When individuals during Quaker worship feel the unmistakable urge to stand and speak (to give ministry), it is often described as an non-intellectual moment, and a person may not even realize that he or she has stood to speak until the act has actually occurred and words are flowing from the subconscious. The other friends then focus on the speaker, and the utterances become held within the silence of the group. Silence offers a conduit for those thoughts to reverberate and take on new life in the minds of the listeners, forming a community around each ministry. (An old Quaker saying questions that value of ministries, asking “does it make the silence better?”) Elias Hicks, a controversial Quaker leader who lived in the beginning of the nineteenth century, said that Quaker silent worship was the search to “center down into abasement and nothingness…This is what I labored after: to be empty, to know nothing, to call for nothing, and to desire to do nothing.”
In traditional societies and settings, sound can take on a sacred quality—the ringing of bells, chanting, blowing of horns all are meant to invoke the gods’ passions and attentions. At the turn of the last century when the mechanical revolution turned aviators and broadcasters into secular gods, the hum and roar of industrial machinery took on this sacred aspect of noise. Power was displayed through displays of noise; sound is a conduit for whatever a culture or individuals hold as the divine.
But the inverse still holds true; there is still a divine power to sonic absence. Quakers and Buddhists both turn to the silent world for a sense of peace and communication with the divine spirits. The Ohio Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline states that “a living silence may be so filled with the Divine Presence that all who worship become conscious of it and are drawn together in unity under the power of His love.”
The Quaker meeting is a silent affair with neither mantra (as in Orthodox Christianity or Hindu meditation) nor focal image (as in Tibetan Buddhism). Instead, silent worship moves Quakers toward an uncircumscribed divinity, an openness that allows god’s inspiration to fill the individual until he or she is moved to speak. And also unlike other forms of religion that focus on meditation, Quaker worship is not meant to draw the self back within—it is not a complete introversion. The Meeting House is an energetically charged environment in which silence is used to draw the friends together as they all reflect on light, spirit, prayer, and god.
William Penn believed that silence was preferable to speaking because the secret always remained safe: noise is folly. Sitting still in the quiet of a meeting, human-generated problems wash away, and the inaudible voice of god can be heard.