend to do it in quiet.  As for me, the more words I accumulated in writing, the more I began to hunger for silence.  George Fox, the original Quaker, is reported to have held a silence  at a meeting where he was presumably the main event, "for some famish them from words."

To some people it may seem pointless.  That's fine.  But the mind is deeper than the rational part that chooses words and arguments. That's my experience, anyway.

Here's a book about it., by Brent Bill. Which I admit I haven't read. But the cover is nice.


Laura said...

Nice post. I am getting close to returning to Meeting after a very long absence - it is the silence that calls to me. There is nowhere else in my life where I can be still and listen.

As for the laughing fits...I can remember getting the giggles in Meeting and trying not to laugh but I would quiver and it would make the bench shake and that would get my mother started. We would both force ourselves to be still but then one of us would start to quake again and the other would catch it too...back and forth. Fun memory, thanks.

HelenQP said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one! Thanks, Laura.