Saturday, 30 December 2017

Outward vs Inward Silence

A crowded indoor shopping area
We can find the inward silence even at times of bustle and busyness.
Silence is a major feature of Quaker tradition; it features in the practice of all variations of Quaker practice, though most noticeably in unprogrammed Meetings. But what is this silence, as part of the Quaker way? Is it limited to the lack of noise, and a certain stillness, or does it go deeper than that? In this post, I shall try to explore this matter, and look at the difference between outward and inward silence.
I've previously published written ministry that touches on this, a short piece entitled Outward Silence, Inward Silence. It's very direct, with the general point that outward silence, while traditional and useful, is largely a tool to help us find inward silence. In this post, I will be exploring this idea in more detail, with practical examples and advice.
Silent worship is the most recognisable part of the religious practice of liberal (and conservative) Quakers. It is the cornerstone of what might be considered our liturgy, and to many it is the sine qua non of Quaker religious practice. I would not dream of suggesting that Quakers dispense with the practice of silent worship. And yet, it must be remembered that silence is not there for its own sake. Meeting for Worship is not simply a matter of a group of people sitting in a room together, being silent; it is a matter of expectant waiting. We sit together in silence, practising spiritual disciplines that open us to receiving ministry – that the Divine may move us to speak. Personally, I think “expectant” carries the wrong connotation, in that it indicates to modern ears that we expect something to happen; it lacks the humility that I feel we should approach these matters with. That point aside, the essence of this is that the silence is a method, not an objective in itself. A group of people can sit in a room in silence until the cows come home, but it takes more than that to make it a Meeting for Worship.
What then are these spiritual disciplines that open us to receiving ministry, and what does silence have to do with it? Well, I'm not going to go into great detail here and now about the precise nature of these disciplines, largely because we often discover them for ourselves and my conversations with Friends suggest they are many and varied. What they share is that the silence of the silent meeting enhances them, or makes them easier. They help attain a state in which we are more open to the movement of the Spirit, in which can be moved and receive, for want of a better word, messages: silent messages for yourself, or messages that are to be shared in spoken ministry. It also allows for a wonderful sense of the presence of the Spirit, awareness of the Light, closeness to God, whatever you prefer to call it; as part of that, in my experience it allows us an increased awareness of the presence of that Light in those we worship with as well.
Now, none of those things are experienced every time we worship, or in exactly the same manner by all those engaged in Quaker worship. But to me they are tied together as things that are allowed by that inward state our disciplines allow us to attain. It is that state that I refer to as inward silence, both in terms of its relationship to the outward silence, and because it seems fitting from my own experience of it; it is a term that other Quakers have also used, and I am not sure how often it is used in the same manner as I understand it.
For some people, the inward silence is very clearly what it sounds like – an absolute placidity, an absence of internal monologue, and openness and stillness pervading the entire being. For others, it is a disengagement from the process of thought, yet without thought stopping; you become partially removed from your own thoughts, aware of them but not directing, like riding a raft over moving water. Sometimes that water moves gently, and sometimes unquietly, but it is that removal from it that marks the inward silence for some. For others it is about sharpening awareness of things that you are less aware of at other times – perhaps your breathing, perhaps the presence of others around you, perhaps even visualisation of the Inner Light in yourself, and others present. It can involve elements of mindfulness, even of meditation. It can be allowing some thought, preferably one of religious significance, to completely fill your cognisance to the exclusion of all else. Rarely is it every perfectly any of those things, but practice and discipline allows us to reach closer and closer to whatever state the inward silence is for us.
But here we get to the potentially controversial bit, for some liberal and conservative Friends. The outward silence of Meeting for Worship facilitates us finding our inward silence, but it is the inward silence that is the essential characteristic of Meeting for Worship, not the outward silence. I would think it impossible to reach properly for inward silence while you were engaged in a conversation yourself, but a conversation carried on nearby does not prevent it – merely makes it more difficult. Meetings for Worship have been held in shopping centres and museums, quite successfully to talk to those who were there. Some of these are acts of witness against some action by government or corporations, and so some might think that their role is fulfilled if they look like a Meeting for Worship, whatever might be happening internally, but those I have spoken to who have participated in them were in no doubt of the action of the Spirit in those meetings. With practice, and deliberate choice, one can choose what is “background”, and pushed away from awareness as one reaches for the inward silence; it is for this reason that such meetings work best with seasoned Friends, and when it works very well, a small number of seasoned Friends can almost seem to to draw others into the inward silence.
In my own Local Meeting, the heating system for the Meeting Room makes noise. If it is properly on, there is the whirr of fans, while if it is abruptly turned off, there is an irregular clicking as components cool. Friends try to find a balance between these factors, and indeed the fact it is hard to find your centre in worship when losing circulation to your extremities, in order to minimise noise while maintaining physical comfort. I do wonder sometimes if we worry too much about it. I don't think a fan or air conditioning, or reasonable traffic noise, or the background noise of electronic equipment, prevents us from attaining that inward silence, from being properly present in worship. I think it makes it more difficult, but then so might the steps we take to reduce noise – especially when that means turning heating or air conditioning off! We might also consider that the outward silence is actually a barrier to the inward silence for some Friends, due to cognitive impairment or mental health difficulties.
What I would suggest, then, is that we actually attempt to help people see the difference between inward and outward silence. When you recognise your own inward silence, it becomes easier to reach in more difficult situations. If we can appreciate that it is this inward silence that is key, and the outward silence only a means to that end, we can see that we can reach that end, if necessary or desirable, without outward silence. We should not then abandon outward silence completely – it is vital in introducing most people to Quaker worship, and is helpful to most people most of the time, and why should we make life harder than it needs to be?
When you worship, try paying attention to your inward state. If you engage in any individual practices of meditation, prayer or contemplation, try to pay attention then as well; you might see some similarities, and if you don't, you may find that either worship or individual practice are enhanced by bringing something of the state you find in the other. Learn to recognise your own inward silence, and you will find it easier to come back to in the future with less lead-in or ritual. As you learn about your inward silence, you may find it easier to reach in any circumstance, including silent worship, and you may learn better what helps you to find it. For me, in some states of mind, reading some appropriate text is immensely helpful in finding my inward silence, and this introspection has helped me to learn which states of mind these are.
Having worked on this, try to bring yourself to inward silence in different situations. On the bus or train, or during a short break at work – possibly even while sat at your desk, though you probably don't want to be actively working on something while you try this. In the queue at the post office. With more practice, it will become easier.
Now, practising the inward silence alone is of great spiritual and personal value, it gives you a rock to stand on, a sense of light and love, it can be a great source of strength. It should not be confused, however, with Meeting for Worship. Meeting for Worship requires several people, albeit not very many, all reaching for this together. By whatever method you may think, the awareness of the Divine and the possibility for it reaching to us is vastly increased by that shared experience – and by the wonderful gift of spoken ministry that helps to carry us all along and sharpen the experience of silence, even as it seems to break it. If you are able to engage in regular group worship, you should do so – but individual practice and awareness of the inward silence, and the Light that it connects to, is a great help both in one's own life, and in deepening our collective worship.
Now, if we can develop that awareness, we can proceed to engage in silent worship that is not held in silence. We can cope with people present fidgeting, or having background noise – perhaps even light music that enables those who struggle with outward silence to participate and find the inward silence. Indeed, as mentioned previously, our spiritual disciplines to reach the inward silence are different, each of us finding ways that work for us, and for some it will be a simple repetitive manual task that helps them find that stillness inside, or distracting part of their mind with music that allows them to settle and centre. We wouldn't expect all of our Meetings for Worship to change in this way, but allowing for them sometimes, or as a supplement, can actually aid the accessibility of our worship, and thus our community, for a great many people. If we treat the outward silence as a golden calf, holding it up as an object of devotion and dedication, rather than a means to an end, we not only deny that opportunity for widening access to the Quaker Way, we lose sight of the objective of that worship – better awareness of the Divine, enabling us to be open to guidance and thus to living our lives better.
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