- Theological Education
St. Paul says Christians are to “pray without ceasing.” One Quaker practitioner says holy silence — a way of listening to God — is one way to do that.
When work gets too hectic and Brent Bill needs to gather his thoughts, he sends out an email letting folks know he won’t be responding immediately. He presses the “Do Not Disturb” button on his office phone. Then he turns to a piece of artwork, or a poem, and begins an hour-long spiritual practice he calls holy silence.
Bill, executive vice president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, is a lifelong Quaker and devotee of what is perhaps its signature spiritual practice. He wrote a book on the subject (Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality, Paraclete Press, 2005) and regularly counsels congregations interested in learning more about silence and other spiritual practices.
“It makes you pay attention to what’s going on, rather than moving through life and having it swirl around you,” Bill says.
Silence is not very well known as a Christian practice. Most people associate it with Buddhism or other Eastern religions. If they associate it with Christianity at all, they usually think of Roman Catholic monks in monasteries.
Bill says Quaker silence is different. In Buddhist meditation, particularly Zen, practitioners work to empty the mind of all thought. If a thought comes up, the practitioner is supposed to look at it in a detached way and let it go.
Roman Catholics have the prayer of the “examen,” developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. In this brief prayer ¬– which is not supposed to take more than 10 minutes – a person silently reviews the day that has passed for moments of desolation and consolation.
Quaker silence is also about a certain kind of discernment, but it is not tied to an intake of the day’s events. Boiled down to its essence, the practice is a way of listening to the inner rumblings of the soul and sifting through it to hear what is of God.
The Quaker tradition, which evolved from the Reform movement of 17th-century England, calls for fellow believers to sit in a circle for a “meeting,” which for Quakers is another word for worship. Except at this worship service there is no minister, no ritual, no liturgy and no recitation. Anyone may speak if so moved, but the expectation is that a person will only do so if compelled by God.
Most meetings last an hour. And Quakers are expected to use silence as a component of their daily spiritual practice too.
Bill said many Protestant denominations are attracted to the idea of silence, even as they’re afraid to really indulge it.
“Americans don’t know how to handle silence,” he says. “It’s usually 30 seconds; meanwhile, the organ is playing softly. It’s not really silence.”
At the same time, Bill knows it’s impractical for most denominations to build silence into their worship the way Quakers do — for thirty minutes at a minimum.
He suggests something in between, allowing a congregation to slowly build up to a desired goal. He recommends guiding congregations to take some time to listen to their breathing and then pay attention to what’s going on in their souls.
To Bill, silence is a form of prayer. Referring to that famous passage from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, he adds:
“St. Paul says we should pray without ceasing. Many of us cease without praying. People think we should be on our knees. But Quaker silence is a way to pray without ceasing. It’s a way of being in constant prayer with God.”
Increasingly, Bill says, congregations want to try it. He sees churches taking trips to the Kentucky-based Abbey at Gethsemane, where Trappist monk Thomas Merton lived. More broadly, he sees churches interested in reclaiming a wider range of spiritual practices, such as healing, fasting and Lectio Divina or holy reading of Scripture like seen at the Web site Practicing our Faith.
In the past five years about 130 congregations have called the Center for Congregations seeking advice or resources. Churches have used his book for Sunday school. One even hosted a conference on spiritual practices.
But Bill cautions congregations that silence is not a panacea. Like everything else in life, it has to be cultivated and practiced.
“It doesn’t come easy to anyone,” says Bill, 56. “I’m better at it than I was when I was 20, but I have a long way to go.”
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