Silent waiting

I have attended my first Quaker meeting. I’ve been meaning to visit for a while now, but you know how it goes: you never remember at the right time. But this week, a friend of mine was in town, some friends of hers invited her to the meeting, she invited me to come along, and away we went. Not wanting to be a bad visitor, I’d done a smidgen of research ahead of time. On their website, there was the following:

Twin Cities Friends Meeting (TCFM) practices unprogrammed silent worship, without ministers or prepared ministry of any kind. We wait together silently in faith that divine spirit, or an irresistible sense that we have a message to share with our fellow worshippers, may visit us at any time.

I was intrigued, but uncertain. Up until now, whether I’ve been at a Protestant service, a Catholic mass, or a Pagan ritual, there’s been direction, activity, and sound. In my experience, you find silence in solitary practice, and the closest I’ve come to it in group worship is a few minutes of silent centering at the beginning of a service or ritual, usually accompanied by quiet instrumental music. So how exactly would a group of people manage silence? How was I going to manage it? This was clearly not a situation in which to bring knitting (hey, I’ve been to UU services with multiple knitters in the pews!). I suspected I was going to be bored if I was awake. More likely, I was going to fall asleep, and the best I could hope for was that I didn’t fall out of my chair or use my neighbor as a pillow.

Twin Cities Friends Meeting (Quakers)

I did doze several times in that hour. I stayed mostly upright and I was reassured that this was “normal” by hearing gentle snoring when we entered (we were a few minutes late) and seeing other people nodding off. Much of the time that I was awake, I looked around the room or read the visitors brochure I’d brought in with me. But every now and then, I managed a meditative state for a few minutes. I wasn’t expecting to, not while sitting in an unfamiliar room surrounded by strangers, but the things that distract me at home when I try to meditate weren’t there and maybe that was enough.The brochure suggested some ways of sitting in silence that I associate with meditation, such as focusing on your breath or observing your thoughts, so it sounds like the meeting is intended as an hour of meditation even if they don’t describe it that way. I was encouraged just by those occasional slips into a meditative state—perhaps I actually can learn to meditate.

Only one person was moved to speak, almost at the end of the meeting. She had an anecdote involving a bowl with raspberries painted on it, wood chips, and recognizing moments of joy when they happen. I’m told that usually several people speak during a meeting, so this one was unusually quiet. I’d have to come to another few meetings to be sure, but as first impressions go, I liked the quiet and I liked this short message rather than a 20-minute sermon.

Other random thoughts, observations, and memories:

  • My friend had asked if it was all right to drink coffee during the meeting, and her friend had thought maybe not. So imagine my surprise when a woman sat down next to me with a cup of tea. But we’re guests—what do we know about what’s acceptable here? Then at the close of the meeting, the woman turned to me and apologized for drinking the tea—”but if I hadn’t, I’d have been coughing for the whole hour.” I so sympathize. And the tea did have a pleasant fragrance.
  • Young children are not expected to attend the meeting. They spend most of the hour in First Day School—”Quakerese for Sunday School” says the website—and come back to join the adults for the last ten minutes. I’m guessing that both gives them practice in sitting quietly and begins to bring the adults back to everyday reality.
  • I associate music with religion and spirituality, both instrumental music and singing. I can see why there isn’t any music during the meeting, but I would miss it if I never heard it under any circumstances.

Would I go back again? I might. The meeting was peaceful, and it would probably be worth going back just for that peace. Also, I haven’t experienced a meeting in which more people felt called to share something. Sitting in silence, trying to be open to “the Light Within” doesn’t conflict with any of my values. So we’ll see.

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