Listen To Article
The room is quiet when I enter. A circle of chairs around a plain table, flowers and a few books in the center. Perhaps thirty people are sitting silently. Sunlight streams through the large windows. The walls are plain white. All things in this room speak of simplicity and stillness.
I find an open chair and settle myself. I am one of the younger people here. Some of the younger folks are sitting in a meditation posture, back straight, feet flat on the ground and slightly apart, hands mindfully open or folded, breathing slowly and deeply. But among the older generation there is no predictability. Some of them look half asleep. Others look bored.
I’ve walked by The Quaker Centre, Friends House London dozens of times over the years on my way to researching at the British Library, but I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a Quaker meeting before. This is my first experience of Quaker worship, and I have no idea what to expect—which is itself refreshing.
After the meeting I will explore the huge, historic building and stumble upon a group of Nigerian Christians—the women elegant in glorious turbans and swathed in folds upon folds of brightly patterned fabrics, the men chatting together about theology (of the vaguely prosperity gospel-ish sort, from what I can gather). In another corner of the vast complex I find a clutch of Korean students—happy, cheerful, friendly. The sign outside their gathering room announces they are “Acts London,” and I smile, imagining their earnest conversations about being “first-century Christians.”
There is also a sunny courtyard garden with bistro tables and chairs. The bookstore and cafe are closed on Sundays, and I make a promise to myself to return on another day.
But back to me sitting in that quiet place with those quiet people…the silence lasts for a full 30 minutes. Nothing “happens.” No congregational singing, no reading of scripture, no nothing. We simply sit.
Later, I pick up a pamphlet and read about the Quaker approach to worship:
“Worship is our response to an awareness of God. We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us.
In worship we enter with reverence into communion with God and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Come to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared. Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance…”
But in the long silence of this worship, I do not “know” anything about how my companions are experiencing or approaching this shared time. In fact, at one point a woman wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with “Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to be here anyway” takes out her phone and begins to read something on it—I feel slightly superior to and yet piously “non-judgmental” of her.
At 30 minutes, a man stands up and speaks. Quietly, gently, thoughtfully. He says something simple and true. A few more minutes tick quietly by, and then another person speaks a few words of encouragement to all of us about life’s troubles. No one makes any response to these thoughts—we merely sit with the offered words and then move back into the silence.
A woman stands to speak. She is almost entirely reddish-pink in color—and by that I mean that her dyed hair, her rouge, her polo shirt, her slacks, her socks, are all the same color. Only her shoes—sensible gray, with good ankle support—break the color scheme. She is a beautiful exotic bird, and she speaks with real pain in her voice about inclusion and exclusion, about how welcoming Quakerism has been for her, about how God is surely present with us this morning, healing our wounds. I feel my heart connecting with hers, with everyone’s. Somehow, in the silence and in the few quiet words, we have come toward each other in spiritual solidarity.
And then he stands. He is old, so old. The kind of old where you cannot tell if he is 85 or 95 or 105. He is bent nearly double and he leans heavily on a cane. His eyes are watery, his voice is strong.
“And yet, Friends, let us remember that Heaven is right around the corner. It is present, even now. Even now, my Friends, we can be in Heaven.”
It is at this point that I begin to sob. I try to keep it quiet, but my shoulders are shaking, my nose running. I’m sniffling and catching my breath and no one is taking any notice of me. They just let me sit and experience what I am experiencing. There is a freedom in not being comforted, in being ignored.
What is it that moves me so deeply? I hardly know. When, later, I read more about Quaker worship I find this helpful, if not entirely explanatory:
“Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognizing that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others. Remember that we all share responsibility for the meeting for worship, whether our ministry is in silence or through the spoken word.”
My teenage son will join me in London next week, and I plan to return to The Quaker Centre on Sunday with him. What will he make of it, I wonder? Who knows. But “that of God” in him—as George Fox called it—will respond to this silence, to these people, to the genuine sacred space however it should. This, I can trust.
Oh, yeah. And I hope Louise is there again so I can introduce her to my son. Louise—who was on her phone?—introduced herself to me at the coffee and tea time, and she shared her own vocal ministry with me. A few good and true words from her heart.
Turns out she’d been reading prayers on her phone. As you do. When you’re a 21st century Quaker.