Monday, 6 August 2018

Silence and Presence

This is an edited transcript of a recent interview I did for BBC Radio Sheffield on the Rony Robinson show, for a day of programming on the theme of "silence":

RR: Silence is something that Quakers practice - their worship involves silence. Have you already been silent today?

Yes, I try to make a practice every day of having a time of silent prayer or meditation at home. I just find it’s really important for me to keep my balance through the day.

When you’re in silence as a Quaker what are you listening for? or are you thinking about God or what’s going on?

I think the main thing is to be getting away from thinking. So much of the day we’re up in our heads. It’s a very refreshing, restful experience to be just breathing, sitting, feeling the air on your skin instead.

When you go to Quaker meeting is it just silence all the time? 

No, we sit and we are still, but the silence in Quaker worship, it’s not silence for its own sake. The idea of it is that we’re all seeking God, meaning, purpose, and where are we going to find that? We’re only going to find it if we listen for it, because it’s within. We’re not going to find that outside, by looking for teachers or writings or something that’s out there. We have to find it in our own experience. So the idea of silent worship is that we sit, we become still, we listen for what’s there, and that can mean very extended times of silence as we’re sitting and becoming aware, becoming present. But in Quaker worship it could also be that anyone who feels moved to, who feels that they’ve encountered something in the silence which is to be shared with other people, they can stand and speak. And then you’re listening to what’s come from that other person’s experience of the silence as well. And it’s completely open, anyone can speak on the same basis, we don’t have it restricted just to certain groups of people.

Are you allowed to know you’re going to speak before you speak?

We’re supposed to come prepared to be silent, or prepared to speak if we’re led to speak. The idea of Quaker worship is aiming to make a connection with the Spirit that’s within us, in our own experience. So if that Spirit leads us to speak then we have to be faithful to it and if it leads us to be silent then we’re silent.

So what actually happens? Isn't that hour intolerably long?

Well, we sit in a circle and it emphasises the equality of the meeting. The thing about meeting together is there’s something very supportive about it. If I was going to sit for an hour on my own at home, even though I’ve had a practice of silent prayer for many years, I would find that too much. But with a group, somehow it’s extremely different. There’s a sense in which the fact that others are there and they’re all seeking the same thing supports you. When your mind wanders, as of course your mind wanders all the time, it just comes back, and then you become still again, and then it wanders again, and then it comes back, but you don’t have that kind of anxious, frustrated feeling that you imagine you might do. And sometimes, you can have a whole hour go by in complete silence, it’s quite rare in a large meeting, and sometimes that’s absolutely wonderful.
It can be quite an extraordinary experience to sit with people, and sometimes there’s a sense that the silence just sort of deepens, and it becomes almost like a palpable presence, a very, very powerful experience.

The silence itself becomes a presence?

Yes, it has a very different quality.

Quakers don’t even have to believe in God these days do they?

For Quakers, religion is not about belief. I think this is the thing that’s often most confusing to people. They say ‘Well, what do Quakers believe?’ and I always say ‘Quakers believe that religion is not about belief.’ Religion is about what we experience and what we do. And we’re not going to find God or find meaning or purpose for our lives through beliefs or ideas, we’re going to find it through what we discover in our own experience.

Is God there, going to speak to you in that silence? Do you hear him in your silence?

Well, I don’t hear a kind of physical voice, but I definitely have experience of a presence, and that’s the presence I call God. And I understand that’s what people in different religions and in different times have also encountered and they’ve called that God, and that’s where that idea comes from. It comes from the experience and it’s only meaningful if it can speak to our experience.

What’s the quietest place you’ve ever been?

The deepest silence I’ve ever known is in a Quaker meeting which becomes, we call it gathered, ‘a gathered meeting’, that becomes really still and centred in that way. And where everyone is experiencing it together, and it’s something very, very special.

(With thanks to Rosie Carnall for transcription and editing.)


  1. What a lovely interview and clear account of your experience of Quaker Meeting. A good one to share to enquirers, I think.

  2. "For Quakers, religion is not about belief." Good topic for a blog article!


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)