In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.
Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.
Pierre Lacout, Quaker Faith & Practice 2.12
I can’t think of a better description for what happens in worship than “an attention full of love”. Silence is so much the meeting place of the human and the infinite that the heart begins to thirst for it as for living water.
Silence is surprisingly hard to come by, though, in our lives outside of meeting for worship. Our minds are so full of things they cling to, scraps of thought, reflections of the past, longings and terrors. Silence is not of the mind. It seems to be a condition mysteriously apart from thought and what we are used to calling perception – sensory data, mostly, and the learned or innate response of the endocrine system to those data, and to our state of mind. Yet silence is there, even when we are not silent.
I read that I was supposed to make ‘a place for inward retirement and waiting upon God’ in my daily life, as the Queries in those days expressed it… At last I began to realise, first that I needed some kind of inner peace, or inward retirement, or whatever name it might be called by; and then that these apparently stuffy old Friends were really talking sense. If I studied what they were trying to tell me, I might possibly find that the ‘place of inward retirement’ was not a place I had to go to, it was there all the time. I could know the ‘place of inward retirement’ wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, and find the spiritual refreshment for which, knowingly or unknowingly, I was longing, and hear the voice of God in my heart. Thus I began to realise that prayer was not a formality, or an obligation, it was a place which was there all the time and always available.
Elfrida Vipont Foulds, 1983 (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.21)
Silence is then a place of refuge, somewhere waiting for us to return to it, our true home perhaps, and certainly the one to which we shall all return in the end. All that is necessary then is to disengage the ceaseless administration of the mind, with its measuring and its classifying and its valuing, and to “sink… into silence and nothingness before [the ground of our being]” to misquote John Bellows, the Victorian Friend.
Easier said than done, which is why the whole literature of contemplation has grown up over millennia. Actually it matters little in the end how one practices, whether watching the breath or the Jesus Prayer, or anywhere in between, as much as that one practices. And yet… And yet the practice isn’t it. The ‘place of inward retirement’, and what is found there, is it.
You know, one thing troubles me. The mind is a subtle monkey, and it will lay claim to, and build its little empires out of, even the holiest things. I find it perilously easy to get hooked on the accidents and equipment of contemplation, which then become yet more ‘stuff’ to get out of the way, out of the path to that place of inward retirement. And I haven’t even started on the philosophical and religious structures that support those accidents and equipments.
This is where I turn so eagerly to early, or at least earlier, Quakers - as does David Johnson, in his excellent recent book A Quaker Prayer Life. Isaac Pennington, writing in the middle part of the 17th century:
Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion. (Quaker Faith & Practice 26.70)
Harold Loukes, in 1967:
Prayer is experienced as deeper than words or busy thoughts. ‘Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts’, said Fox. It is marked by a kind of relaxed readiness, a ‘letting-go’ of the problems and perplexities with which the mind is occupied, and a waiting in ‘love and truth’: the truth about oneself, the truth about the world, deeper than the half-truths we see when we are busy in it about our own planning and scheming, the love in which we are held when we think of others more deeply than our ordinary relations with them, the love that at root holds us to the world. Prayer is not words or acts, but reaching down to love: holding our fellows in love, offering ourselves in love; and being held by, being caught up in love. It is communion, an opening of the door, an entry from the beyond. This is the point where secular language fails, for this cannot be spoken about at all: it can only be known. (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.23)