Silence can save us

Ever since my class, “The Practice of Silence,” I am convinced more and more of the power of silence, and also it’s difficulty.

Silence has a bad rap these days. My sense is that it is more than it has had in previous generations. But in either case, it is a hard sell.

For one, there’s the saying, “silence is violence.” Inaction in the face of great evil is indeed an act of violence, a “sin of omission” as we used to call it. The absence of a good action in the presence of an unjust one. When required to actively resist evil, we must do what we can to stop it and/or stand in solidarity with those suffering from that evil. But not all silence is inaction. Being a bystander in the face of racism and misogyny is violence, practicing a listening, active silence, has the power to sensitize us to the the pain and suffering around us so that we might act faithfully, justly. I know of many stories where individuals and congregations have taken great action out of their collective, listening silence.

I remember one meeting where a concern for hungry children in the neighborhood during the summer break was lifted up during the silent portion of a meeting for worship. The meeting was moved. Before people left the meetinghouse after worship that morning, there was a plan set in motion to respond. Within six weeks time, the meeting was working with the health department, local schools, and food bank to offer breakfast and lunch to any child in the neighborhood who wanted it Monday-Friday during the summer. This doesn’t happen all the time, but communities can build up a relationship to silence that enables them to be sensitive to the suffering of others in their community and prepared to act collectively as they are led.

Have there been times in Quaker history when Quakers have allowed their active silence to slip into the passive silence that empire seeks to lull is into? Yes, absolutely. No practice is immune from the corruption the power of the religion of empire. In the same way that Walter Wink argued that powers can fall, and powers can be redeemed, so to it is true with human practice. However, if silence is a target of corrupting power, even more reason, to me, to resist its being co-opted.

It must be a powerful practice indeed.

Silence in the Quaker tradition is the seedbed of all action. Some Friends name the silence, “expectant waiting worship,” to claim that what looks and sounds quiet is really a container of expectation, an expectation that is, in the words of John Caputo, waiting, even expecting, to be spooked by the Holy Ghost. That is, moved, shocked, awakened. The expectation of Quaker silence is to not remain silent but in fact hear and heed the call to action. Quaker silence, not that Quakers have the corner market on it by any means, is a listening-to-respond silence. Unlike other forms of silence where the work is to clear the mind, this “Quaker” silence is one expecting to fill us with direction, to hear something from a Someone who is the source of life, love, liberation, community, and justice. This listening silence is the cornerstone of right action in the Quaker tradition. It is a praxis feedback loop, if we let it.

But silence remember what I opened up with: silence is a hard sell. It is a hard sell because it is hard to do. It is a difficult practice for people, and I count myself in this category, who are being shaped in the image of this version of late-stage capitalism.

Besides the daily attempts to overrun silence with the liturgies of empire, silence can also be scary.

One of the things I hear most from my students who are unsure, or feel insecure when it comes to silence goes something like, “I don’t want to be left alone with my thoughts.” In the silence, we’re faced with ourselves, and if we haven’t give ourselves much time, it can be a scary thing. Sometimes, when we get quiet we’re confronted with thoughts, feelings, memories, that are uncomfortable or scary. Sometimes we’re overrun with the tasks of the day. Or a regret that we have been hiding from. We carry a lot of really hard stuff with us. Some of that hard stuff for some of us comes from traumas we’ve experienced. If that’s what you’re dealing with then your approach to listening silence is going to need to be different from those of whose silence may be scary or hard but not traumatizing.

A number of years ago, I was serving a Quaker congregation where a member of that meeting was very hard on me and tried to get me fired (it was the first, but not the last time Quakers have wanted to get me fired!). She, two times my elder, vehemently disagreed with my theology. The ironic thing was, my theology was closer to the Quaker position than hers, but I was the outsider and therefore dangerous and that was cause enough. After various attempts to get me to leave, including rounding up a number of past members of the meeting to come to a special business meeting where they would be discussing whether to cut my contract short or extend it, I built up a nasty little resentment towards her. My listening silence during that time became a time to nurse the wounds, a time to rehash all the things I wish I could say to her. And then, in that very same cluttered silence, God cut through all of my internal chatter and said to me that I needed to go and ask for her forgiveness for my resentment! For the next three or four weeks, I did my best to push this leading aside. And yet, everytime we entered back into that listening silence there was a tap on the should and a gentle Spirit speaking, reminding me of what I’d been asked to do.

The willingness to lean into the parts of ourselves that need forgiveness, make something right internally, work through a difficult relationship in the silence, all with the help of God’s loving Spirit, can help us grow and change. I know that it is hard to “be left alone with our thoughts,” as I sometimes hear, and yet, when we give space quiet, and for God to meet us there, healing can happen even if the process is sometimes a painful one.

In our world, where the last thing from our minds is being quiet, where the doom scroll, the death toll, the all-knowing algorithms, ads in our paid subscriptions, climate catastrophe, and zombie capitalism seek to clog our hearts and minds or put us into a trance-like state, it is hard to hear our own thoughts let alone God’s quiet voice. These liturgies of empire are meant to lull us to sleep. Keep us distracted. Turn our attention into capitalist retention. The billion dollar distraction machine leave us numb and bitter, unable to move or act.

If liturgies of empire lull us to sleep, silence is a practice of resistance that can wake us up.

It can wake us up to the pain and suffering of our neighbors.
Wake us up to our own pain, our own inaction, our bitterness, or call to act.

Collective, active silence can save us, because it can wake us up if we let it. It can help us confront our fears. Attune to what is happening within us and around us. It can give us the space we need to see the bigger picture, recalibrate our priorities, and heed the call that God may be putting before us.

If it weren’t so hard to do this kind of silence has the power to transform our world.

What is your relationship to this kind of silence?
When was the last time you were quiet with yourself and just listened? What happened?