Reflections on sharing silence

Katie Evans writes

What are your experiences of silence? And what was happening in those silences? These are two of the questions I put to an ecumenical group of spiritual directors training at Sarum College last week. I spent the day with them exploring Quaker spirituality, listening and silence.

Photo of Bath Quaker Meeting by Jude Harris. 

My own experiences of silence include:

  • Being my myself in nature, allowing my attention to shift from self-centred busyness and preoccupation to a wider, deeper awareness, and with it a sense of spaciousness and peace.
  • Sharing silence with a friend. This silence told me that I was loved unconditionally. It made it possible for me to come to terms with aspects of myself I usually avoid looking at and to trust a sense of being invited to something new.
  • The communal silence of a Quaker meeting for worship one Sunday which carried the weight of my worry and hurt, giving me the sense of being borne up, supported. This particular Sunday the silence made it possible for me to grieve and heal.

But silence isn’t always positive. There’s a world of difference between freely chosen silence and, for example, an imposed silence of oppression or an unwanted silence of loneliness.

Between the group we had experienced many sorts of silence: silences of life, joy, peace, integration, anger, pain, threat, rejection …

So what sort of silence is Quaker silence?

For me Quaker silence is first and foremost a listening silence. We are listening for love and truth, for God and God’s guidance. It’s also a communal silence: the silence in a meeting for worship is a shared silence that we create together, which links us to one another. Meeting for worship is more like a dance or orchestra than an exam hall. And it is hopefully a communicative silence. If God is a God who listens, then the listening silence may give us glimpses of the nature of God. Strangely enough, we also get to know each other in the shared silence.

But perhaps silence isn’t the right word. It’s not about the absence of noise per se. Would stillness, awareness, attentiveness be better words?

The group I was with last week explored the possibilities sharing silence might offer in the context of spiritual direction and had a go at holding clearness meeting. Clearness meetings are small group meetings to listen to and with a friend to support them in their personal discernment. I think they’re one of the gems of the Quaker discernment toolkit and would love them to be more widely used. Do get in touch with me if you’re interested in having a clearness meeting.

I’m hugely grateful to the group for giving me fresh perspectives on the shared silence I’ve come to take for granted. I was reminded that silence can be uncomfortable, especially at first, that it can be a risk. But the group also affirmed for me of the wonderful riches that can come in silence. That if we take the risk of stepping back to create a little space, “God shows up” (as one participant said).

One insight from the day that will stay with me is that the quality of a shared silence depends on the quality of the relationship between those sharing in it. In a domineering, punitive relationship there’s little chance of silence being experienced as a hospitable, loving spaciousness and visa versa.

I also learnt that it can be helpful to be explicit about offering silence, and sometimes to time it, e.g. to agree to share five minutes’ silence. Explicitly saying ‘shall we have a bit of quiet?’ helps to avoid the silence being awkward, with the person who you are sharing with wondering if they ought to be filling it. It also gives an element of choice rather than being an imposition. For some, a timed silence felt like a protected, caring space.

How good are we at welcoming newcomers to Quaker worship? Do we let them know what to expect so that they can feel comfortable and take part? Or, nervous of being prescriptive, do we sometimes leave people to flounder in an unfamiliar, risky silence?

Related posts:
Spiritual direction: it’s about watering roots
Sharing the Quaker practice of clearness

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