Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality

by J. Brent Bill

Written By Kim Jocelyn Dickson

Holy Silence by J. Brent BillParaclete Press, 2005

The title, Holy Silence, and the book’s striking cover—a beautiful and simple black and white paper-cut of a pastoral farm scene—enticed me right away. As one who has long embraced silence, not necessarily as a spiritual discipline, but as an emotional survival tool (same thing, maybe?) I was intrigued to learn more about the theology and practice of what I’ve always known to be the centerpiece of Quaker life and worship, but understood little about. In this respect, Holy Silence did not disappoint.

Bill’s introduction to Quaker spirituality is an accessible overview that briefly acknowledges the history of the practice of silence in various and diverse religious traditions, but proceeds quickly into a discussion of the distinctiveness of Quaker silence. Laced with stories from the author’s own experience and periodic injections of “quietude queries”—the Quaker practice of asking spiritual questions within the silence—the reader is invited to participate in and reflect on the practice while learning about it.

In six chapters we discover that while the practice of silence is fundamental care for the soul, in the Quaker tradition, it is also much more than that. Bill traces its historical and biblical foundations that gave rise to an entire sect of Christianity, shows what keeping silence looks like solitarily and communally, and explains what is theologically distinctive about the silence of his faith. It was this latter point that intrigued me.

Born of a movement dating back to a religiously turbulent time in mid-seventeenth century England, Quakerism is rooted in a group called the Seekers. Dissatisfied with the various traditions they left behind, the Seekers were drawn together because they were convinced that true religion is rooted in the inward life. They rejected all outward ritual and religious formalism and practiced silence as a means of cultivating the inner spiritual journey.

The Seekers eventually found leadership through George Fox, whose own experience led him to proclaim that the immediacy and presence of Christ can be directly apprehended. And so it came to be practiced and understood that Christ is present in holy silence. Bill draws a parallel to the Roman Catholic practice and centrality of the Eucharist during the Mass. Just as the Eucharist mediates the presence of Christ to the believer—according to Catholic theology the host becomes the body and blood of Christ—so holy silence mediates the actual presence of Christ and is the focal point of Quaker worship.

Bill fleshes out how this actually happens by drawing on biblical stories and references to practicing silence, but even more interesting and thought-provoking to me, by telling about his own experiences. In fact, they inspired me to visit a Quaker meeting to experience this communal silence for myself.

I was eager for the transcendent kind of worship Bill had described at the beginning of his book. One Sunday morning en route to catching a plane back to Indiana following a fall foliage getaway to Vermont, he and his wife Nancy stopped in at a quaint old meeting house for service and experienced the presence of Christ palpably: “(It was) As if something had been lit deep inside and now shone from their faces, we saw ‘grace and truth’ reflected in the people around us...God had worked his way into the deepest parts of our hearts and out to our fingers and toes and noses.” Wow. I wanted some of that.

But that wasn’t to be my experience. While what I wanted was to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, what I actually felt was a heightened awareness of the people around me—and of myself. I arrived and helped an elderly woman with a walker standing by the front door. She’d been standing outside the entrance just waiting for someone to come along, because she couldn’t open the door herself. It felt good to be able to help her. But no sooner had I sat down than I heard the whirr of a motorized wheelchair behind me, piercing the silence. In rolled a man with cerebral palsy and a Mohawk haircut, dressed in wildly mismatched ‘60s psychedelic prints and high-top sneakers. As he parked not six inches away from me, my first thought was, Oh God. What is he going to need from me? He brought with him the sickly sweet smell of a nursing home.

We are all God’s children, I remembered. I proceeded to take in my surroundings—the dull institutional beige walls, barren of any kind of art or hint of decoration; the floor to ceiling windows, letting in the lovely freshness of a California morning, tall palm trees swaying in the breeze; the plainly dressed people who sat so very quietly. I looked at people’s feet. My Etienne Aigner-shod, pedicured feet were an island in a sea of Birkenstocks—many worn with socks. We are all God’s children, I remembered.

The atmosphere was so still I could hear someone clear his throat across the room. When I had to clear mine I felt self-conscious, but brave for doing it anyway. When I felt like I wanted to blow my nose I restrained myself. The slightest move toward my purse would have been heard by everyone there. Do I always feel this responsible for people? I wondered. Ever one to size up a situation psychologically or, in this case, sociologically, I wondered what effect group dynamics had on this kind of worship.

I had come to the Meeting hoping for an experience of transcendence and found myself mired in immanence. But perhaps this was exactly the point. Maybe this is what the presence of Christ is: the indwelling of our very humanness. While I have experienced the kind of miraculous transcendent moments Bill describes at the beginning of his book, more often than not, I find my personal silence leads me into the dark places—the feelings I’m not proud of, the vulnerabilities I’d rather not know about, the wounds that need healing. It seems that this was my experience of communal silence too. My small anxieties about offending people, being responsible for people, my petty annoyance at people’s choice of footwear—these are things I’m not proud of. But underneath it all, too, I was aware that despite our differences we are so much the same. We are all God’s children.

I wished that Bill had spent more time exploring the immanent face of silence. He seems to suggest that through the practice we are led to a transcendent experience of God in which the exigencies of life recede and all is well. While I believe in the eternal scheme of things that will be true, the fact is when the meeting is over, he will still have to deal with his feelings of irritation at his chronically late wife. He never quite tells us how he does that, only that when they are sitting in the back row of meeting together because she made them late again, he takes her hand and is filled with joy and love for her.

But then, maybe that is the subject of another book. Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality certainly whets the appetite for the next one.

Copyright ©2005 Kim Dickson

Holy Silence by J. Brent Bill
Help explorefaith.org. Purchase a copy of HOLY SILENCE by following this link to amazon.com.