When I was a kid, my parents used to play a game with my brother, sister, and I on long car rides. It was called “Quaker Go To Meeting”. Whenever the three of us were either arguing or just being rowdy and rambunctious, my Mom would lean over into the back seat and call, “It’s Quaker go to meeting time.” The object of the “game” was to see how long each of us could go without talking. The winner was the one who was the last to speak. Now, until we were old enough to figure out this was simply a ploy to get us to pipe down, it actually worked (at least for 3-5 minutes). Some semblance of this game has been used since the beginning of time and across every culture when parents need just a few moments of quiet. All humans know, on some basic level, that silence, even in the briefest span, can provide a bit of needed respite or create a receptacle to gather one’s thoughts.
The idea of not speaking on purpose is central to the tenets of Quaker spirituality. In fact, an authentic Quaker meeting is a worship service that last approximately 60 minutes and is composed of thoughtful silence, interspersed with members sharing thoughts or feelings that have come to them during the time of meditation. They only speak if the Spirit has moved them.
While Quakers have divergent religious beliefs and no creed, they all share common roots in a Christian movement that arose in England in the middle of the 17th century by founder George Fox, who discovered Christ while going within. Today’s Quakers do not necessarily share any Christian understanding, but they do continue to adhere to two essential principles.
The first is a belief in the possibility of direct, unmediated communion with the Divine. The other is a commitment to living lives that outwardly attest to this inward experience. One of the ways that Quakers (also known as The Society of Friends) demonstrate this commitment, is through the art of active listening. The worship service provides a model on how to listen openly and compassionately as well as a time of quiet reflection and meditation. The members then attempt to practice both throughout their daily lives.
In an article entitled “The Listening Place” the February 23, 2010 issue of The Christian Century, Gordon Atkinson (a Texan Baptist minister) visits a Quaker meeting and describes, “A young woman broke the silence and spoke briefly. There was a gentle shift of attention to her and away from individual thoughts and prayers. People shifted in their seats and assumed various listening postures…I recognized in the Quakers the unmistakable signs of practiced, active listening. When the woman was finished with what she had to say, she sat down. There was a moment or two in which I felt her words were still alive in the room, still being considered. And then the Friends shifted back to their individual thoughts, prayers, and meditations…it was the most refreshing spiritual exercise I’ve had in years”.
Perhaps we, too, can carve out some Quaker go to meeting time on a daily basis. For us, it could be a 20 to 40 minute session in conscious meditation, carrying our full attention to those we come in contact with. There is no greater gift to another than one’s whole presence.