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ON SILENT WORSHIP

by George Amoss Jr.

Martin Cobin, in his important Pendle Hill Pamphlet entitled "From Convincement to Conversion," relates an anecdote concerning Rufus Jones and another Friend. It seems that Jones rose one morning in meeting for worship and prefaced his message by saying that he'd been thinking about something and wanted to share his thoughts. After meeting, an elderly British Friend approached Jones and chided him, saying, "Rufus, during meeting for worship thee should not have been thinking." If we do not at least see the point of the elderly Friend's statement, says Cobin, we probably have not yet moved from convincement to conversion.

My desire to understand the British Friend's remark, and better to understand what it is that we're bout in meeting for worship, has led me to consider the nature and meaning of our worship. What is it that we should be doing? Do the Friend's words indicate that we should be emptying our minds of thought in order to be more receptive to divine leadings? Is our silence to be, at least ideally, the absence of thought?

These considerations bring to mind some sayings from Zen Buddhism, a tradition which, like ours, has long experience with contemplation in silence, but which has more carefully cultivated the art of meditation. "You cannot get it by taking thought," announces one saying, "nor can you get it by not taking thought." Similarly, the great Chinese master Hui-Neng said that "To command all thoughts immediately to cease is to be tied in a knot by a method, and is called an obtuse view." [1] According to the expert testimony of Zen, attempting to achieve a state of having no thought is not the way to liberation and conversion. And if we acknowledge a similarity of experience among contemplatives of different traditions, we understand that the elderly Friend probably was ont speaking of such an effort--or such a state.

What, then, is the point of his statement? What are we doing in worship? Pondering these questions, I am reminded of a definition of Quaker worship that I have long found appealing--the idea of "waiting in silence." But that phrase has always seemed too vague, in need of further definition. As I begin to consider its possible meanings, I recall the words of a man who must seem an unlikely source of insight into Quaker worship--a man who, in fact, said that the "inner light" is the most dangerous and unreliable guide ever to be followed by human beings, yet whose work reveals a deep familiarity with waiting in the silence of the heart. I have in mind the poet, T.S. Eliot.

Eliot's description of the process of contemplation in the silence can provide us with important insights into the potential of our own way of worship. In the long work, The Four Quartets, Eliot speaks of being "At the still point of the turning world." And he asserts that "Except for the point, the still point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance." This image of the dance recurs in a later passage which speaks to our quest for a deeper appreciation of our worship:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought;
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.[2]

To wait without hope, without love, without faith--those three crucial virtues called "supernatural" by theology--can only be to wait in that true and complete silence which, if we let it, will bring us to what Eliot calls "A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)." For silence is an emptiness, but it is an emptiness that makes fullness possible, a darkness that is light, a stillness that is the cosmic dance.

As master Hui-Neng says, "Thoughts come and go of themselves, for through the use of wisdom there is no blockage.... Such is the (true) practice of 'no-thought'." We wait without thought in the sense that we have gone beyond thought to a deeper level, to the emptiness in which nothing remains to separate us from ourselves or from others--in which, therefore, love becomes real. And love, too, leads us to the fullness of emptiness, for in love we find ourselves in the very act of giving ourselves away.

Recently I read an in-depth review by Douglas Gwyn of a book on speaking and silence among 17th-century Friends. [3] In that review, Gwyn pointed out that for early Friends silence was not an end in itself. Silence functioned for them like a Zen koan, to crucify natural thought in order that they might come to a new, pure, spiritual language through the transformation of their fundamental way of experiencing themselves and their world. As George Fox indicated in his journal, this pure speech would be the expression of one's experience of the "true nature"--as Zen would put it--of all things. Early Friends knew that they were "not ready for thought" until they had let the silence take them apart and re-create them in its own image as persons who possessed nothing and who were therefore free to love. Only when they had entered that "condition of complete simplicity" could they begin to speak truly, and then their speech would be directed to bringing their hearers into the same experience. "Silence," says Gwyn, "was seen as not only the state from which one must speak, if moved, but also the right outcome of speaking. Vocal ministry sought to achieve silence in the hearer, to enhance the crucifixion of natural thought and language within."

If, then, we should not be thinking during worship, it is because only true silence can center us in that emptiness in which our thought and speech are purified and made new. Then we shall know all things from within, not through the mediation of words, so that our language will be no longer an obstacle to love but a true and natural expression of it. This is the great potential of our silent worship, that it can empty us of delusion, purify our thought, and lead us from convincement to conversion. So the phrase that seemed "too vague" turns out to be sufficient after all: worship is simply a matter of waiting in silence. Anything more is something less.

Copyright 1996, George Amoss Jr.



[1] Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen, p93 (New York, 1957)

[2] Stanza from "East Coker," quoted with permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company.

[3] Douglas Gwyn, "The Rise and Eclipse of Prophecy," in "Quaker Religious Thought," Vol 23, #4, p16 (Greensboro, NC, 1988).


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