This project — writing a Faith & Practice book — is a work in progress. Whenever a significant update is made to a published installment, the revision date will be posted at the top of the installment as well as in the Table of Contents.
Following is the fourth part of the book’s second section, “The Life of the Spirit.”
4. Meeting for Worship
[W]hen I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life …. (Robert Barclay, 1678)
Inspired by Jesus’ call to “worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24), unprogrammed Quaker worship is based in silence. Sometimes called “expectant waiting,” it is essentially passive. We enter into stillness of body and mind in order to feel the divine spirit of love — agapē — within and among us, to give ourselves over to it, and to discern what it would have us do in our lives. In so doing, each person is already expressing agapē by helping others in the room to do the same. As our communion deepens, we find within and among us the world-changing “power and life” of which Barclay wrote long ago.
Spiritual and truthful worship entails a sometimes difficult passage from conventional to divine wisdom. It requires first of all an acknowledgment of our tendency to “transgress” love; that is, a feeling-sense of our failure to allow agapē to thoroughly re-shape our hearts and minds. As George Fox put it,
None worship God but [those] who come to the principle of God, which they have transgressed. None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase [i.e., growth] from God.
To “come to the principle of God, which [you] have transgressed” is to put one’s trust in the light of love by which conscience is called into question and ultimately re-formed. That light, if we allow it, exposes in us that which we have hidden not only from others but even from ourselves. It was in part because early Friends trembled under such scrutiny that they came to be called “Quakers.” Worship in spirit and in truth brings peace, power, and wisdom through purification of heart. It requires faith and courage.
What, in a very practical sense, does one do in worship? It can be as simple as forming the intention to be open to the illumination of agapē in one’s heart and then sitting with that intention in silence, perhaps helped by an unobtrusive technique such as watching one’s breathing. There is no need to strive for anything. To worship in the Quaker manner is simply to acknowledge the divine light within as that “universal love” which we normally repress, and then to wait faithfully — that is, in trust and perseverance — upon its revelation of our condition and our calling. George Fox’s advice to Elizabeth Cromwell Claypole, written in 1658, can still be helpful today:
[B]e still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in thee, that it may raise thy mind up to God, and stay it upon God, and thou wilt find strength from him, and find him to be a God at hand, a present help in the time of trouble and of need. And thou being come to the principle of God [within], which hath been transgressed [by thee], it will keep thee humble; and [to] the humble God will teach his way, which is peace …. Now as the principle of God in thee hath been transgressed, come to it …. Then thou wilt feel the power of God, which will bring nature into its course …. There the wisdom of God will be received (which is Christ, by which all things were made and created) and thou be thereby preserved and ordered to God’s glory. There thou wilt come to receive and feel the physician of value, who clothes people in their right mind, whereby they may serve God and do his will.
Isaac Penington, using the metaphor of the Christ-seed, expressed it similarly:
Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, 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 his portion.
Silent worship is powerful, and at times some of us, like Elizabeth Claypole, will need help and encouragement from others in the light. So Quaker meeting for worship is not always silent: sometimes the divine power and life will lead one or more of us to offer spoken ministry out of the silence.