Reflections on Quaker Worship and Business Meetings
Excerpts from the Journal of George Amoss Jr.
Copyright 1996, George Amoss Jr.

CONTENTS

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  1. On Silent Worship
  2. Worship as Teacher
  3. The Work of Worship
  4. Our Objective in Worship
  5. Worship as Baptism
  6. Worship as the Revelation of Love
  7. On Doing Business in the Spirit of Worship

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February 26, 1989

On Silent Worship
Note: this brief essay was published in 1996 in the journal
Universalist Friends.

Martin Cobin, in his important Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled "From Convincement to Conversion," relates an anecdote concerning Rufus Jones and another Friend. It seems that Jones rose one morning in meeting for worship and prefaced his message by saying that he'd been thinking about something and wanted to share his thoughts. After meeting, an elderly British Friend approached Jones and chided him, saying, "Rufus, during meeting for worship thee should not have been thinking." If we do not at least see the point of the elderly Friend's statement, says Cobin, we probably have not yet moved from convincement to conversion.

My desire to understand the British Friend's remark, and better to understand what it is that we're about in meeting for worship, has led me to consider the nature and meaning of our worship. What is it that we should be doing there? Do the Friend's words indicate that we should be emptying our minds of thought, in order to be more receptive to divine leadings? Is our silence to be, at least ideally, the absence of thought?

These considerations bring to mind some sayings from Zen Buddhism, a tradition which, like ours, has long experience with contemplation in silence but which has more carefully cultivated the art of meditation. "You cannot get it by taking thought," announces one saying, "nor can you get it by not taking thought." Similarly, the great Chinese master Hui-Neng said that "To command all thoughts immediately to cease is to be tied in a knot by a method, and is called an obtuse view." According to the expert testimony of Zen, attempting to achieve a state of having no thought is not the way to liberation and conversion. And if we acknowledge a similarity of experience among contemplatives of different traditions, we understand that the elderly Friend probably was not speaking of such an effort--or such a state.

What, then, is the point of his statement? What are we doing in worship? Pondering these questions, I am reminded of a definition of Quaker worship that I have long found appealing--the idea of "waiting in silence." But that phrase has always seemed too vague, in need of further definition. As I begin to consider its possible meanings, I recall the words of a man who must seem an unlikely source for insight into Quaker worship--a man who, in fact, said that the inner light is the most dangerous and unreliable guide ever to be followed by human beings, yet whose work reveals a deep familiarity with waiting in the silence of the heart. I have in mind, of course, T. S. Eliot. Eliot's description of the process of contemplation in the silence can provide us with important insights into the potential of our own way of worship. In the long work The Four Quartets, Eliot speaks of being "At the still point of the turning world." And he asserts that "Except for the point, the still point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance." This image of the dance recurs in a later passage which speaks to our quest for a deeper appreciation of our worship.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought;
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

To wait without hope, without love, without faith--those three crucial virtues called "supernatural" by theology--can only be to wait in that true and complete silence which, if we let it, will bring us to what Eliot calls "A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)." For silence is an emptiness, but it is an emptiness that makes fullness possible, a darkness that is light, a stillness that is the cosmic dance. In the emptiness of complete spiritual poverty, we see through and thereby become detached from everything, even our very thoughts. As master Hui-Neng says, "Thoughts come and go of themselves, for through the use of wisdom there is no blockage. ...Such is the [true] practice of 'no-thought.'" We wait without thought in the sense that we have gone beyond thought to a deeper level, to the emptiness in which nothing remains to separate us from ourselves or from others--in which, therefore, love becomes real. And love, too, leads us to the fullness of emptiness, for in love we find ourselves in the very act of giving ourselves away.

Recently I read an in-depth review, by Douglas Gwyn, of a book on speaking and silence among 17th-century Friends. In that review, Gwyn pointed out that for early Friends silence was not an end in itself. Silence functioned for them like a Zen koan, to crucify natural thought in order that they might come to a new, pure, spiritual language through the transformation of their fundamental way of experiencing themselves and their world. As George Fox indicated in his journal, this pure speech would be the expression of one's experience of the "true nature"--as Zen would put it--of all things. Early Friends knew that they were "not ready for thought" until they had let the silence take them apart and re-create them in its own image as persons who possessed nothing and who were therefore free to love. Only when they had entered that "condition of complete simplicity" could they begin to speak truly, and then their speech would be directed to bringing their hearers into the same experience. "Silence," says Gwyn, "was seen as not only the state from which one must speak, if moved, but also the right outcome of speaking. Vocal ministry sought to achieve silence in the hearer, to enhance the crucifixion of natural thought and language within."

If, then, we should not be thinking during worship, it is because only true silence can center us in that emptiness in which our thought and speech are purified and made new. Then we shall know all things from within, not through the mediation of words, so that our language will be no longer an obstacle to love but a true and natural expression of it. This is the great potential of our silent worship, that it can empty us of delusion, purify our thought, and lead us from convincement to conversion. So the phrase that seemed "too vague" turns out to be sufficient after all: worship is simply a matter of waiting in silence. Anything more is something less.


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December 17, 1989

The teacher, says Chogyam Trungpa, does not impart information to the disciple; the teacher simply creates the necessary situation, the appropriate environment, in which the student can awaken. The Buddha-mind is transmitted not through the passing of concepts from one to another, but directly; the Buddha-nature of the teacher calls to the Buddha-nature of the disciple. The teacher "answers that of God" in the disciple; he or she sets up a situation of depth and openness in which there are no barriers to the recognition and expression of the true nature of both parties. Buddha speaks to Buddha, sometimes to the astonishment of the disciple.

For us as Quakers, the meeting for worship is our teacher. It provides an atmosphere in which we, whether through silence or vocal ministry (which should be, as it were, an expression of the silence), transmit the Christ-mind one to another. The silence of worship is the voice of "the Inward Teacher," leading us into its own rich and transforming emptiness. As Trungpa says, "...the whole point is that we stop collecting any more things, and we just manage to empty out whatever we have. ...in reality the transmission is not, as we said, something given to you, it is simply discovered within oneself." The silence of worship teaches not by imparting information, but by emptying us of everything false until all that remains is our true nature. And since our true nature is ineffable, we can say that silence is the beginning and end of worship, that in fact silence and worship are one.


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January 21, 1990

In meeting for worship this morning, I gave the following message.

Gently and gracefully, the Christ-nature opens out within us in the silence like a seed growing up through empty space to become a tree. The silence of worship is the space in which the Christ-seed, rooted in our hearts, grows. This silence means no impediments, freedom from forms, poverty of spirit, profound emptiness. The work of worship is that we help each other enter deeply into this emptiness, that we are baptized here together, dying into the silence in order to live as Christ for ourselves, for each other, and for the world. For this is the Incarnation, that the Spirit of Christ blossoms within and among us. This is the salvation of the world, that the Inward Light of that Spirit leads us to lay ourselves open, to bear the pain and evil of the world in suffering love. And this is the Resurrection, that we bear witness to the living reality of the Christ-nature in these bodies--and in this body, the gathered community of Friends.


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September 1, 1991

I've sometimes heard it said that our objective in worship is to find a place of peace within ourselves to which to retreat and from which to draw strength. I agree that this may be a necessary stage for some of us, but I submit that the peace we discover in the silence must ultimately be the peace that "passes understanding" because it subsists in the midst of conflict--that true peace, in other words, is not determined by the absence of conflict within ourselves but by the dynamic presence of justice in our relationships. I say this because I, by being confronted too many times by the damage I've done in my self-centered ignorance, am learning the difficult lesson that there is no love without justice and no peace without love.

I would say, rather, that our objective in worship is not finding peace, as if peace were just another commodity that we could possess, but, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, being peace, so that we will, as George Fox urged us, "[answer] that of God in every one, whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you...." Learning this art will, I think, require that we descend, not to a more or less self-absorbed stillness within ourselves, but deeper, to what Joseph Conrad described as that "lonely region of stress and strife" where we discover "the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, ...the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all of humanity--the dead to the living and the living to the unborn." For we are all members of the one Body of Christ, and the whole Body suffers as long as one of its members is in pain. In the poetry of Paul's mystical theology, we are re-created in the Body of Christ only by being baptized into Christ's suffering and death. I think this means that we find the joy of true peace only by entering into the suffering of the world, for it is only then that our thoughts and deeds are informed with justice and are, therefore, guided by love.

May the silence of worship be, then, our spiritual baptism. May it tear us away from the familiar and the comfortable and plunge us into the darkness of faith. May it be for us a sacrament--a sign that effects what it signifies--of crucifixion and resurrection in that Body in which all are one. May we, following the exhortation of George Fox, "be still a while from [our] own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be staid in the principle of God in [us]," and, learning thereby the meaning of justice, know the peace that comes from that humbling experience--"the true peace of God," which, in Conrad's marvelous image, "begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land." Sailing forth then, as Whitman urged, steering "for the deep waters only" and risking "ourselves and all," we can without fear explore the deep and tumultuous seas of silence: after all, "are they not all the seas of God?"


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October 3, 1991

Last night, I gave this message in worship during our Ministry and Counsel meeting.

Sometimes when I enter the silence of worship, I feel as if I lay my head upon God's breast, and she gently places her hand on my head and soothes me, and eases my pain, and takes my burden from me, and strengthens me with the gift of her love. But there are also times when I go to the silence, needing her comfort, that I lay my head upon her breast and feel her shaken with sobs, when she is like Rachel, weeping inconsolably for her children, and I am washed in her tears. Then the love she has given me is stirred, and I want to comfort her as she has comforted me. "What can I do?" I ask, and in the depths of my heart I hear her unfailing reply, "Let my Son be born in thee." But I count the cost and turn away in sadness, like the rich young man in the gospel, not daring to risk all on a Kingdom that may never be. Yet her anguish tears my heart, and now I want to turn away no more; I must be rid of whatever in me makes me fear the risk. So I beg of the silence, and of you, my Friends who minister to the captive Spirit: minister to me, empty me, take everything from me and free the Spirit that lives in me, that when next I go to my Beloved in her need, I go in the form of her Son, Who alone can dry the tears from her eyes.


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December 6, 1992

A Friend rose during worship at Homewood this morning and paraphrased a verse (I don't know which) from the Bible. The verse included the phrase "stayed in God." Some time later, I gave the following message.

---

The verse quoted by the Friend has reminded me of George Fox's letter to Lady Claypole, in which he urged her to "Be still a while... and be staid in the principle of God in thee," and I am led to offer a similar exhortation.

Be inwardly still, Friends, and wait patiently upon the revelation of the living flame of love that burns in the hidden depths of our hearts. Place your hope in the purifying, enlightening, and liberating working of that occult flame, and rest in that hope, and trust that the secret life of love within us is itself the answer, ineffable but sure, to the unutterable longing of our souls.

Be at peace, Friends. The hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, is ours: love lives in our hearts now and always. In fact, that divine flame is our true heart. And our Quaker tradition is not alone in testifying that we can know this experientially, that we can be transformed and learn to live from our true center, the compassionate and just heart of Christ. For if it seems that love reveals herself in her own time and in her own way, it is nonetheless true that in waiting faithfully and attentively upon her self-disclosure we discover that our waiting and her revelation are not two. When we wait with devotion, discipline, and singleness of mind, our waiting becomes pure silence, and in pure silence the delusion that gives rise to our habitual, unconsciously self-centered and self-absorbed mode of being in the world is dissolved, and love alone remains, for only love, being self-sufficient, can abide in pure silence. Therefore, let us wait together earnestly and confidently upon the unfolding of the loveliness of our souls, that we may be in the world as the divine flame of love is within us, a seemingly small and obscure, yet irrepressible, enduring, and, indeed, essential, power for transformation, liberation, and peace.

---

The message's derivations of which I am aware are these: (1) the idea of waiting upon revelation is from Romans 8:19; (2) "the living flame of love" is the title of a poem by John of the Cross; (3) I believe that Merton is quoted somewhere in Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story, by William H. Shannon, using the phrase "the secret working of love in the soul," a phrase that I have woven into the message; (4) "hidden treasure" and "pearl of great price" are well-known metaphors of the Kingdom used by Jesus; (5) the description "not two," which connotes a unity that is not identity, is from the Zen scripture "Shinjin-no-Mei"; (6) the idea, which I have adapted, of love being silent because it needs nothing is also from Shannon's book on Merton, but I can't recall where in that book I read it; (6) the use of "loveliness" in its archaic sense of "loving," which I intended to combine with the contemporary meaning of "spiritual beauty," goes back to the words of William Penn that I quoted in a previous message (9/6/92); (7) one basis of this message is a passage used by Mendelssohn in his oratorio "Elijah": "O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he will give thee thy heart's desire."


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April 21, 1989

On Doing Business in the Spirit of Worship

Within us, at the center of our being, is a seed. It is the seed of the Kingdom of God, the Spirit of Christ within. In that seed is our true "comm-unity"; in that seed we are one on a much deeper level than mere agreement. The silence and ministry of Quaker worship are intended to strip us of everything that covers the seed until we are, in perfect poverty, united in our true identity--the Christ within. It is when this union in poverty takes place that a meeting is "gathered." The purpose and meaning of our worship lie in the discovery and practice of this authentic unity-in-diversity. Another way of saying this is that Quaker worship is nothing less than the actualization of love (caritas).

As many Friends have pointed out, meetings for business must partake of the spirit of worship. If we cannot remain in the unity of worship while doing business, it were better by far that no business be done, for nothing is more important than the praxis of love. Unity in the meeting for business is not a matter of individuals reaching a superficial consensus through mutual forbearance or conformance to an outward form. As Thomas Merton wrote in The Silent Life, "[caritas] is not merely a 'social contract,' a bargain arrived at by the agreement of many egoisms. It is the purity of heart which is reached only when all the separate wills ... become one will, the common will, the will of Christ." True consensus is an expression of the unity of those who have lost everything in the silence of worship and thus have overcome even the most subtle forms of alienation--an expression, in other words, of the unity of the same seed, of "that of God," in each and all.

We answer that of God in each other by "cherishing that which is divine within ourselves by the practice of unremitting caritas" (Clement of Alexandria). When we are focused on the praxis of love, business gets done almost as a side-effect. The traditions of China call this phenomenon wu-wei, or non-action. Work is done, but no one takes credit, and the work seems, therefore, effortless. In our own tradition, we have done business properly in the Quaker manner only when the business has been "effortless" for us because no one but Christ has acted. We come to meeting, whether for worship or for business, to join together in love and to "see what love can do." As in openness to the rich poverty of silence we become truly ourselves, so in openness to the seed of love within and among us we become truly a community.


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