Thursday, April 26, 2007

Breaking the Quaker Code of Silence

I was drawn to Quakers in the first place, because (unlike my Mormon uncles, or the inmates of any traditional church) they were reticent about God, hesitant to put words in God's mouth or tell him at great length what they expected of him. And also because my best friend dragged me there. Why should an atheist come to Meeting?–because my friend asked, and if God was going to exist despite all the good reasons I knew otherwise, I'd give him a chance to get in a word or two on his own behalf. I went once, had a nice experience; but God didn't tell me he'd been there, and so I didn't feel it right to return. What happened between me & God developed elsewhere, in its own time.

[I use the G word- -It's been misused a lot, but it's what we've got for the purpose. (If I say "he," you're welcome to say "she" or "ge" or anything that does it for you.) Some of the difficulties are simply in the nature of things; an honest effort to understand how we exist, rather than Nothing-with-nobody-to-notice-it, sometimes just makes me dizzy! It's not just-us; it's not other-than-us either, but what humans call paradox and mystery is simply the way things are.]

I visited meetings several times over the years, and always went away feeling that I didn't belong; that "They aren't doing this right!" or that "I have nothing to contribute here, no money and I don't do marvelous Good Works." There was even an apocalyptic time in 1970 when I sat with a student worship group, and felt an invisible presence in the doorway: "Why Forrest," it asked, "What are you doing, trying to hide among the good people?"

I returned in 1991, after I'd been roped into a campaign for the rights of homeless people. Enlisted at last with the angels, I expected to find other people intending to devote themselves to God. Some of the people at meeting did join in demonstrations, were helpful in various ways. Worshiping with the group felt right. But there was something I didn't understand about it.

It's that culture of silence.

Talk puts barriers between people, and silence can be a way to bypass them. Talk can hide God behind a verbal image, which silence may dissolve. But silence is a double-edged sword.

Silence also puts barriers between people. Refusal to talk about God shuts us off from learning ways of recognizing him.

In the Bible, Adam is not necessarily created male or female. But at some point, God says, "It is not good for the man to be alone." We could have been one person alone, communing with God and living in Paradise as if it were a vacant lot. It wasn't what God had in mind, when he made this world and called it "good."

We find God in ourselves, if we're going to find him anywhere at all. There's no "corporate worship" unless we parts of the body go into worship ourselves. But we come together for the occasion because we weren't made to be so alone.

Silence is the "plain dress" of contemporary Quakerism. It's become a "poor silly gospel" that risks taking the place of its actual purpose.

Remember the "parable of the talents"? The master distributes money for his servants to hold while he's traveling. Two servants find uses for the money, and return more than they were given. The third buries it in the back yard, and when the master sees that his servant is only returning the original deposit, there's the usual wailing & gnashing of teeth. "To he who has much, more will be given, but he who has little will find even what he has taken away;" that's the moral we're given. But what was "little" here?-- the gift, or the willingness to use it?

Since a few spiritually connected old members have died, the messages in my meeting have dwindled to the point that our Ministry & Oversight committee was concerned about the lack, a year or so before my own term there. Are we merely short of spiritual gifts?-- or have we been practicing a sort of spiritual stinginess that leads to us receiving little?

I've always had misgivings about our "state of the meeting" reports, considered them empty formalities, our annual exercise in denial. This year was different. Our Yearly Meeting ministry committee was suggesting that local meetings treat this year as a jubilee, a long sabbath, an occasion for discernment of what we were doing, and whether all of it was really necessary. That recommendation may have been influential, was certainly in the background. Also, the report had been left in the hands of two aging members, the third of the committee having left unexpectedly for Costa Rico. Not knowing what to say about us, certainly not about "our spiritual condition," they followed the example of nearby La Jolla Meeting and scheduled a potluck "talking meeting" to learn what our meeting members could say about themselves.

At the potluck, we found the meeting sharply divided between "Our meeting is just fine, so please shut up!" vs "We wouldn't know a ‘spiritual condition' if it bit us!" The report even reflects this division. But it isn't only the report. The value of preparing the report is to bring a meeting's attention to its situation. Doing this, we've also agreed to continue examining and working on the divisions between us. Before and after-meeting study & sharing groups are starting up again, with new members interested in attending.

Why does that make me hopeful? I had a message last week. For years I've felt oppressed with a sense of being given important things to say to my meeting, but without the ability to make them palatable. And lately I've sometimes been telling myself, "I have nothing to say to these people!" This last week, I simply told them "I don't know what to say to you because I don't know where you are!" Right, wrong, welcome, unwelcome? It was an uncomfortable thing to say. But between the silence of the meeting and the chatter of after-meeting refreshments, it's been damned hard to know a lot of us very deeply.

As someone once said, "If this is a true message, you know it too." I was very surprised, during refreshments, when one of the old members came up and thanked me. I don't know how this will turn out, but we're letting something new happen.

As for me, I can know God by myself. But when I keep it to myself, it goes nowhere and I get stuck. When I find ways to share what I've learned, other people can share what they're learning. Once talking, I don't easily shut up enough to hear them well. But I'm learning. And when this happens, God brings out a lot more for me to understand.

Is a conversation only "listening"? Only "talking"? Is a meeting only silence, or only messages? Can we bring our souls out of the closet for refreshments, share the meat of Christ's words between us? I see it beginning here. Is this something other meetings need as well?


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

An absolutely splendid essay, friend!

I quite agree with your statement that "there's no 'corporate worship' unless we parts of the body go into worship ourselves," although my own experience of that truth seems to be a little bit different from yours. I experience the Presence in the Midst as, at least sometimes, a very powerful thing, and qualitatively different from the experiences of God I have on my own. But it does not manifest to me unless at least two of us in the room go really deep, very humbly, in worship. And the more of us go deep, and humbly, the more powerfully the Presence manifests.

Your ministry last week sounds to me like true ministry indeed -- for whatever little bit that may be worth. And your reflections on it did me some good!

Thank you for sharing this. I've been carrying it with me in my heart.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful essay - there is much food for thought here. Thank you.

rex said...

To me silence is more a 'mode' than a 'code'. Because of our human limitations we need to talk to each other. Our perceptions of our common reality (God) become more reliable only when they are confirmed by futher experience & it doesn't matter whether that experience is our own or whether it is our understanding of someone else's experience. But we mustn't forget that even confirmed experiences may not be totally reliable!
Uncertainty is (should be) our life-long mental state! So let's 'break the silence' whenever we think we are moved to speak from our own understanding of our common reality, but never break the code of 'respectful listening'!!
Humble, honest speaking & humble, honest listening is what corporate 'worship' is all about (to me)! And of course generous dollops of silence are a part of all that!

Raye said...

Thanks for these thoughts.

What grabbed ny heart were these words:

or have we been practicing a sort of spiritual stinginess that leads to us receiving little?

My instinct is that this may well be what is going on at a number of meetings I visit.

Your observations on mystery and paradox were also helpful. Many have elevated the intellect to the position of gatekeeper, to the point, perhaps, of the apostasy of which George Fox spoke in his day.

May you continue to be blessed.

Liz Opp said...

Forrest, it sounds as if you are being faithful, simply because you aren't rushing to "fix" the situation the meeting faces.

I find hope in what you write: "The value of preparing the report is to bring a meeting's attention to its situation. Doing this, we've also agreed to continue examining and working on the divisions between us."

When my own monthly meeting named a similar split that existed--"Our meeting is just fine, so please shut up!" vs "We wouldn't know a ‘spiritual condition' if it bit us!"--we became immobilized, as I see it, in part because there was at least one senior Friend who said, "Why do we have to deepen as a community?! We're fine." [my paraphrase] I knew I myself wasn't expecting a statement like that from a long-time member...

As a meeting, we've never looked back but we haven't listened openly or talked lovingly with each other either.

I will have to sit with your words a while longer to see what other fruit there might be for me...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

forrest said...

Rex--You sound too humble.

Commentary on a Line From Rumi
Cut!Don't pretend
even for an instant!"Cut
modesty's throat
with a knife!"

Don't be
humble!You can't be
nearly humble enough!

Don't pretend
when you know
It is God's truth
you are given!
Proclaim it!

The Lord has need
of a donkey,
the child
of a donkey.


Forrest Curo (December 2002)

I'm not saying you're not right; in fact I know we need to do something very like what you're saying. But not quite.

People lie. They lie to others and they lie to themselves. They want respect for all their silly idols, and we can't necessarily provide that, nor should we try. What we need to respect instead is that wretched little appetite for truth struggling in everyone's beady little mind.

"Subject to revision and reinterpretation" is not the same as "uncertain." When we get to Liberalquakerist Heaven, must it be a continual state of bewilderment? Why can't we just be certain when we're certain, confused when we're confused, open to argument (when we don't see someone just blatantly running a fog-machine on us) and go on knowing when we in fact know?

Liz--"Faithfulness" is a lot to claim. I didn't even describe that message precisely right here; the error was in choosing a habitual phrase, where "mainly said" would be more accurate than "simply said."

If we talk about "deepening community", we'll need a translator for people who don't find the phrase as meaningful and compelling as we might.

In a class on Quaker History at Pendle Hill, the teacher talked about places where people settled because they could make it from there to meeting and back within a day. If someone in the meeting had a calling to go off and convert the Turks, other members would not just need to confirm the leading; they would be raising the children until she got back. More frequently, members simply died of healthy rural life, and someone else in the meeting would take that on. If you'd asked one of these people what "community" meant they would have given you a blank stare.

It's fairly obvious we don't have that. We need more of it, this thing which is very scarce among modern USians, a thing we haven't been acculturated to want or recognize.

A rabbi could tell you, "Cain was not cursed for killing his brother. Cain was cursed because he said, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' "

RichardM said...


This code of silence you talk about is stupid and since you see that you are being called to help people to do away with it. It doesn't exist everywhere. In North Carolina there are still enough members who grew up in the sort of community you talk about where it was just normal to care for each other. Given their experience and their status as weighty Friends a number of us who live in places where the norm is the isolation of the pursuit individual accomplishment and gratification have seen at least glimpses of another way to live. So real open talk is not unusual among the Friends in NC-conservative who regularly attend YM. And these YM Friends have an influence on their monthly meetings by bringing at least a little of this back with them.

Since you see the problem clearly; be the answer. If you stick with it, others will follow eventually.

Marshall Massey said...

I find I'm not comfortable with rex's statement that we should "'break the silence' whenever we think we are moved to speak from our own understanding of our common reality".

Just thinking we are moved to speak is no more an adequate justification for interrupting other people's time of worship, than just thinking we have a use for money is an adequate excuse for grabbing at their wallets. We need a better justification for standing to speak than our own thinking alone can provide.

Also, "our own understanding of our common reality" is something quite different from a message from the Spirit of Christ. God's promptings within us may in fact contradict our own understandings of our common reality; many Friends have experienced this happening. But Quaker ministry is supposed to be limited to messages from the Spirit, and not extend to messages from our own understandings.

Now, on the dialogue between Liz and forrest:

Liz wrote of the "senior Friend who said, 'Why do we have to deepen as a community?! We're fine." forrest responded, "If we talk about 'deepening community', we'll need a translator for people who don't find the phrase as meaningful and compelling as we might."

Let me point out that, within the Quaker world, the responsibility always rests upon the person who doesn't understand another's message to ask for clarification. Thus, Liz's "senior Friend" had a responsibility not to resist the call for "deepening community" until she had first asked what, specifically, the person issuing the call felt was needed. By not asking, but instead arbitrarily declaring that "we're fine", she obstructed the way forward. This was contrary to Gospel order (specifically, to Matthew 5:23-24), and was a real wrong done to the community.

Since the "senior Friend" failed in this way, the responsibility then lay with those around her (Liz included) to straighten the process out, by intervening as witnesses to ask the essential clarifying questions of both sides. In particular, they had a responsibility, not only to ask the caller to explain what, specifically, was needed, but also to ask the senior Friend why, specifically, she had said "we're fine" and cut off a discussion of whatever it was the caller perceived as problems.

The questions would naturally need to be posed tenderly and with patience. And it might be necessary to question the senior Friend in private, since her resistance might stem from a fear that certain things would be made public. (This is something worth thinking carefully about!) It might also take more than one meeting to get past the senior Friend's resistance. But all this too is Gospel order: it's implicit in Matthew 18:16, where Christ speaks of the necessary rĂ´le of witnesses in establishing truth and effecting reconciliation.

I personally believe it's important to recognize that the kind of close-knit community that forrest speaks of in his answering comment, and RichardM affirms, cannot be created simply by demanding it of people. It can only arise on a basis of mutual trust and confidence, mutual opening-up to one another, and demonstrations on all sides that people are holding themselves fully accountable to one another. To get there, from the condition in which most Americans are at the time they first convert to liberal Quakerism, takes a lot of time, patience, gentleness, and positive guidance.

rex said...

forrest, how can anyone be too humble? Being humble does not exclude 'braying' (humbly, of course)! I must speak what I understand to be the truth, but I feel compelled to keep my 'understanding' flexible (because there have been so many times in my life when I was sure that I was sure, only to realize that I wasn't really sure!)
marshall - That's why I hold the reigns on 'being sure'! I must bray, but I must bray humbly!

forrest said...

Humility is what we donkeys do best!

But if we can achieve accuracy about ourselves, where does "humility" come in?

Why should we take our personal selves so seriously--as to strive for the sort of condition that people describe as "humility"? Or "pride," either?

Inevitably we're going to form some sort of self-evaluation. If we set that too high, reality will be along to correct us soon enough. Too low, and we're tempted to hide our light--and will probably take pride in how humble this must make us.

How about we just pray for greater wisdom, and to know God better? If we see our true relation to God, it's absurd to think poorly of ourselves--while we recognize any virtues we claim, even "humility", as only borrowed clothes, so long as we try to wear them.

I make mistakes too, of course. And sometimes come to see things better than some previous certainty.

The other side of this... My wife Anne and I were on our way to a civil-disobedience demonstration that was as clear a case of a leading as I've ever experienced. But there was no time to ask the Meeting for a clearness committee; we were on our way there. We jokingly agree to be each other's committee. "Does God want you to do it?" she asked. (Sure.) "Does the Devil want you to do it?" (Yes, but he wants me to enjoy it too much!) Did the demonstration itself "accomplish" anything? Aside from getting us condemned by a jury of our peers and getting us three years probation, no. But it was a beautiful event, a chance to publicly say the truth about a governmental crime that had been unchallenged for years, and one where some homeless friends of ours took a stand in a far more peaceful and dignified way than I'd ever seen in them. I can't ever know the full results of any action, but this one was right, and doubting that unnecessarily would not have improved it.

Larry said...

Forrest, I appreciate your confession very much; this is the kind of "spiritual sharing" that I long for; in the Quaker meeting or elsewhere.

I do find such long messages put a strain on my span of consciousness.

Re Quaker silence: I've deplored it in the 24 years I've been committed to the meeting, but I understand it.

IMO most people simple don't have the courage. Coming from conventional religion, as most of us are, we learned an emphatic lesson to be quiet and listen.

Fox violated that in the "steeple houses".

Messengers are made through encouragement.

A Friend of many years, one of the weightiest Friends I've known, said once that he wasn't sure he had ever heard a message from God.

I understand that, too. One cannot speak without fear and trembling, and when he does he may wonder it he was wise or a fool. That's the liability most people take care to avoid.

By the way: I've now spent a half hour of my precious four on this item. No regrets.

rex said...

I humbly submit that we may be defineing humbly in different ways. When I use 'humble' it is generally in opposiition to 'arrogant'. Arrogance may be the root cause of war. It is unwise for us humans to be too sure (arrogantly sure) of anything. So let's speak truth (as we see it) to power, but let's stay open to the possiblilty that we be in the ditch upside down.

forrest said...

Yes, I distrust the word "humility" more than what I think it actually means, because people are confused by the word. I do see an actual virtue behind the idol, a virtue which I'd consider a side-effect of "honesty"--but the idol is far more impressive (& much less humble.)

It is not a virtue to be insecure, whether this leads to "humility" or "arrogance."

Neither is doubt a virtue, although it is certainly proper whenever an issue is truly in doubt.

And lack of faith, in anything which deserves faith, is simply another affliction we'd be better off without--no blame, no praise.

I don't submit this humbly, but I am doing my best to give "humility" its due, with proper doubts about my doubts about it, and proper allowance for this having become personal between us...

Can you know that the essence of you is God, and still be "humble"? Conversely, can you know how far short you are of God's wisdom, and dare to call yourself "humble"?

By the way... any interest in the blog I'm hoping to startup at

Anonymous said...