Enjoy the silence
Perhaps my moped helmet and large yellow “bug shield” sunglasses marked me as a newcomer to the Sacramento Friends Meeting, or maybe it was the fact that I was filling said helmet with a selection of pamphlets on the Quaker religion from a rack in the lobby. Either way, the Sacramento Friends more than lived up to their name in welcoming me to their Sunday service. They wanted to know if I’d ever been to a meeting before (I hadn’t) and if I was familiar with their method of worship.
“Oh yes!” I said hastily, without mentioning that my entire concept of Quaker services came from an episode of Six Feet Under, in which Nate followed the show’s Quaker character, Maggie, to a meeting and later to bed. Though illicit affairs and untimely deaths ensued, the episode left me curious about Friends meetings: hour-long silent gatherings where people collectively experience their connection to the divine, speaking only if God moves them to do so.
As I looked at the friendly faces in the lobby of the cheerfully modest meetinghouse, it occurred to me that TV might not be the best preparation for life. “It’s just silence, right?” I asked, wanting to make sure I understood.
It was, but this morning there happened to be a sing-along first. Would I care to participate?
In the main meeting room, where approximately 50 chairs were arranged in two concentric circles, a woman with a shaker led a handful of others in a rousing folk song. I shyly tiptoed around the room; I’d hoped to hide in the back, but the circular seating arrangement wouldn’t allow it. I took a seat in the outer row and studied a pamphlet.
“As we center in inward stillness, anyone who feels moved by the Spirit to offer spoken ministry may do so,” it read. “Each message is followed by silence of several minutes during which we absorb the message into our individual and corporate worship. When the clerk discerns that there is no further ministry, worship will end with a handshake.”
“What if I am suddenly moved to speak?” I wondered. I pictured myself jumping out of my chair with lightning-bolt conviction, maybe even speaking in tongues. The thought caused a flutter in my chest—perhaps a slight echo of the religious tremors that first earned the Quakers their name?
I joined a chorus of Pete Seeger’s “Study War No More.” The Quaker philosophy holds that because every person is a channel for the truth of God, it is unethical to engage in any action that might extinguish that truth for the world. As such, the Quakers have a long history of peace activism, including abolitionism, caring for European children after World War I, and establishing the conscientious-objector option to the draft. Judging from the song selection, this peacemaking spirit runs strong in the Sacramento Friends.
When the music ended, I waited for the worship service to start. Several silent minutes later, I realized it already had. Many people had their eyes closed, so I did the same. At first I was on guard, waiting for someone to stand and channel the spirit. When no one did, I relaxed. There was nothing to do but sit and wait for God.
Instead, my inner secretary showed up. She and I made several to-do lists and decided whom I absolutely had to call back on Monday morning. Once she left to type up our plans, everything just got pleasantly quiet in my mind.
I was so at ease that I was startled when someone began speaking. Three people shared during the meeting, and not one of them used the “great and powerful Oz” voice I’d imagined was appropriate for channeling the divine. As it turned out, God sounded like the plain speech of everyday people sharing concerns about unrest in the world or an uplifting parable about living a life of meaning, like birds chirping outside and like the internal reassurance that these things were enough.