Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 28th of Fifth Month, 2023
Speaker: Welling Hall
Scripture: Psalm 62:1,5
Song of Trust in God Alone
To the leader: according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.
For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
Even though I am far away, when I first visualized giving this message, I imagined standing right there with you at West Richmond and being able to look you in the eyes and hug you. When I first visualized giving this sermon, even though she was sick, I imagined that Eden might be smiling back at me from one of the little squares. I thought there would be more time. So, I’m not starting where I thought I would be starting this morning. I’m starting with a sonnet that I wrote in October, shortly after Eden was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
He called us Friends. This means that we may get
a text that changes everything. For now,
I make a pot of chicken soup and set
my GPS to Eden’s house, allow
some extra time to find my grief-blind way.
The cancer diagnosis is a shock;
I want a different text. This one will say
that all will be made well.
Your Friend, your Rock,
will never die!
She gets her mug and sits
to work beside me on the couch. We chat
about theology and things. She quilts,
I knit, inspected by her limping cat.
As Friends we know that God is Love. That text
upholds me now. I’m frightened of the next.
I last saw Eden on Tuesday. She wasn’t feeling like herself, she couldn’t tolerate the smell of chicken soup. She said that this was no quality of life and she didn’t know how much longer she’d be willing to live like this. I told her how much she was loved and we sat together in silence for a while.
During this past year at Boston University School of Theology I’ve spent a lot of time teaching people how to sit in silence for a while. This was in my role serving on the Worship Team for the weekly Chapel Service and it was by no means easy. I know that you’ve all been there, in a worship service where a time for quiet reflection is announced and the moment lasts for approximately 30 seconds. The first time I suggested sustaining silent worship for a few minutes, my peers looked at me like I had sprouted a third eye in the middle of my forehead. I was surprised by this because Howard Thurman, who cherished silent worship, had often included it as part of his services when he was Dean of Marsh Chapel, but those practices have been long forgotten.
One of the things I’ve learned as a Quaker at a non-Quaker seminary is that people of faith are both fascinated by and frightened of silence. At first I thought this was amusing and, now, on deeper reflection, it seems that the fear of silence is hard wired into the Western psyche. We’ve been taught that real knowledge is observable: what we can see, hear, touch, taste. Or, in some cases, what we can infer, using strict rules of logic. Seeing is believing. If you can’t see it, or can’t count it, don’t believe it. Thoughts that might come to you unobserved or unheard by others? Crazy! In fact, one of the modern authors of Western rationalism, John Locke, was convinced that the notion that there could be insight that arrives in silence was madness and the gateway to zealotry. He was so convinced that in 1690 he wrote a new chapter for his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding specifically to make an argument against Quakers (he called them Enthusiasts). Locke believed that Enthusiasts, Quaker mystics who spoke of access to divine knowledge through their experience of an Inner Light, posed a real threat to society. So, yes, appreciation for knowledge and wisdom that can be gained through silent worship very much goes against the grain of the world that we live in.
When we turn to our religious traditions, to the Bible in particular, the search for words about silence is not immediately gratifying. The results of doing a Google or concordance search for the word silent or silence are quite disappointing. There are a few verses from ancient Hebrew praise songs, like Psalm 62, about waiting in silence, there are laments asking that God not be silent. There are instructions to pray in silence. There are proverbs about wise people knowing how to hold their tongue. There are people who are told to be silent because they are wrong or overwhelmed or subordinate. But really, among the thousands and thousands of verses in the Bible, there isn’t much said about silence at all.
Digging deeper there is another story entirely. The Bible includes stories about transformative silence in creation, in contemplation, and in desolation. The most profound, dramatic silences in Scripture are not named as such, but they do powerful, powerful work. The creation story in Genesis begins with the Spirit of God brooding over the formless void. Before there is light, before there is anything else, there is a breath that flutters in the stillness. All of creation is in that noiseless, formless void on the verge of vibrating and unfolding into miraculous existence, but before creation there is Silence and then the merest whisper of sound. Nothing. And then the World Changed Forever!
The second world-shattering silence in the Bible is the absence of any story about the first thirty years of the life of Jesus. And yet this had to have been time of study, of preparation, of contemplation, of listening for the word of God. Nothing. And then the World Changed Forever!
The Gospel tells us that Jesus regularly went off by himself alone to pray on extended solo retreats or to recharge before or after engagement with crowds. He publicly practiced the ministry of the nap and he waited in silence for inspiration. Before he was crucified, he prayed silently and fervently in Gethsemane for guidance, hoping that others might also pray silently alongside him.
Finally, there is the awful, heart-wrenching Silence of Holy Saturday. Quakers historically do not “keep days,” but Holy Saturday, the space of infinite and abysmal desolation between Good Friday and Easter, is one that we might well linger with. Jesus died. He was dead. He was gone. He descended into the depths as a dead man and on earth his shocked and traumatized apostles had no words. It matters that Christ died and that the world was dumb with inconsolable grief before the Resurrection. This is not a story about Superman changing his clothes instantaneously in a phone booth, but a victory over the grave that is felt first as the numb despair of ultimate loss, an absence and a longing that is beyond speech and knows no words. Nothing. There. Are. No. Words. And then, unexpectedly, impossibly, the World Changes Forever with the apparition of a Spirit we knew was gone forever and yet here the Spirit is with us right now.
Generations of mystics have shared their conviction that Silence is essential in order to be present to creation, to contemplation, and to desolation. If we do not attend in Silence to creation, to contemplation, and to desolation, there is little chance that we will experience the in-breaking of Spirit. We need Silence in order to grow our spiritual selves. This is the story that Thurman tells about himself as a boy in a fishing boat. The story that Dick Smith read this morning. Thurman believed that the essence of prayer was for the individual to slowly make their way to what he called “the temple of quiet within one’s own spirit.” He said that “the single most important service that church can render in the modern world is a space of quiet” where one could practice silencing and calming the distracting inner noises, which he thought was even more important than isolating oneself from outer noises.
The word of God comes to us in Silence, not when we are distracted by the chatter of the world or the chatter of what Buddhists call our monkey minds. I’m also thinking this morning of the mystic Raimon Panikkar. Panikkar was a Catalan-Indian, Hindu-Buddhist Catholic priest. I’m reflecting this morning on his words, “Silence is the power of mysticism, and without mysticism [we are] merely rational animal[s] and religion is just a system of thought.” Panikkar celebrates Silence as the essential antidote to modern civilization that breeds greed and speed and deadly logic while neglecting love and compassion and awe. Silence is the wellspring for attentive loving awareness that brings us closer to our own center and to the divine mysteries of life. The genius of Quakerism is the insight that we have a human need to wait in Silence together, communing with ‘the invisible present Reality’ and together, in ‘the mystical union’ of waiting worship, we nourish and cultivate the ground that allows Spirit to be present with us.
Claiming Silence for ourselves takes practice, although the practice is not beyond us. Practice makes possible. Thurman suggests that we quiet our bodies and focus our awareness on being part of a larger whole. Panikkar invites us to enjoy and embrace the moment in order to receive what can not be perceived through the senses. Although the world teaches that Silence is a NO-thing, an empty NON-sense to be filled or suppressed, among us we know because we have the lived experience that Silence does powerful work. Silence is transformative. Within our Silence and our attentive loving awareness with each other are the seeds that inspire creation, nurture contemplation, and allow for the inbreaking of Spirit into the very depths of desolation.
Sometimes there are just no words. And no words can be a gateway for Love, the preparation that allows us to feel God’s Presence among us.
Let us practice Silent waiting together now.
Why We Wait in Silence
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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