Winter 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 326-335.

Roger J. Vanden Busch:
      The Value of Silence in Quaker Spirituality

Quakers find in silence a deepening process bringing us into our hearts where we meet God, are empowered, and finally led to the service of others.

Roger J. Vanden Busch, O. Praem., teaches Scripture at Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, and is director of religious education at Fort Sheridan Army Base. He has published articles in a variety of periodicals

FOR Quaker spirituality, silence is the point in the hour glass of our busy and hectic lives through which the sands of prayer and worship must pass. As the sands trickle from top to bottom, filtered by silence, a deepening, indwelling, and empowering process slowly gives birth to social action.

Quaker spirituality, like the three magi, brings us gifts of silence, prayer, and worship. The fruits of these gifts are shared with the impoverished.

Donald Court, a Quaker, speaks for all of us as we rush and run. He calls us to rest and relax when he says: "There are times to reach down to a level where I can see myself and my work straight, where that strength we call love can break through my anxiety and teach me how to respond instead of to react . . . how to open the road to a spirit blocked by busyness, self-importance, self-indulgence, self-pity, depression, and despair."(1)

The three magi who bear these gifts of silence, prayer, and worship flowing into action are Isaac Pennington (1616-79), Caroline Stephen (1834-1909), and Thomas R. Kelly (1893-1941). Pennington, after hearing George Fox, had a conversion. Reminiscent of St. Augustine, he wrote: "This is he whom I have waited for and sought from my childhood, who was always near me and often begotten life in my heart. But I knew him not distinctly, nor how to receive him or dwell with him" (140). Stephen was moved by the witness spirituality of the Quakers and "became a Friend by convincement and blessed the Quakers with a highly articulate account of what she had personally found to be authentic in their witness" (241). Finally, Kelly experienced his conversion after a crisis in 1937. He was swept by an experience of the "Presence" where he was literally "melted down by the love of God" (289).


To sit down in silence could at least pledge me to nothing; it might open me (as it did that morning) the very gate of heaven. And since that day, now more than seventeen years ago, Friends' meetings have indeed been to me the greatest of outward helps to a fuller and fuller entrance into the spirit from which they have sprung; the place of the most soul-subduing, faith-restoring, strengthening, and peaceful communion, in feeding upon the bread of life, that I have ever known (244).

This paragraph from Caroline Stephen speaks of qualities necessary for deepening: a time and place, silence, support from the community, openness to the presence of God, and listening. The longest journey is the journey within to a "fuller and fuller entrance into the spirit." The shortest journey is to a place which enables us to travel within. This is the nature of a retreat, or an advance. Whether we remain in silence or leave to find it, a sacred place and time are necessary for silence and the deepening process where God is experienced. Once we are in continual touch with the "stillpoint" in our changing and hectic world, we can continue to journey outward as we journey inward. Thomas R. Kelly says: "He who carried a Shekinah daily in his heart and practices continual retirement within the Shekinah, at the same time as he is carrying on his daily affairs, has begun to prepare for worship, for he has never ceased worshipping" (314).

A house, chapel, and community -- a Shekinah -- were established at Little Gidding by Nicolas Ferrar (1592-1637) as a place of meditation where George Herbert (1593-1633) and others were able to find peace, silence, and sanctuary. T.S. Eliot in his poem "Little Gidding" stresses the importance of journeying to a place, being prayerful in silence, listening to the voice of God, experiencing a deepening and finding God anew!

If you came by this way,
Taking route, starting from anywhere,
    At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you
    would have to put off
Sense and motion. You are not to
    verify, instruct yourself, or
    inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to
    kneel where prayer has been valid.
And prayer is more than an order
    of words, the conscious occupation
of the praying mind, or the sound
    of the voice praying . .
Of timeless moments, So, where the
    light fails on a winters afternoon,
    in a secluded chapel . . .
With the drawing of this Love and
    the choice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.(2)

Both Eliot and Stephen speak of a summit or depth that is reached in silence "of timeless moments." It is a deepening where a person becomes transfigured, a responding to the call within. It is journeying to a place to sit quietly in the presence of God. It is where words melt into silence. It is a silence that says more than thousands of words which fail to reach the point of our centering. According to Thomas R. Kelly, "there is a Divine Center into which your life can slip, a new and absolute orientation to God. A Center where you live with him, and out from which you see all of life, through new and radiant vision, tinged with new sorrows and pangs, new joys unspeakable and full of glory" (315).

For Eliot and Stephen, silence as a continuous experience begins to have the quality of depth. A classic threefold movement begins to take place:

Purify Body Words of the Lips Feelings of Sorrow
Illumine Breath Mental Words Loving Response
Union Spirit Silence Joyful Flame
Quiet Talk Disintegration Detachment Asking
Meditation ReintegrationIllumination Thanking
Contemplation Return to the World Creativity Praising


God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits he has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of his own life; that he never leaves himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man; and that in order clearly to hear the divine voice thus speaking to us we need to be still; to be alone with him in the secret place of his presence; that all flesh should keep silence before him (246).

Stephen's God is a God of intimacy who continually reveals the divine self to us. This is the God of the second creation story where God blows breath into us. God is intimately involved in our lives. All of creation continually reminds us of the goodness and love of God. As Charles Hanson Towne says in his poem,

I need not shout my faith. Thrice eloquent
    Are quiet trees and the green listening sod;
Hushed are the stars, whose power is never spent;
    the hills are mute: yet how they speak of God! (3)
We must, however, be still in order to perceive this presence and to hear God's voice. Elijah on Mount Horeb was looking for God in the thunder, earthquake, fire, and lightning. But he discovered God in the "still, quiet voice." Thomas Kelly captures the experience of Elijah: "There is a divine abyss within us all, a holy infinite center, a heart, a life who speaks in us and through us to the world. We have all heard this holy whisper at times" (304). Samuel heard a voice calling. The voice beckoned three times until there was a sense of deepening, where heart spoke to heart. Samuel had a humble attitude of listening. This was a sign of Samuel's love for God and a real prayer from the heart. Finally he said, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening."

God speaks out of silence. God takes the initiative. We need to be still so God can speak to our heart. Isaac Pennington reflected on a line from the Psalms: "So, be still and quiet, and silent before the Lord, not putting up any request to the Father, nor cherishing any desire in thee, but in the Seed's lowly nature and purely springing life; and the Lord give thee the clear discerning, in the lowly Seed, of all that springs and arises in they heart" (156).

We are to stand before God with the mind in the heart. Biblically, the heart symbolizes the total person. The heart is greater than the sum of our many-faceted being. Our body is endowed with life and its marvelous senses. Our soul is the force of life with its intellect, will, and reason. Our spirit is in continuous communion with God. Our conscience and mystical eye look deep into our hearts. It is the heart, the ground of our soul, where we come face to face with God.

In silence and prayer, God initiates and communicates. Prayer is not a state or a series of words. It is a gift. Silence and prayer go beyond the limits of consciousness. Instead of our possessing it, it possesses us.


In my heart of hearts I knew in whose name we were met together, and who was truly in the midst of us. Never before had his influence revealed itself to me with so much power as in those quiet assemblies (249).

In Romans 8:14-15, 26ff.; Galatians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 3:17; and John 4:23 prayer is effected by the Holy Spirit. It does not originate from our own power. It is never considered as a meritorious work. Prayer is ultimately the indwelling, energizing Spirit's speaking with God who is one with Jesus and the Spirit. As Rabbi Heschel says, "The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God."(4) Prayer is not dependent for its effectiveness on human eloquence or any particular frame of mind. In John 12:27ff. Jesus speaks to his Father in the immediate situation in full view of others and without retiring alone for prayer as he sometimes did. Jesus models his continuing fellowship with his Father. His whole life is a prayer. According to James 5:13ff., the Christian's whole life is to be lived in an atmosphere of prayer. The Christian should present to God everything that happens, each new experience is suffused with prayer. As Stephen said: "It is prayer in the large sense -- not request, but communion -- that we may rightly and wisely speak as the very breath of our spiritual life; as the power by which life is transfigured; as that to which all things are possible .... God himself is the answer to prayer' (252).

In intercessory prayer, we are mediators. We hold up this person to God praying that this individual will be open to the Spirit of God. "And such a special sense of bondedness and unity with others as is experienced in the gathered meeting," says Thomas Kelly," is only a time of particular enhancement of the life of bondedness and fellowship in love among souls which is experienced daily, as we carry one another in inward upholding prayer" (314).


This "silence of all flesh" appears to us to be the essential preparation for any act of true worship. It is also, we believe, the essential condition at all times of inward illumination. "Stand still in the light," says George Fox again and again, and then strength comes and peace and victory and deliverance, and all other good things.

But it is not only the momentary effect of silence as a help in public worship that constitutes its importance in Quaker estimation (250).

In our Eucharistic celebration there are three key moments when silence allows each one of us an opportunity for deepening:

Classic Quaker Eucharist
Purification Silence of all flesh Penitential Rite
Illumination Inward Illumination Reflection on the Word
Union Stand still in the light Communion reflection

These three moments of silence allow God to mend our brokenness, to crack open our hearts, and to strengthen us on our way to bring the presence of Christ to those who hunger and thirst.

As a community soaked in silence, a greater awareness and responsibility toward one another begins to emerge. We begin to experience a deeper sense of community, identity, and solidarity. This silent togetherness may give us a greater sensitivity and concern for the poor. If we truly share from our surplus, there will be enough to go around. This quiet time may allow us to critique our own consumer mentality where we collect, accumulate, and buy but never seem to be satisfied. "Lord, give us this bread and wine that we may never hunger and thirst again." It is within this prayerful silence that a bonding draws us closer together, as we decrease in importance while others increase, and we are called to serve one another. Stephen feels this happening to her as she describes her experience of being soaked in the silence of communal worship: "No external help, at any rate, has ever in my own experience proved so penetratingly effective as the habit of joining in public worship based upon silence. But before long I began to be aware that the united and prolonged silence has a far more direct and powerful effect than this. They soon began to exercise a strangely subduing and softening effect upon my mind" (249).

In a world that seems to be so void of silence, we need to create periodic worlds of silence where we can be in touch with the cosmic dimensions of our lives. The radio blares, the vacuum sweeper screams, the jet plane thunders and the motorcycle rattles our eardrums. We need silence together to hear the refreshing sound of the heart.


The words should rise like a shaggy crag upthrust from the surface of silence, under the pressure of river power and yearning, contrition, and wonder. But on the other hand the words should not rise up like a shaggy crag. They should not break the silence, but continue it.

For the Divine Life who is ministering through the medium of silence is the same Life as is now ministering through words. And when such words are truly spoken "in the life," then when such words cease, the uninterrupted silence and worship continue, for silence and the words have been one texture, one piece (314).

Ladislaus Boros in God Is with Us makes some observations about the movement from silence, to words, and back to silence again. Jesus as the word comes out of silence from the Godhead. Jesus' whole nature springs from his silence. Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Ephesians says: "The man who possesses the word of Jesus can also hear his silence."(5) Jesus draws the power for his outward actions entirely from his silence. For Jesus silence takes precedence: "Love before achievement, purity before success, intention before act, silence before speech, decisions reached apart in silence."(6)

Jesus arises early in the morning, goes into the desert, and is absorbed in prayer. Soon his companions look for him. They say to him, "Everyone is looking for you." Jesus wonders: "Do I rush and run, or rest and relax? Don't just sit there. Do something. Or is it: Don't just do something but sit there?" He decides to go. "Let us move on to the neighboring villages so that I may proclaim the good news there also. That is what I have come to do" (Mark 1:32-39).

Again Jesus goes off to the mountain to pray. Then he is seen by the disciples walking on the water. Jesus is on top of the chaos. He has an inner calm, peace, and humility. He is in the presence of his Father. He is open to his loving and saving presence. The disciples think Jesus is a ghost. Their minds are closed. They do not come from the depths of prayerful silence. No wonder they are afraid. Jesus says a few words which come from the ground of his being: "Do not be afraid; it is I" (Mark 6:46-52). Before Jesus chooses his disciples he goes to the mountain to pray, "spending the night in communion with God" (Luke 6:12).

In the powerful and moving story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus is first at the Mount of Olives. At daybreak, he comes to the Temple area. The woman caught in adultery is brought before him with the question, "What do you have to say about the case?" Jesus is silent. He moves his finger about the sand. They persist in wanting an answer. Jesus is again silent. His few, well-chosen words move the people to examine their own hearts in silence. One by one they leave. Their own silence screams at their hearts. What can they say? (John 8:1-11).

Jesus encounters those who seek to destroy him with silence. In response, the high priest stands up, Pilate wonders, the chief priests and elders retreat into the shadow of the governor, and Herod questions him at length. Still, there is silence. This angers, frustrates, and confuses them all the more. In the book, Jesus before Christianity, Albert Nolan writes: "Jesus stood there without a word, putting everyone else to the test. The truth of the matter is that it was not Jesus who was on trial. His betrayers and accusers were on trial before him. His silence puzzled, disturbed, questioned, and tested them. Their words were turned back at them and they condemned themselves out of their own mouths."(7) Silence is like a mirror. It reflects, detects, and shatters into a thousand pieces our false images buried deep within our subconsciousness.

Jesus' nature is one of peace and silence ready for any situation and demand. Thomas Kelly reminds us that silence energizes us for social action: "The straightest road to social gospel runs through profound mystical experience. The paradox of true mysticism is that individual experience leads to social passion, that the non-useful engender the greatest utility. If we seek a social gospel, we must find it deeply rooted in the mystic way. Love of God and love of neighbor are not two commandments, but one" (306).

The three magi from the world of Quaker spirituality have completed their journey. They have brought gifts of silence, prayer, and worship. Now they must return to the East and proclaim to others what they have seen and heard. Silence is the stillpoint for a deeper prayer life where the indwelling and energizing Spirit communes with the very God who is one with Jesus and the Spirit. However, the magi's journey is not made alone, for it happens within communal worship soaked in silence. In our solidarity, we are drawn together so as to become a vital and effective force in a world which cries out for mending, meaning, and mercy.

As the magi departed, they told a fascinating story about a young maiden who made a silk drum. Whoever could hear its music would have her hand in marriage. One by one young men came from far and wide, but no one could hear a sound. There was one young man left from the whole countryside. He sat and listened patiently. He waited. Then he spoke, "I can hear the music of silence." She said to him, "You will be my husband for you have heard the sound of my heart."

In the spirit of Quaker spirituality, may our hearts be in our ears, so that in prayerful waiting we may hear the silent music of God as her facile fingers move over us like a hollow reed.


  1. Douglas V. Steere, ed., Quaker Spirituality (Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1984), p. 28. References to this work will henceforth give the page number in parentheses in the text, thus: (28).
  2. T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1971), pp. 139, 144, 145.
  3. Charles Carroll Albertson, ed., Lyra Mystica (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932), p. 448.
  4. Samuel H. Dresner, ed., I Asked for Wonder (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983), p. 22.
  5. Cited in Ladislaus Boros, God Is with Us (New York: Herder and Herder, 1976), p. 159.
  6. Ibid., p. 171.
  7. Albert Nolan, Jesus before Christianity (New York: Orbis Books, 1978), p. 132.