Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Music of Silence

This week, the Itinerant Chorister made a non-singing visit to the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting at 1420 Hill Street. The Friends are also known as the Quakers. This group does not include a choir, and their main mode of worship is silent meditation. I was there for the 9:00 am meeting, which their website says is more silent than the 11:00 am meeting. Actually, I had been there as a visitor a couple of times before over the years, and I think that this time was the most silent of any time that I have been there. The silence can be broken by any member who feels moved to give some brief message to edify the rest. In this case only one person got up to speak during the middle of the meeting, giving what he called the "March query." This consisted of a short list of questions, including "Is God inspiring the words that we say and meditate on at the meeting?" "Does a member need to be restrained or encouraged?" and "Is love visible in the things we do at meeting?"

Again, near the end of the hour, the silence was broken to ask for people's joys and concerns. Even this was met with further silence. After a little more time, people got up to shake each other's hands, then gather in the middle of the room and hold hands. However, this again was done wordlessly. After that, each person of the 22 that I counted introduced him/herself, and there were announcements. The presence of this many people at the early meeting on the first day of daylight saving time seemed to occasion surprise on the part of many of these people. A couple of them announced that they were there on an assignment for a group they were associated with at University of Michigan, and of course my presence was also exceptional. The only leadership evident in the meeting was by a person called the closer, who gives the signal when to start shake hands, gather in the middle and give the announcements. This duty was performed by Lisa Klopfer.

In chatting with Lisa afterward, she said that the later (11 am) meeting usually involves more talking, in large part because of the number of people there. She also made reference to the need for people to discern whether they have something worth saying and are sufficiently prepared before talking. That the Friends think about this is to their credit. In many churches, there is a whole lot of talking by the very few. Here, there is only a small amount of talking, but the opportunity is open to all, with the provision that they are aware that they need to make it count.

The Quakers are often inaccurately stereotyped as a result of the brand of oatmeal and cereal. I assure you that no one was there in a broad-brimmed hat, powdered wig, and starched cravat. These are people who are entirely in touch with the modern world. One of their central beliefs is pacifism, and at the end of the service, during the announcement time, one member posed the question, "What if we were to devote as much effort and resources to maintaining peace as we have to waging war?" This, along with the "March query" mentioned earlier led me to the observation that in this group, wisdom and action are sought by asking questions rather than by dictating answers and commands.

I consider silent meditation to be part of a balanced spiritual practice. Actually, we are currently in the season, Lent, in which many Christian denominations are more likely to make it a part of their practice than they would the rest of the year.

The room in which they have the meeting is very austere. It has no symbols of any kind, just wooden benches with thin, pale blue cushions on them, matching the carpet. The benches all face toward the center. There is a large picture window facing toward the north, making the small fenced garden outside visible to all except those sitting on the north side, of which there were none this morning. The ceiling is wood with beams, and the south wall is wood-paneled, while the east and west walls are white sheetrock. The upward-pointing light fixtures all seemed to angle slightly toward the south, whether intentional or not.

For some people, going into a room to be silent for an hour, or even just imagining it, might be difficult. And yes, we really did spend that time not talking, other than brief interruptions by a couple of people. When you sit in silence like that, a whole new palette of sounds enters your consciousness. There was a small incidence of people entering and leaving, a little fidgeting, coughing, and throat-clearing, some pops and creaks emanating from people's joints, and some noises from the heating system, all of which would not be noticeable in most contexts, but were evident while sitting and meditating. Even at this time of year, there was a little bit of birdsong coming from outside. I was too self-conscious to even scrawl in my notebook, as I have done in many other worship experiences by now. Traffic on Washtenaw Avenue, a block away, provided a noticeable background roar, along with the occasional vehicle right on Hill Street. Worship is a time to step out of everyday life, and I would say that hearing all of these things constitutes a step away from everyday experience.