Hearing Silence


This was the year I sorta became a Quaker. “Sorta” means I went to two worship services in five weeks and started thinking seriously about whether I was a pacifist. It also means I’m lousy at getting out of bed on Sunday mornings. God didn’t enter into it, exactly; God was and is always there. It’s a matter of self-definition and, perhaps, self-discipline.

Quakers practice silent worship. Silence is a damn valuable thing for someone who listens to music for both business and pleasure. I do believe that one can listen to too much music; one needs a palate-clearing from time to time. But silent worship is hard work for someone who is attuned to listening, to seeking patterns. We’re supposed to be waiting on the Spirit, but so far I’ve been most impressed by the way the chairs in the meeting room creak and groan softly.

I’ve always been suspicious of the power of music. I’ve seen Christians felled like dominoes by the power of a heart-wrenching soprano, only to recant later. I’ve caught myself swaying or tapping a toe to some song whose lyrics, upon reflection, scare the crap out of me. My favorite song in first grade, which we sang in a very liberal Maryland school under the guidance of our hippie teacher, was “Marching to Pretoria.”

Sometimes I struggle mightily to separate mind from heart—especially when it comes to the music of Richard Thompson, which touches me in a very individual way. Other times, I just succumb. I did a lot of succumbing this year: to the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band at New Orleans JazzFest; to shows by Dar Williams, Nanci Griffith, and Herman’s Hermits, none of which I expected to like; to the rebel jug band Asylum Street Spankers performing a children’s show at the Floyd World Music Festival in Virginia. And to maybe 16 Thompson shows; I tend to lose count.

I don’t go to Quaker services for silence. I go because in that silence is the ever present possibility, a space for revelation.

Churchton, Maryland