Meeting for Stillness

Does the term “Meeting for Worship” put off people who are “Spiritual, but not religious”? Jan Arriens in The Friend suggested “Meeting for Stillness”, and Peter Jarman dismissed worship as “what happens in other churches”.

As an Anglican I believed in God the Eternal Father, Whom I worshipped. Just before I came to Quakers I found Matthew Fox’s explanation of Panentheism, God suffusing all that is, and later William Blake’s statement “Everything that is, is holy”. Rather than worshipping, I was communing- with the Mystery, with that which is greater than myself.

I took a combative line as a Christian against the non-theists: it’s a Meeting for Worship, we must be worshipping something, and was referred to Old English: weorþscipe, meaning worth or dignity: noun, not verb. But I still think Quakers have always used the term as a transitive verb. We worship God. What of those who reject God, as refugees from the Churches, or consider God a superstition? Meeting as a spiritual practice has value, and does not depend on belief.

Some might come to us having meditated, as a Buddhist or even non-religious practice. We tell them our meeting for worship is not meditation, as it is something we do together. Well, Buddhists meditate together, but in Meeting someone may feel moved to speak in love for the others gathered there, and for the World.

Jan referred to David L. Saunders’ article saying stillness is so much more than silence, which is merely the absence of speech or noise: it is about Presence. Be still and cool in thy own mind. In stillness, Saunders says, we seek the place of being, encounter, power.

There is no silence outside an anechoic chamber. Friends can worship at a noisy demonstration. There will always be distraction: I try not to be distracted, and sometimes the distraction inspires me.

Stillness is also a deceptively simple concept, the absence of motion. I sit in stillness for what happens in stillness to my perceptions, of my surroundings, the others with me now, and my accumulated experience of life in the world.

In a “Meeting for Worship” I still think you must be worshipping something. I turn outward to the mystery of all that is outwith myself, and inward to what is within me but beyond my ordinary conscious experience. What do I worship? If forced to put it in a simple phrase, I would say the “Mystery of being”, but the phrase does not satisfy me. I want a phrase which is immediately understandable- like, “Meeting for Stillness”- but which leads the enquirer attender or member into new depths. If I said I worshipped God, I would mislead some, and deter others. I am not a theist.

I do not like the word “Meeting for Worship”. I thought of “Meeting for Contemplation”. Meeting needs our concentrated attention, and diligent practice.

Another alternative is simply “Meeting”. At the moment it is shorthand- we go to Meeting, we say. It could be the whole term. Meeting what? Each other, or- something else, perhaps.

I thought of “Holy Meeting” or “Sacred Meeting”- a time set apart from worldly concerns- but these words remind me of the Christianity which at least since Constantine has been used to oppress people and maintain worldly control, and I support the seeker’s rebellion against that.

Meeting. Or, Meeting for Stillness. A practice of Love which helps human beings reach our full potential as individuals in community.

Quakers in Britain have a similar issue having rejected the word “Overseer”, meaning, roughly, pastoral carer, but not agreed on a single preferable term yet. We should check the terms we use periodically: might they mislead, or put off, someone who might otherwise join us? Are they accurate descriptions of the things they refer to?

16 thoughts on “Meeting for Stillness

  1. I’m comfortable with the term “Meeting for Worship”. It may be archaic now, but it like a lot of religious language, the concept expresses something more than mere words ever can. It seems that we Quakers here in Aotearoa New Zealand are more comfortable with the use of religious terms than Quakers in the UK are judging by the wording of our respective websites, even though I suspect the nature of our beliefs are much the same.

    Think of “sunrise” and “sunset”. These were accurate descriptions of what was believed to happen before the Earth morphed into a rotating sphere. Now we know that the sun doesn’t actually rise, and instead the Earth rotates, but we still describe the sun as rising. I think of terms such as “worship” or “God” as a continuum where what they represent changes gradually over time. That is the nature of language.

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      • I think it is the nature of communities to form a common language, which in turn strengthens the bonds of the group. I see this strongly with Friends. Especially so in Aotearoa New Zealand where there are no more than 1500 members and attenders in total.

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          • Natural Quaker? That term disturbs me very much. I guess to be a natural, one would need the right level of education, be from the right kind of neighborhood, hold the right political beliefs, not be Christian, etc etc. The very term is anti-Quaker. Our love must be radical. To ever say “this person is a natural Quaker” supposes that they are more deserving of our love. No no no no. Our love must be for all, for anyone Christ is leading to us. Not just people who some Friends feel is a “natural”. Our communities must be a reflection of the love we have been offered, a love that is for all, poured down on us all, not because someone fits the right values, or says and does the right things. Thanks goodness this is not true. I am certainly not a natural quaker. Would I be welcome at your meeting? Or are you a tribe only looking for your own? Some meetings certainly are just that.

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  2. Stillness, once I stood in the garden in an eye of a storm, it felt holy in the sense of wholeness. Trees bent before the storm and leaves whirled around out of reach, but I and the gathered washing were at peace. Rather like in life, we can be centred and peaceful in dire situations.
    Words cause problems, if I sing or rather croak a hymn, I change the word blood into love, worship is not what I feel, loving ‘God’ to me means loving God’s world in all its diversity, that love is overwhelming and circles back to include me in the emotional spiritual warmth. Words never are enough, we all put forth our own interpretation, even Father or Mother may mean different things to different people. So for me Stillness points a way to Peace.
    Today I was on zoom several Friends were drawn to the word Stillness.

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  3. The point, for me, about Quakers is that we meet in that which is eternal. That place beyond and far deeper than words, where all souls can touch each other and rest in the light of the Divine Whatever.
    It’s right that we try to talk about our experiences of this place with each other but I would not feel right trying to impose my own explanation of the experience on anybody else and I would strongly resist anyone trying to impose a definition on me. Words can be so heady and divisive. They detract from the place we have stumbled into which is so rich.
    “Meeting for Worship” isn’t ideal but for me it’s “good enough” shorthand until something better arises

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  4. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I’m adding it to my list for future commenting on my own blog. I want to find a balance between the accessibility that language provides and the humility to recognize its limitations. Part of that balancing exercise is to realize that (probably) most people are open to others’ vocabularies and categories, giving the benefit of the doubt if necessary, even if those vocabularies and categories don’t exactly match their own experience.

    I also think about the class and cultural implications, although I draw no hard and fast conclusions. Some flavors of Quakerism seem more concerned to attract people who are skeptical of conventional religiosity, and forget that there might be many others who would make wonderful Friends, but who would be put off by an overly fastidious approach to traditional language. Those people, more comfortable with enthusiasm than many Friends are today, deserve a trustworthy faith community just as much as the skeptics do, and I believe we can still offer that kind of community — even as we remain alert to the dangers of using traditional language without sensitivity.

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    • Welcome, Johan. Thank you for commenting. When you blog on this, please leave a link here.

      Two weeks after writing, I think more of a saying from the Gospel of Thomas: If they ask you, “What is the evidence of your father in you?” say to them, “It is movement and repose”.

      It’s not just stillness in our Meetings. Sometimes it is a God-filled liveliness. No word can encompass what we do.

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  5. I prefer the term “waiting worship.” A Friend once explained it to me in the sense that we are like a waiter; attentive, responsive, watching, ready, for when Christ Jesus calls on us. This is how I feel at meeting, like I am at Jesus’s feet, wishing to attend to anything he asks. In bible study this past week, we looked at the story of Jesus raising Lazzerus. In the story, Mary waits on Jesus to call for her. Martha rushes out to see him. Mary has the understanding of the waiter, whereas Martha moves within her own reasoning and time. One is a spiritual understanding, the other an outward understanding. Often we do what it is we think is needed, instead of waiting on the Lord to give us our instructions. The image of the waiter has also been a useful one for me beyond the meeting house. As that really is what it means to be a Friend, to accept a love that is given not on the basis of anything we can do, but that is given freely, and a love that, when we accept it, places responsibility on our hearts, asks much of us, in the end, asks everything, but also makes everything possible. We are workers, but what could be better than being in service to an unconditional love? To my ears, the words silence and stillness seem rather thin, and both have very negative connotations as well, and while both are important when we wait, so that we can hear Christ’s voice instead of our own, there is a danger that we will come to worship the silence itself, or to think that silence is what leads us, when it is but a form, but a medium, though a wonderful sweet one at that.

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