I spent the majority of last week in the presence of Quakers. I am still basking in the glow of it. There is something wonderful that happens to people who welcome silence, who sit in silence and name is worship, who need not fill up every moment with the sound of their own voices. Even in the presence of those whose language rules their days, these people hold out a certain gem of possibility. “Perhaps the answer……or the question, lives in the silence”. They seem to breath this message into a gaggle of talkers. Yes, perhaps this is true.
During our large group gatherings there was not that much literal silence. People spoke. We sang. We laughed. Some cried. But because there were, sprinkled among us, those who knew how to hold silence, how to be silence, the communal setting took on a gentleness and ease that filled my heart. If real and true silence came, there was an ability to sit with it until something shifted and sound began again. It was a rich, rich experience.
Sunday’s scripture was the parable of the farmer whose crops had yielded so much that he believed the only answer was to tear down the barn he had and build bigger barns. Remember it? It is a story that boggles the 21st century brain, the consumer-driven mind. Of course, parables can have a wide range of meanings and are almost always limited only by the imagination of the reader. One of Jesus’s great gifts to us are these multi-meaning stories. They make us work for our understanding, our faith, our interpretation. No easy answers here! For me this ancient story says much about ‘enough’. It really gives my ego a sucker punch. The farmer sees success and is ready in the blink of an eye to throw away what had been just fine up till then. This land-tender is seduced by the ‘more is better’ mentality. More. Bigger. It is a trap I know all too well.
Hearing this story after my time with the Quakers created a nice fabric for reflection. So much of my day is filled with words, information that must be taken in, analyzed, put to some good use. The stock-piling of words, the contribution of sound can sometimes create the illusion of fullness, a fullness that is not quite it seems.
This is when silence becomes the safe place to rest until my soul catches up with the activity of body and mind. “Restless, I go down to the barn and attempt to dissect the concept of ‘peace’.” These words begin the memoir of Mary Rose O’Reilly about her learning as a Quaker, Buddhist shepherd in The Barn at the End of the World. In this beautifully written encounter with the often silent life of the farm, O’Reilly tells of the hard work, reflection and gift of silence that gives birth to a deeper dwelling for what we name holy in our different ways. It is a gem of a book.
As I look back on this experience of last week’s silent gifts, I am reminded of the scripture from 1 Kings in which the prophet Elijah experiences the presence of God. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was spitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah came to experience God not in all the wild and powerful sounds but in silence.
This week when the sounds of the world are pushing in, making it difficult to hear myself into the day, I am going to tune into my inner Quaker and remember the sheer grace of these people I experienced who walk so quietly in the world. Just thinking this makes me smile.