To say that the prophet Elijah was having a rough time is an understatement. This flamboyant and strong person, who is unconditionally loyal to God no matter what or where, has had quite a run of events and activities that have exhibited the devotion to Yahweh that ALL Israelites SHOULD have. He has predicted a drought, brought an young man back to life, stood up to King Ahab, and overcome 450 priest of Baal. If you’re more interested in the details, see I Kings 17-20. But here in chapter 19, Elijah has reached the end of his rope, in spite of all his successes. He is physically tired, frightened, anxious, depressed, fleeing for his life and contemplating suicide. He DESPERATELY needs a word from God. He is told to go to the mountain and wait. Elijah shelters in a cave on that mountain, and there witnesses a wind, an earthquake, and a fire. None of these bring what Elijah needs or longs for. Finally, a silence envelops that place, and Elijah goes out in it to encounter God.
Now, I am not particularly prophetic and my life doesn’t seem to be as eventful as Elijah’s. I have, however, been exhausted mentally, physically and spiritually. I have LONGED to have some indication from God that communicates the certainty of and the presence of the Divine. I would anticipate that all of us here have found ourselves in similar circumstances. The Religious Society of Friends or Quakers offer to us humans a faith that is built on the reality that Elijah discovered; that God can be found in and communicated with through silence. Friends would be the first to tell one that a crisis is not needed to insure an encounter with God in silence; Quakers understand that that experience can happen in any time or place where someone might seek to embrace or connect with God. Quakers do though understand silence to be particularly meaningful and rich as they seek it together. This contemplative style of worship can answer any or all who want to work corporately to enable it to happen.
I offered the following quote last week to begin to name the value in this quite radical form of worship, and I think it is worthwhile to repeat it at the beginning of our exploration of silent worship this morning to describe both the individual’s and the gathered group’s role in enabling it to happen. Unprogrammed Quaker meeting for worship is “the only radical alternative form of Christian worship where each is personally responsible for one’s own spiritual journey and which can only be grown and nourished in corporate gathering.”
What do Friends think or hope, will happen in this type of gathering? One Friend stated simply that “Meeting for worship is a time I choose to spend in the presence of God. Silent worship is about becoming friends with God.” I think it is vital to remind us again that what we are after is NOT simply silence for silence’s sake, but rather like Elijah, we seek to encounter GOD in the stillness. This kind of worship doesn’t happen without effort; we should also come ready to be participants; mere physical attendance is not enough. And, there are ways in which we can prepare before the actual worship time begins. Expectancy, and attitudes of waiting and listening are vital attributes to carry into our worship. We will be exploring some practices that an individual might utilize to nurture the weekly meeting for worship and their own spiritual life throughout the week during the discussion time after worship.
Most folks understand that a state of deep worshipful silence is not instantly attainable as the meeting begins. There is an initial time of centering, when folks work to lay aside those things that connect them to the external world and preoccupy their efforts at communication and communion with God. The goal is to be as present and open as possible to what will come as we go deeper. There are ways to attend to the inner realities that bubble up inside; some folks will read scripture or other spiritual writings as they begin, others might note the issues and concerns that occupy their thoughts and deliberately lay each one aside to clear the space, some will give thanks for specific items, people or circumstances in their lives—using that to lead them into stillness. Closing one’s eyes seems to help many folks; opening your eyes may work as well. Even Elijah needed a process that enabled him to realize he was in the presence of the holy—he journeyed through the wind, earthquake and fire before he was ready for the silence.
Another detail in the Elijah scripture and the video that informs or reminds us about our attempts at silent worship, is to understand and rely on that the silence itself is NOT empty. It isn’t a void space to be filled. Other translations of verse 12 in our reading convey that the stillness is alive with Divine Presence…Where the translation we heard reads “sheer silence”, other versions use “gentle whisper”, “low murmuring sound”. The Common English Bible is my favorite; the 12th verse reads “After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.” Brent Bill in his book, Holy Silence, says “The only thing I can compare (silent worship) to is the Catholic belief that in the ‘celebration of mass…Christ is really present through Holy Communion to the assembly gathered in his name.’ It is the same way with silence for Quakers. Friends believe that Christ is actually present…we believe that when our hearts, minds, and souls are still and we wait expectantly in holy silence, that the presence of Christ comes among us.”
Sometimes, there are verbal messages that one or several of those gathered may feel moved to offer as a response to the experience of being in communication and communion with God in the Silence; this is called giving vocal ministry. This sort of ministry can be seen as humans becoming instruments of the divine, where “one has the sense that the speaker has been spoken through or played through, rather than having spoken herself.” Another Friend states that “a spoken message in a Quaker meeting is clearly not a sermon or homily but something more modest and yet more wonderful. It consists of opening one’s soul to fellow worshipers and either humbly offering some insight that one finds helpful and hopes they also may value; or offering one’s spiritual need in the hope that others may be led, by dwelling on their own inner light to illumine some aspect of the matter.”
While this all may sound trepidating or difficult or worse, it is the experience of generations of Quakers that this type of worship is what gives vitality and energy and inspiration to their personal faith and their faith communities. It does take practice and persistence to be able to take full advantage of the opportunities that silence provides.
We here at Adirondack Meeting, while being a programmed meeting, do attempt to utilize silence in meaningful ways. Our gathering silence is a time for centering at the beginning of our worship, where we can work to focus on the time and space that are present. The silent meditation happens at a time just after the joys and concerns of our faith community have been offered…encouraging us to take these into our time with God and allowing them to be bathed in the light of our corporate concern. The silences out of which the pastoral message is given and then into which we return, is when worshippers might go more deeply into silence and encounter the divine presence—with or without the illumination of some piece of the message. This time perhaps occasionally gives rise to some vocal ministry among us. The other elements of worship—music, scripture, vocal prayer are also designed to enhance the experience of communion present in the silences. Additionally, there is opportunity on Wednesday evenings to gather in an unprogrammed worship where there are no spoken prompts—there is only quiet space.
Please hear me when I say that I offer these thoughts not as prescriptions for how things SHOULD happen, but rather as possibilities that may assist us most importantly in connecting with the Source of our faith and life. There are MANY varieties of experiences with silence. I think Friends should gather regularly to discuss and share and ask questions that help us all as we grow and develop and journey, offering to anyone who joins us a place where God might be known and heard as we worship.
As Brent Bill says “Quaker silence encourages us to relax into the love of God until we hear the Spirit’s voice whispering softly into our soul’s ear.”
It is my hope and prayer that we can continue to do this here, as we sit quietly together.