Readings for Reflection: October 2008
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Although Daniel Snyder’s recent Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Quaker Witness as Sacrament, explores mainly Quaker witness as it is shaped and re-shaped “in our ongoing encounters with God,” it includes the following wonderful description of meeting for worship.

“Feeling our Way to the Silence Within”

Among traditional Friends, worship follows the pattern that was laid down by those who first gathered themselves under the name “Children of the Light” or “Friends in the Truth.” It is simple, spare, plain. We hold to this pattern because we find within it an opportunity, an invitation. The central purpose of our disciplines of simplicity and plainness is to clear a space, to give ourselves some respite from the distraction of unseasoned words, to catch a glimpse of the Holy Stillness that lives before and beyond the busyness of both our inward and outward lives. It is in worship that we bring ourselves to the threshold of that Stillness and offer ourselves to the Grace that draws us down into the seed of Life where we come to know the place before words, before forms, before outward witness. Friends have used many images and metaphors to describe this central, grounding Presence and the process of finding it, yet we have traditionally avoided set formulas and doctrines, because we have learned that words are like living beings. It is too easy to trap and domesticate them, to draw them into our service, or worse, to kill them and leave them stuffed and mounted so that their wildness becomes a thing to observe from a safe distance rather than a startling invitation into the Holy. We are heirs of a tradition that seeks to release words back into their native silence so that they can return to us fresh and alive, awakening us to new inspiration, to new ways of seeing, to new callings, and then carrying us with them back into that mysterious and Holy Stillness that gave them birth.

To wait in such a silence, and to speak out of it, is to understand that the silence of Quaker meeting is less like a cozy living room than it is like a womb. It may be that we first come to meeting longing for sanctuary, refuge; perhaps we are looking for comfort, safety, a place to heal, and silence of worship will provide all of these things. But we soon find that although the silence will hold us for awhile, it will eventually open up and bring us into a vast new world. To embrace the possibility of that new world requires that we move from the comfort of being in the silence to the work of feeling our way to the silence within, so as to clear a space for the still, small Voice and its promise of transformation. It is a discipline of attention and anticipation, patiently turning away from idle thoughts, so as to feel with one’s spirit for the quickening of Life. Then a few words may form and we ask, is this message just for me? Is it for others? Is it truly grounded in the Light? Am I running ahead of the Guide in my speaking, perhaps acting out of some need to be heard, or am I not keeping up with the Guide, allowing myself to be held back by some shyness? To come deeply into a sense of the Holy and to speak out of it is to yield to it, to give one’s consent, and then to speak what is given and no more. The content of the message may be important to some, or even just to one, but all will feel the Presence of that Life that brings it forth, long after the content is forgotten. It is this Life that gathers us, that creates and sustains our community, and not the words we use to describe it, the methods we use to become aware of it, or the witnesses that arise out of it.

Reprinted with permission, from Daniel O. Snyder, Quaker Witness as Sacrament. Wallingford, Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill Pamphlet #397, 2008, pp. 18-19.

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