This past weekend, I spent time in Alexandria, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from the District of Columbia. While there, I visited a historic Anglican church that was home to both George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Though I was struck by the beauty of the sanctuary, its design was curious.
Each pew was walled off from those adjacent to it. They looked like monastic cells. To me, the effect was isolating. I’ve grown accustomed to sitting nearby others on the same wooden bench. Church attenders rented their pews. Those with more money contributed a large amount, those with less paid what they could. The money collected was used to feed the needy, specifically widows and orphaned children. It was what passed for public assistance in those days.
Our approach is vastly different, not just towards caring for our own, but in how we conduct ourselves. Quakers worship in silence, or should I say, the branch of Quaker I belong to does. This is a radical departure from most other forms of worship. In our American culture, we are often told that there is no value whatsoever in staying quiet for any reason. I spend most of my day actively and energetically communicating with others. As a people, we aren’t always sure what to make of the total absence of verbosity. We tend to assign it to nothingness, but my religious expression shows that silence can be very meaningful.
Visitors to Quaker Meeting often view unprogramed worship as a kind of meditation. This is true to an extent, but I’ve always seen meditation as an exercise, not a spiritual practice. Put this way, the practice sounds New Agey, which it is not. Its roots go far deeper than that. I’ll admit that at first I did find it challenging to center into silence and remain that way for several minutes at a time. Newcomers often expect something to happen before their very eyes, be it a minister leading the congregation in a responsive reading or in standing to sing a hymn. Instead, the silence is spontaneously and somewhat abruptly broken by a voice providing vocal ministry, which could be located a bench behind us, or even at the very back of the room.
As a kind of discipline, I’ve tried to incorporate silence into my life beyond once-a-week worship. When I owned a car, I would sometimes drive to wherever I was going with the radio off and only my own thoughts as a companion. Long trips became avenues for greater enlightenment. Many people might grow bored or restless without noise as a distraction. I’ve known many people who keep their television on all the time as background white noise, because nothing makes them more uneasy than complete silence.
City dwellers become accustomed to the sounds of the streets and thoroughfares close by their residence. We are adaptable beings. There’s an old joke about living in New York City. The punch line is that you last heard complete silence in 1972 and when you did, it scared you to death. Nowadays, our lives are full of constant communication, constant noise. Even if we aren’t speaking over a phone or speaking face to face to someone else, we’re still communicating with text messages, e-mail, or on websites.
Silence is not a placeholder. With enough practice and introspection, it can become as meaningful as any spoken word. It was at odds with the prevailing culture 350 years ago, and it is even more at odds today. In poetry and in art, silence has been equated with alienation and loneliness. The Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni portrayed ominous silence, with minimal dialogue, to sinister, foreboding effect. Horror films use the same tactic to frighten its audience.
Those who were told to stay quiet and deprived of the agency to speak their mind may think of silence in a very different way. In this context, I’m speaking specifically about a very active way to block out extraneous sound. Staying silent for oneself is what I mean. Doing so requires defying current trends and summoning an immense amount of inner strength. Swimming with the current is a temptation to which many succumb.
It grows more and more difficult to find silence. City dwellers retreat to mountains and rural areas to provide a respite to their noise-saturated daily lives. The Quaker Meeting I attend was built on a plot of land, away from a busy roadway, that provided a quieter setting. That was in 1931. Now, over eighty years later, the area surrounding it has been built up considerable. Noises from outside intrude routinely upon the silence. These include fire trucks, car stereos, and ambulances. I’d be willing to wager that noise pollution will continue to grow and swell with time, but we will grin and bear it.
Silence means different things to different people. Silence provides different things to different people. Starting out, I found nothing remotely interesting or inspiring in staying quiet. With years of practice, I’ve begun to respect it, even though I am always grateful when a voice breaks the silence. Ideally, a balance between spoken words and silence is what is desired. Without a called minister to provide a lengthy sermon, there is no way to control what might by said and how many might say it.
Many of us believe that nothing good in life comes without hard work. Embracing silence can be difficult, because we don’t usually view it as work. Introverts like me often gravitate to Quakerism because we are introspective by nature. Any ideas I communicate, including the words I’ve written here, start deep within me. Silence gives way to speaking, but speaking also gives way to silence. We might well be happier if we sought a balance between the two.