Some look to history, theology, a traditional form of worship, or social testimony for defining features of Quakerism, but what we find is a complex Quaker culture that has evolved and changed over the last 350 years. Now, as at the beginning of Quakerism, the real substance, source, and soul of what it means to be Quaker is not found in a particular outward form and structure of worship, a shared theological language, or even a program of social witness, but in the worship itself, and even then, not the form but the Life that rises within it. It is this Life that works among us, softening our fears and prejudices, tendering and shaping our witness in the world, and showing us how to discover our love for one another in God’s love for us. Without this Life, all that we call Quaker is mere repetition of form without substance; with it, we find ourselves at the beginning of Creation in every new moment. All that is culturally Quaker may someday die out, yet we will still be able to recognize all that is truly Quaker in the Life that shines in the eyes of those who come after. Even now we can recognize that Life in those who call themselves by different names. If we are faithful to it, perhaps they will also recognize themselves in us.
Our Meeting for Worship follows the traditional pattern of early Friends. It is simple, spare, plain. We begin in silence, allow it to deepen, hold open a welcoming space for whatever ministry may arise, and we close with a handshake. 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 dark and Holy Stillness that gave them birth.
Silence, however, can also be domesticated. When we see it only as comfort and never as challenge, we resist its depth, its implicit invitation. Liberal Quakerism in particular has been a refuge for many who have needed to flee from spiritual abuse, and there is no question that we all need comfort, safety, a place to heal. The silence of worship will provide all of those things. However, it is less like a cozy living room than it is like a womb. It will hold us for awhile, nurturing our growth, but eventually it will 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 into a kind of interior spaciousness, the silence within, so as to clear a space for the still, small Voice and its promise of transformation. There is a profound tension between silence and speech in a Quaker Meeting, just as there is a mutual infusion of our prayer and witness in the world.
Any casual observer of a Quaker Meeting will see a collection of people being quiet together, with the occasional offering of some ministry. But what is not seen is the inward struggle, the returning of attention to Stillness, to Breath, to Word, or to the spaces between words, and the effort to discern leadings, resistances, fears, and motivations. 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? Is my trembling true Quaking, a bodily felt sense of the Presence, or is it just nervousness? Each one, according to their condition, seeks to get above, or below, between or beyond the interior noise and rumination in order to be faithful to that which Friends have variously called Truth, Light, Christ, Spirit, the Inward Teacher, Guide, Presence, Principle, Power, or Life. 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 all, or perhaps just one, but all will feel the Presence of the 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.
In Meeting, we speak with the hope that our ministry will deepen the silence, not replace it, and that our words will call others to find their own Sacred Speech. Likewise, when we leave the time of worship and return to our witness in the world, we do so with the hope that our lives will quicken the Life within others, and that they will come closer to the direct witness of the Inward Teacher. The most gathered Meetings are those in which the silence and ministry form a kind of seamless whole, each one informing and deepening the other until the whole community is drawn into a profound sense of Presence. Likewise, our witness in the world is in the service of gathering it, grounding it in Presence, creating community where there was war, forgiveness and reconciliation where there was bitterness and injustice, calling us to celebration of diversity where there was prejudice and condemnation. We find community, not in the sameness of our speech, culture, or religion, but in the Life that is in, under, and through all of those things, a Life that loves a profusion of diversity, and is always seeking to be born again and again into the uniqueness of our lives. The Stillness that we find in our Meetings for Worship can take root within; it can become a hidden spring of refreshment and inspiration that we carry into our daily lives, where it becomes the ground, the Source, and substance of the peace we bring to the world.
To labor within the silence, to wait in it, to allow the words of our favorite theological or political ideas to fall back into the silence so that they can be re-animated, or perhaps re-formed, or perhaps even discarded, is to trust that there is that which is before form that will rise into form. Our spiritual work is always a work of uncovering, revealing, returning to Life, again and again. We release our gods in order to be surprised by God and we discover that the Holy is always ready to reveal itself to us providing we are willing to fall again and again into its arms, for we are as inseparable from God as salt is from the sea.
Yet even these words only hint at the Truth that is before knowing and naming, at the Peace that is before peacemaking, or the Love that is before loving. We invite you to join us in the Stillness that is before form, to wait and pray in it, to seek its transformative power, and to hear and offer whatever ministry is given. In the end, the best introduction to Quaker worship is simply to come and worship with us.
Adapted from Daniel O. Snyder: Quaker Witness as Sacrament. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #397), 2008.