A Personal Perspective
by Tanya M. Barrientos
I’d done some reading and knew this: There would be no talking, no singing, no sermon. The foundation of a Quaker meeting for worship is, I had learned, rooted in silent expectation – not that I had any idea what that meant exactly. But I wanted to find out, so I walked into the stately stone meeting house on an autumn Sunday morning and sat in one of the stiff wooden benches near the doors. Like plenty of people my age (which is somewhere between being able to vote and getting into the movies on a senior discount) I had developed a lifetime of mixed feelings about organized religion. What exactly did I believe? God? Yes. Church? Not so sure.
Inside, the meetinghouse looked unlike any church I had ever seen. The benches did not face an altar. In fact, there was no altar. No cross. No choir loft. No satin banners with white doves. Instead, the benches faced one another in a discreet and powerful testament to communion – in the broadest sense of the word. People filtered in, saying nothing, sometimes nodding to others they knew, sometimes searching for what must be their regular seat on the benches. The only sounds I heard were the brushing and scuffling of people settling, and crisp steady ticks, as regular as a heartbeat, coming from an old broad-faced clock perched on one of meetinghouse’s wide wooden beams. I thought my mind would race, that I’d fidget and grow distracted by the endless tape that usually plays in my head, reminding me of all the things I have to do at work and at home. But this silence was not passive. It was charged. Vibrant. Brimming with shared understanding. Of what, I wasn’t quite certain. But I wanted to find out.
Long into the meeting a man stood and spoke, his voice buoyed by – yes! – the silent expectation of all who had gathered. He spoke of forgiveness, and how difficult it can be. Then he sat down, and the quiet resonated with the fullness of his words. After a few moments, a woman stood and continued the thought, wondering aloud whether forgiveness is complete if the injured party will not accept it. She sat, and I could feel everyone weighing the question, working to parse its parts and reassemble them into a personal answer. There was an unspoken communion with the invisible spirit in the room. A visceral sense of communion with the other souls sharing my silence. This was no ordinary hush, it was speaking directly to me.
And then the meeting came to a close with one of the men sitting on the bench that was facing me offering a “good morning” to the woman sitting beside him. Immediately the air cracked with gracious greetings, handshakes and smiles all around – a gentle reintroduction to the noisy beauty of the world.