I was speaking with a man last week who was curious to learn more about Quakerism and wanted to know if he could come visit our meeting for worship.
“Of course you can,” I told him.
I find it interesting that a lot of people who’ve never been to a Quaker meeting think we’re a secret club that doesn’t allow visitors. Have you ever noticed that?
I told him that at one time all of us were first-time visitors, just some of us visited earlier in our lives than others. The early Quakers had a term for people who visited right after they were born. They called them birthright Quakers, a term I dislike, because it suggests the people who visited us later in their lives were birthed wrong.
But back to our potential visitor. He asked me if we were silent in our worship.
“For part of our worship,” I told him. “But not for all of it. We sing, and share with one another, and someone usually brings a message.”
“Would I have to be silent?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say to that. I imagined him reading aloud during our silence or singing a song or telling a joke. Would he have to be silent? What did he mean by that?
I told him his silence would be appreciated, unless, of course, he felt led by the Spirit to speak, then he should certainly speak.
“If I have to be silent, I don’t think I’ll come,” he said. “I don’t care for silence.”
At first, I thought that was odd. How can you not care for silence? Then I remembered when I haven’t cared for silence, when the prospect of sitting quietly with my worries and insecurities was unsettling and painful. Silence isn’t always peaceful, is it? Sometimes silence can rage at us.
We’ve been thinking about the fruits of the spirit the Apostle Paul described in the fifth chapter of Galatians—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We’ve discussed love and joy, so today I want to take up peace. Not peace as we Friends commonly speak of it, as the absence of war, but peace as the ability to sit quietly with ourselves and others and be at rest, be at peace. In music, there is a symbol that represents silence, it’s called a musical rest. So today let’s think about its existential equivalent—the well-timed silence, those interludes or pauses in our lives that add beauty, perspective, and contrast to our life’s song. This is the silence that brings clarity and refreshment, not the silence that accuses, that leaves us fragmented and agitated.
There’s a lady who lives where my dad lives. She’s quite elderly, but zips around without a wheelchair or walker. Early last week, when I saw her, I noticed she was limping, so I asked her if she were alright. She said she had been diagnosed with a stress fracture. I nodded my head like I knew what she was talking about, even though I had no idea what a stress fracture was. When I got home I looked it up. A stress fracture, for those of you who are woefully uneducated on medical matters, is an overuse injury. It occurs when muscles become so fatigued they are unable to absorb additional shock. Eventually, the fatigued muscle transfers the overload of stress to the bone causing a tiny crack called a stress fracture.
When I was reading the definition, that phrase leaped out at me, “the overload of stress.” Later in the week, when I was thinking about peace and rest, I thought about their counterpart, which of course is an overload of stress. When this overload of stress happens to us physically, our bones develop tiny cracks. But when we experience psychological, emotional, and spiritual overloads of stress, our interior lives become broken and fragmented and we start limping through life. We are no longer at peace, we are no longer at rest. Instead, we feel pulled every direction, overwhelmed, and often distraught or depressed. When we realize this, of course, we want to feel peace, we want rest, we want those interludes or pauses in our lives that add beauty, perspective, and contrast to our life’s song.
Some people find this rest, this peace, through self-medication. They eat too much, they drink alcohol, they take drugs, they consume and spend and accumulate, attempting to lessen the overload of stress. Other engage in promiscuous or reckless behavior. Each of those things work for just a little while, just well enough to keep people doing them over and over again, even to the point of destroying their lives and the lives of those who love them. Others, of course, find this rest in spirituality, in altruism, in charity, in education, in music, in art, in meaningful work, in families and friends, by participation in community.
This raises two questions we ought to regularly ask ourselves.
The first is this: What brings me peace?
The second is this: Do my efforts toward peace harm myself and others, or am I and others helped?
For Friends, silence brings peace. It is the opportunity to withdraw from a jarring world, with its piped-in music, its constant jabber, to better heed what the Presbyterian writer Maltbie Babcock called “the music of the spheres.” The Apostle Paul believed this peace, this rest, was evidence of God’s spirit. Jesus offered this rest not only to the put-together and privileged, but to the torn apart and tired. “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened,” he said, “and I will give you rest.”