Most of my life I have viewed Quakerism as quite strange. The notion of a service consisting almost entirely of sitting quietly just didn’t make any sense. “That’s just silly” I would have wanted to say. “Say something!” But now a significant portion of my weekly worship is spent in silent meditation and I see so clearly the significance of silence. Silence is necessary from time to time to give our “monkey mind” a rest, to follow the advice of the Psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God.” There is some fear that this “literarylew” thing I got going on is largely chatter and that one of these days God is going to “Todd Akin” me and just “shut this whole thing down.” I understand that the great Catholic theological Thomas Aquinas had a profound mystical experience in his early fifties and, after written many basic theological treatises of the Catholic faith, never wrote another thing the rest of his life. “It is all straw,” he supposedly said.
And the notion of silence in spirituality is very Indian. And the Quaker about whom I blogged this morning, Thomas Kelly, noted that he had consulted with Hindu spiritual teachers and had studied the teachings of the Vedas. That must have been a daring move for a Quaker in 1931 for I think of Quakers as a very conservative variant of the Christian faith and conservatives Christians look askance at Indian spirituality.
I have been drawn to the wisdom of Gerard Manley Hopkins on the subject of silence long before I had any reason to know why. In the poem, “The Habit of Perfection” he declares that only when we “shut up” and embrace silence can we acquire eloquence:
ELECTED Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb: 5
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light: 10
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust 15
So fresh that come in fasts divine!
Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side! 20
O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.
And, Poverty, be thou the bride 25
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.