A Quaker worship service ("Meeting for Worship") is composed of two of more Friends sitting together in silence for typically an hour. The worship might open with a reading from that Meeting's book of "Faith and Practice," often a spiritual question to ponder during the Meeting. But normally it just begins at the top of the hour without any particular ritual or indication.
There is no minister, no corporate singing, no liturgy, no passing of communion, or any of the other outward forms of religious service that other faiths practice. It's not completely silent, however.
At any point in the worship, anyone can rise and speak to the assembly — to "give vocal ministry" or simply "a message" as we call it. While the subject is usually of a spirtual nature, it is far from a sermon. Rather, the intent is for the speaker to be sharing something that comes not just from her or his own thoughts, but from a deeper place — God, the Inner Light, the Divine, however one might define it for oneself.
Messages are customarily short, a few minutes at most. Our practice is to allow there to be periods of silence in between messsages, to allow people time to consider the message, and for people not to respond to other people's messages.
Things don't always turn out that way, though. Having "grown up" only in urban Quaker Meetings (Washington DC, Manhattan and Brooklyn), my experience is that messages can take a variety of forms, depending on the background, beliefs and mental state of the speaker.
I remember a schizophrenic woman at one of my first meetings in Washington DC who basically talked non-stop for about 20 minutes. Several friends tried to get her to stop, a few left in anger, but most of us just suffered in silence. It was powerful demonstration of the tolerance of Friends.
At Brooklyn Meeting, there was a Friend who gave his messages through playing impromptu solos on his violin. Sometimes someone will sing a verse from a favorite hymn. I'm still waiting for someone to give their message through interpretive dance.
When I first started going to Quaker Meeting, I found the silence very intimidating and difficult. My mind would wander or I had to fight to stay awake. I got angry at myself for not focusing and sometimes felt frustrated at the end of Meeting. In those early years, I welcomed the messages, which gave me something to attend to and think about for the rest of the Meeting.
This was largely because I didn't know what I was doing. Unlike other meditative faiths, Quakers don't priovide much in the way of guidance in how to worship. There are no mantras, special stances, breathing practices, or mental exercises that new Quakers are taught. I had to find my own way to center myself, to quiet my racing thoughts, and keep myself awake.
Now after nearly a decade of going to Meeting for Worship, I have evolved my own personal, idiosyncratic practices that help me to get into the right frame of mind. Sometimes I wish someone would have just told me what to do. But my own evolving practice is feels purely my own, earned through hours and hours of experimentation.
I've written about my own worship practices before, but here's a quick recap:
- Breathing: I practice circular breathing technique that I learned from Tai Chi. This is a big part of how I center down.
- Sitting Position: I tend to lean forward in my seat, my feet firmly planted slightly wider than my shoulders, my eyes half-closed.
- Mental State: I allow my thoughts to roam for the first few minutes of Meeting, letting memories of the week flit by, not holding anything for too long. Usually I enter into a deeper state of quiet and attention after about 15-20 minutes.
Nowadays I crave the silence, and an hour hardly seems enough time.
[CC-licensed image by Abridgeover]