Worshipping With Quakers
Rev. Elizabeth A. Peterson
“When we gather for worship, we try to follow two simple guidelines: we don’t decide ahead of time that we are going to speak, and we don’t decide ahead of time that we are not going to speak.” These were the simple instructions given to us by Millie Gimmel, a leader of the West Knoxville Friends’ Meeting, as she led us in a brief time of worship in our Gathering Hall last Thursday night.
When Quakers worship they gather and enter into a time of silence together. This silence is an intentional listening for the “still, small voice of God” as a corporate body, rather than as a personal or isolated time of meditation. There are no creeds, no hymns, no scripture readings. Instead, if a friend feels compelled to speak, they stand and share with the assembly what they feel called to say in that moment. Sometimes, they told us, there is a lot of sharing, and sometimes the entire worship time is spent in silence. It is quite simple on the face of things. But this can be daunting for Presbyterians who love shaping words into beautifully wrought prayers and eloquent sermons.
We settled in, all of us, to this silence, the Presbyterians taking a bit longer to stop our fidgeting. Eventually, all was quiet. At first, I didn’t know what to look at. I’m used to praying with my eyes closed, but this time I kept my eyes open, and looked around at the people gathered there. There were folks of all ages, black and white, some looking quite comfortable with the silence, some casting furtive glances at the exit door.
I went through my usual mental gymnastics for times like this: “Should I say something to set an example for my parishioners that it can be done?” “Should I keep quiet and let others talk?” “How much silence is good, and how much is awkward?” I was acutely aware in the first couple of minutes how uncomfortable I am, and our culture is, with long periods of silence. We go to great lengths to avoid it, filling the air with mindless chatter or media distractions.
But as the silence settled in, I felt a change in myself, and in the group. The awkwardness gave way to an attitude of expectant waiting. There were some children in the room moving around, and noises from downstairs and the street outside, but these became a comfortable backdrop to our silent communion. And we all listened, together. I found myself letting go of the need to set an example or to lead, and simply gave in to the silence itself. I began to enjoy the close but quiet proximity with others, and gradually let go of the compulsion to put my feelings to words, or to make sense of things, or to manage the mood of the room. It was both relaxing and energizing.
Before I knew it, our time of worship had come to an end, and I was left with a sense of wanting more. I had indeed felt the Spirit moving during that time, and it was apparent that others had as well. Our groups had only just met, but after worshipping we were easier with each other, and it was as if a blanket of peace had been laid over all our shoulders. The Quakers who joined us that night have a heart for intentional community, and an open and alive spirit in their congregation that gives me hope, both for the spirit of our city and for the revitalization of my own soul. And several days later, I still feel a longing to linger with others who are listening for that “still, small voice.”