Forty-three minutes of silence.
Yes, that’s right. The group of us, eight of us altogether, sat in a circle in folding chairs in a lower room at the Unitarian Universalist Church for what we were told would be 45 minutes of silence as this local group of the Society of Friends gathered for worship.
From what I had read, a Quaker or Society of Friends “unprogrammed” meeting was typically a few minutes of quiet gathering and greeting, then at the appointed time, everyone takes their seats and worship begins.
There are no hymns sung or music played; nothing is read to give a focus to the time of silence; we simply sat and waited … and waited … and waited …, with an openness to “the Light”, which is the way that many Quakers speak of God.
If someone feels that they have something to say, then they are encouraged to do so. If there is no word for the group that emerges, then there is silence … 45 minutes of silence … until the service is finished.
Now I have had a good bit of experience with sitting in silence. Twice a year I teach classes in mindfulness. I have even had the good fortune to spend a day at a large gathering at a monastery listening to Thich Nhat Hanh for two hours that felt like a few minutes. Even then, sitting, with periods of silence and reflection, of being present in that moment, can be challenging.
If I am completely honest, my preference is movement, especially long, slow, solitary runs. My body is not one that likes to rest, to sit, to be still. So finding a way to meditate that involves motion works for me. I find I can be quite present and mindful of my breath, of my footfalls, of the sweat trickling down my back in the Middle Georgia heat, of the presence of everything around me … especially after four or five miles of a slow, consistent pace.
So admittedly, there is a part of me that struggled a bit with the idea of 45 minutes of silence, of sitting, in the presence of seven other people.
But there I was in the circle … as we began.
As is usual for me, I settled on my breath, on simply noting that this was where I was supposed to be in that moment. There was nothing else that I was “supposed” to be doing. There was nowhere else that I was supposed to be. In reality, all I could do was be in that chair, in this lower room, sitting, breathing, waiting, and being open to whatever might come.
In this way, there is a letting go of intentions for the time. You gently release what you feel is “supposed” to be happening.
I found myself moving in and out of a deeper sense of stillness. As I have written before, I do not equate quiet with stillness. There was a sort of quiet in the room, but there was also the way that people shifted and moved, that bodies make sounds.
The stillness that I felt was internal yet there was an external stillness of these others in the circle. As many others have noted about meditation, there is a different quality to practicing in a group. There is a sense of being held by the stillness itself and also being held by the others in that stillness, a mutual experience of prayer with and for each other.
We are able to be present with each other without the necessity of words; we are able to be present with God without the need for defining that Presence.
All of us in the circle were open to “the Light”; anyone could speak or not speak. The stillness was there for all of us.
This part about speaking (or not) is one aspect of Quaker worship that does appeal to me, the radical democracy of it. There is no priest or pastor; all have authority. Even in a “business meeting”, there is a worshipful quiet waiting on consensus. If everyone does not agree with a proposed “way forward”, then the decision is not made. There are no interruptions when someone is speaking, but only thoughtful, quiet listening.
Overall, I felt that there was an openness and grace about the gathering, a sense of safety, of being deeply heard and present with each other.
At 43 minutes, one of those gathered spoke. Without going into the specifics of what had come forward for this worshipper, I do feel comfortable sharing the quote that emerged. It is from one of the early members of the Religious Society of Friends, William Penn.
“Let us then try what Love will do.”
After this was shared, as a group, we continued to sit, reflect, for just a few more minutes. Then the time of group worship was over.
Later I was able to find the quote in context, a context about people hurting each other, the temptation to fight back, and the encouragement to move through the conflict with love.
They must first judge themselves, that presume to censure others: And such will not be apt to overshoot the Mark. We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive, or gain by Love and Information. And yet we could hurt no Man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: For if Men did once see we Love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: And he that forgives first, wins the Lawrel. If I am even with my Enemy, the Debt is paid; but if I forgive it, I oblige him for ever.
from Fruits of Solitude by William Penn
Subsequent to this meeting, I have found a resonance with this short phrase, “Let us try what Love will do.” It reminds me of Jesus’s admonition to love our enemies, to bless those who persecute us, to not return evil for the evil done to us.
I know from my study and work as a clinician that stopping and breathing, tamping down on that freeze/fight/flight response allows for a more loving, creative, ultimately fruitful approach to those around us, especially those who are most difficult.
So … we sit. We breathe. We allow ourselves to be open to “the Light”.
And then … after four minutes or maybe even perhaps after 43 minutes, “Let us try what Love will do.”