Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On Worship – Laying down our will and wisdom

I have found writing about worship has been surprisingly difficult. I made several starts and what I finally came up with was much too long for a single post. I have broken it up into three parts but the transitions are a little abrupt. I will be talking about blogging with Robin M at the Quakers United in Publishing annual meeting at the end of the week. I don't know what access to the internet I will have there so I may be even more sporadic than usual responding to comments. I will post the continuations when I get back.

Some of Barclay's words on worship are quoted often in Quaker books of Faith and Practice and in other descriptions of silent worship. But when I read the entire eleventh proposition I get a different sense of worship than I get in most Friends meetings today.

... the great work of one and all ought to be to wait upon God, and returning out of their own thoughts and imaginations, to feel the Lord's presence and know a "gathering into his Name" indeed, where he is "in the midst" according to his promise. And as every one is thus gathered, and so met together inwardly in their spirits as well as outwardly in their persons, there the secret power and virtue of life is known to refresh the soul, and the pure motions and breathings of God's Spirit are felt to arise, from which as words of declaration, prayers, or praises arise, the acceptable worship is known which edifies the Church and is well-pleasing to God, and no man here limits the Spirit of God nor bringeth forth his own cunned [researched] and gathered stuff, but everyone puts that forth which the Lord puts into their hearts: and it is uttered forth not in man's will and wisdom but "in the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit and of Power."
[Proposition 11, Section 6]

This is what unprogrammed Friends lay claim to, no matter how far short they fall in practice. Certainly I have heard much in meetings for worship that seems to be far more an evidence and demonstration of man's (and woman's) will and wisdom than a demonstration of the Spirit.

As there can be nothing more opposite to the natural will and wisdom of man than this silent waiting upon God, so neither can it be obtained nor rightly comprehended by man but as he layeth down his own wisdom and will so as to be content to be thoroughly subject to God.
[Proposition 11, Section 7]

Laying down our own will and wisdom is not easily done. It is not our natural will to be thoroughly subject to God. Our natural will always tries to put itself first. As we become better at centering and focusing on God during our worship, our natural will becomes more subtle in seeking ways to divert us from God or to speak from ourselves and not from what God would have us say.

For many thus principled, meeting together in the pure fear of the Lord, did not apply themselves presently to speak, pray, or sing, &c., being afraid to be found acting forwardly in their own wills, but each made it their work to retire inwardly to the measure of Grace in themselves, not only being silent as to words but even abstaining from all their own thoughts, imaginations and desires, so watching in a holy dependence upon the Lord and meeting together not only outwardly in one place but thus inwardly in one Spirit and in one name of Jesus, which is his Power and Virtue.
[Proposition 11, Section 7]

When people first come to Friends meeting we often give them hints on how to center down and settle their bodies, but do we go the whole way and say that they should try to center themselves so thoroughly that even their thoughts should cease? This practice is not unique to Friends and the instructions are not difficult. When I was perhaps 5 years old I remember putting myself to sleep by thinking the thought that I was not going to think any thoughts. I pretty soon go to the point that I could think just that thought and then think it slower and slower but I was totally frightened by what might happen if I stopped thinking even that thought. I was afraid that if I stopped my internal monologue completely that I would die. As an adult I have been able to get to that state a number of times, so I know it is possible and it hasn't killed me yet. I also know how slippery a state it is because as soon as you notice you are in the state of not thinking, you are thinking about it and so already coming out of it.

To be continued ...

Blessings to all.

Will T



Blogger Peter Bishop said...


I feel a pang of envy when you describe how you clear your mind. I encountered Quakers in my early twenties and again in my early thirties, and both times I might have stayed and found a spiritual home there, but my brain was just too noisy. It wasn't until I was in my 40's and had a decade of experience with Pagan and Wiccan worship, meditation, and trance techniques that I was able to still my own mental chatter enough to "hear" the silence in a Quaker meeting.

One phrase in your Barclay quote really struck me: "...not only being silent as to words but even abstaining from all their own thoughts, imaginations and desires, so watching in a holy dependence upon the Lord..." Week after week after week, this continues to be the big challenge for me.

I've found a few tricks that help. I scrupulously avoid any of my hobbies before meeting. (I paint miniatures to relax, but I literally avert my eyes from them on Sunday mornings. There have been far too many meetings during which the color scheme on a 25mm figurine speaks much louder than the voice of Spirit.) I often journal or blog before meeting, which helps orient my mind in a spiritual direction at least.

It boggles my mind to think that anyone could "thinking the thought that I was not going to think any thoughts" and have it work. But there are visualizations I can do that have some of the same effect. When falling asleep, I will sometimes imagine my body as made of stone and lying on the earth, with moss and vines starting to grow over it. In meeting, I will sometimes picture the roof of the meetinghouse as open to the sky--not the cramped little sky that we get here in Western Massachusetts, but a big, wide, Great Plains kind of sky--and the Spirit of G*d breathes through us like wind whispering across a field of wheat.

I'd like to hear other people's stories as well, of the process of stilling the mind for worship. Maybe I'll try to get a thread going over on my own blog.


April 23, 2008 8:14 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

Maybe not thinking came easier for me as a child because I didn't know it was supposed to be hard. (Of course have been accused of not thinking often enough -- and it's cousin, "What were you thinking?!")

I make sure I turn off the radio in my car when I drive to meeting and I avoid going to the monthly singing before meeting. I have been in meeting too many times with a song stuck in my head.


April 23, 2008 8:34 PM  

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