I want to tell the story of the first time I went to meeting at the Religious Society of Friends (The Quakers). Meeting is what you might call Sunday Morning Service. I was visiting this church for the first time because I had heard tremendously good things about the Quakers. I heard that they were pacifists, political activists, LGBTQIA friendly/accepting/approving, and on top of that they have the distinction of being the first Christians to have directly opposed the European Slave Trade. They were arguing for abolition all the way back in the late 1600’s. They are even working in the Underground Railroad. Yes I did use the present tense. So in short they really live out that command to love your neighbor as yourself.
On my first visit to their church I was greeted warmly at the door and shown the way to the main auditorium. The church was small, and its auditorium was about the size of your average garage. Now their order of worship is not that complicated. They say a few words at the beginning, and they end with a few more words, some prayers and some announcements. In between there is simply silence.
I don’t know if I am communicating that last part accurately, what I mean to say is that they sit still and stay quiet.
No, I am definitely not explaining this right. Let me try something else. Have you ever been out in nature, like on a long hike in a national park, and watched a sunrise? The way the world is right before the sun rises, when the sky is still gray and the air is a bit chilly, that’s how quiet it was. It was the complete opposite of an airport or a hospital. It was the kind of silence that you can feel, and it made everything in the room come roaring into life.
Now sometimes the silence is broken by a member of the congregation who has something important to share. This is not frowned upon, and is welcomed and even enjoyed. But it’s the silence that you come for.
Listless The first thing I encountered in that silence was boredom. I resisted the urge to check my phone, as I wanted to respect the space and their bizarre custom. I tried to keep my fingers from twiddling, and my foot from tapping. I dug into my steely reserves of determination to try to endure the endless drone of that stillness. I was on my way to meet God but I first had to encounter my own boredom. I had to exhaust the endless monotony of my mind’s constant drive for distraction and entertainment. In that silence, I found myself in boredom’s weary sway, so I gave in and fell into drowsiness.
The second stage of my journey was the drifting of my eyes, and the dull pounding hum of the blood flowing through my veins. The second stage was drowsiness, and I fought to stay awake. It was so quiet, peaceful, and still that I found myself sympathizing with the disciples who fell asleep while Jesus prayed. I wanted to just give in and drift off into slumber, but I had come here with a purpose and I would not be denied the full measure of this church’s experience. So I took hold of my mind and engaged my intellect.
Fighting The next step of my journey found me thinking, as hard as I could, about as many different thought experiments as my mind would conjure. I analyzed the architecture, the people, the room, my reasons for being there, and this strange practice in which we were engaged. I didn’t have long to wait though before my mind failed me as my rational process was replaced by something much deeper.
In that silence I remember experiencing something frighteningly profound, I remember being terrified. I felt angst, anxiety, ennui, the sickness unto death, dread, and all the existential agony of a moment stretched out to infinity. I wanted someone to scream, I wanted to stand and confess my sins, or start singing a hymn, or introduce myself, or do anything but be caught in that moment of silence. Like many of you I live a fast paced modern life inundated by machines and the grueling pace of technology. The cacophony is where I am every single day and the sheer madness of that silence was wearing me into panic.
As someone who has suffered from panic attacks I wondered if one might be coming on, and I wondered how much longer I could stand this.
The apparition That was when I saw God in a sunbeam. Through the window I could see outside and the sun was shining in the yard outside the building. The sun was being filtered through the trees and a pure ray of sunlight, mixed with vibrant floating dust motes, dropped quietly through the trees onto the tiny blades of grass. I realized then that God does not need to be proven, and that intellect can’t grasp Her anyways. He was there in all those tiny spaces and She was there in the light, the dust, and the grass. It was not the heavens, boldly barking out the names of the divine, but the tiny stillness which declared the glory of God.
God was in the still small voice.
“And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19:11-13 (KJV)
James Taylor earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Texas A&M University, and is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on the link between race and technology. He currently teaches philosophy and specializes in critical philosophy of race, technology, and religion. In his free time he enjoys researching family genealogies and going graving, the hobby of documenting cemeteries.