Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Value of Silence

One of the enriching things I've discovered about the Quaker tradition is that when people rise to speak in meeting, their words are often imbued with great depth, even if the deeper meaning isn't always immediately apparent. It's often in the quiet that follows, when the rest of us have time to absorb the message, that the words reveal their full import.

That's been the case for me, in any event, going all the way back to my first Quaker meeting. I remember on that day that a few people rose to express opinions that I didn't completely agree with. My gut reaction was to rise and counter with my own view, but being brand new to Quakerism at the time, I wasn't about to do that.

That's not the purpose of vocal ministry, anyway. The point is not to debate. The point is to allow yourself to be led by the spirit, actively listening for the "still, small voice" to guide you and your words.

And if somebody rises and says something we take issue with, sometimes our egos jump right in, wanting to launch a verbal defensive. That we are not to rise immediately after another person has just spoken in meeting, especially if the intention is to debate, cuts off the ego before it gets a chance to make us say something we may regret. In the silence that follows, we can sit with those challenging words, asking ourselves what it is about them that unsettles us. Do the words perhaps reveal an uncomfortable truth about ourselves that we don't want to confront? Is there a lesson to be learned?

That's the value of silence in Quaker meeting. It can be transformative. Little wonder that the Sufi mystic Rumi once wrote, "Silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation." Imagine how different the world at large would be if we observed that same kind of behavior -- stopping to listen to what someone has to say and meeting it with thoughtful silence, rather than instantly retaliating, perhaps with a defensive knee-jerk response, which then easily escalates into rancorous argument.

A woman at this past weekend's Quaker meeting expressed some of these same thoughts. The meetinghouse I attend has two services. The earlier 9:30 meeting is usually completely silent, while the 11:00 meeting is generally a bit more talkative. I attend both when I can, because I like both the contemplative mood of the 9:30 service and the spoken ministry of the 11:00 service. This woman said she'd shifted from the 11:00 service to the 9:30 one because she too often found herself disagreeing with what someone else said and felt the urge to debate, or she would want to add on to someone else's thoughts if she thought it was incomplete. It was hard for her to sit in the silence and say nothing. Now she's coming back to the 11:00 service, having found enough peace within herself to allow others' thoughts to come and go without needing to react to them.

To that end, a man rose a while later to say that after another recent meeting, he'd asked a friend whether he should have risen to speak when he did. The friend responded by giving him an acronym to use: WAIT, or Why Am I Talking? I think something as simple as that can help us discern whether the spirit is really moving us to speak on a matter of substance, or whether we're just sharing an anecdote or an opinion that really doesn't rise to the level of vocal ministry.

Not surprisingly, the remainder of the meeting after he spoke was completely silent. I was half-tempted to rise and add my opinion that one should speak only if it improves upon the silence. But since I didn't think saying that would actually improve upon the silence, I stayed in my seat.

A few people I've spoken with at Quaker meeting have commented on the similarities between Quakerism and Buddhism. As one person put it, "Quakerism is Buddhism without the vocabulary." Given the emphasis both place on contemplation, it's not surprising to me that the Quaker approach to ministry would involve an element of non-attachment. Instead of letting our egos clutch on to the words of another, driving us to add our own commentary, we draw what lesson we can from the words, and then we let them go. If they've served their purpose, there's no reason to hold on to them.

An old Buddhist story tells of two monks who met a woman at the river bank, trying to get across but fearful she'd be swept away by the powerful current. The monks were forbidden from making physical contact with women, but deciding that helping her was more important than following a rule, one of the monks picked her up and carried her across the river. He set her down on the other bank, and the monks continued on their way. Much later, as the monks were still walking, the monk who picked up the woman could sense that his companion was upset. When he confronted his companion, the monk said angrily, "You know our vows prohibit us from touching a woman!" The other monk calmly replied, "I put her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?"

And that's how it is with our words. We all hear the words of others, and often we're itching to have an instant reaction to them. But how often do we actually listen?

The beauty of the Quaker meeting is that we do just that. We engage in expectant listening. And that approach would serve us all quite well in the world outside the meetinghouse doors.

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