The prayer bells of heaven lay hidden in the silence

Today I helped facilitate a session on Quaker silence as one part of a board retreat for a local organization. It took a lot of planning with my fellow presenters, and a lot of logistical support (thank you, George and Katherine and Daniel, Peter, Greg, and Rosemary, Marisa and Kevin and Levi, and of course Robin, Nine Year Old and Six Year Old!).

It was really pretty extraordinary. One helpful tool in preparing my part was Brent Bill's book Holy Silence. Chapter three starts with this quote from William Penn, which I read to the group: "True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment."

Another aspect was an experiment in group centering that you might like to try with a group unused to silence. I suggested we create a lot of noise and hub-bub in the room, then decrescendo into silence. It worked! It helped to have the external experience of going from the noise to the quiet.

We only had 15 minutes scheduled for the actual silence, and most of the group were not Quakers, so we called it "silent reflection/worship time."

Worship actually went almost 30 minutes. Not long into it, one person spoke, and that opened up the opportunity for several more people. Each one felt deeper than the previous one. Several of us had tears in our eyes, as the expressions of gratitude came. It ended just after a friend talked about how the board always had the next hurdle in front of it, yet he noticed that he was happier the more time he spent around this institution; he asked us to take time to notice what we had already built as a community, even as we were looking ahead at the next step.

What was in my mind as we closed worship was Brent Bill again, this time quoting Carrie Newcomer's "Holy as a Day is Spent" (link is to a PDF of the lyrics):
"Holy is the familiar room
And the quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can"

I wouldn't have been able to read it without sobbing at that point, though, so it's just as well worship ended. (Like AJ and Allison, I have recognized tears as a sign of the Spirit's presence.

- - - - - - -

It's seeming like I have an ever-growing prayer list for both my own life and personal connections and the world at large. So I'll just offer up these lyrics as a parting prayer, instead. (I found two versions of this on YouTube and chose not to link to them. There's just not as much bluegrass gospel video as there is the blues videos like those that Johan Maurer links to!)

Prayer Bells of Heaven

While we are living in this world of care
Many the burdens that we have to bear
But there's a prayer bell at the Lord's right hand
Give it a ring and He will understand.

Prayer bells of Heaven, oh how sweetly they ring (they keep ringing)
Bearing the message unto Jesus the King (of glory)
When you are burdened with troubles and care (my brother)
Ring on and on for God will answer your prayer.

Three Hebrew children to the flames were thrown
Because the mortal king they would not own Jesus delivered and the king then saw
Prayer bells of Heaven beats a man made law.


When Paul and Silas were both thrown in jail
They did not worry about who would go their bail
But on the prayer bell they began to ring
Off fell the stocks and they began to sing.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

I've been listening to this song by K-OS (hip hop) a lot lately:

I was down to my very last song
Didn’t even know which way to go
Couldn’t believe that this was happening
I said God please don’t put me back
I didn’t even see there was blood on the tracks
I was still compromising

And then the rain came and the sun went down below
And the city arose from the water it was off the shore
And I realized what was happening; I had to pay the toll
It’s true that you lose your mind when you gain control

But I was a fool to think I could play this game with you
Cause I was born to walk this higher road forever
There’s no understanding all the things that people do

Cause when this higher road comes down we'll be born together
I said
When this higher road comes down we'll be born forever

I was down to my very last friend
I was on highway kevin again
Tell me why it’s so hard to stay
In your place in the arms of the one
Seems I got to close to the sun
I was burning
Burning, burning burning…

And then the rain came and the sun went down below
And the city arose from the water and the water flowed
And then I realized what was happening; You have to pay the toll
It’s true that you gain your soul when you lose control

Fool to think I could play this game with you
Cause I was born to walk this higher road forever
See there’s no understanding all the things that people do

But when this higher road comes down we'll be born together
I said
When this higher road comes down we'll be born forever

At night I toss and turn, cause it seems that I haven’t learned
That the more that you fight and the more that you try
That’s the way that you making the storm
If I had my way, I would bring you back to stay
But you’re gone
All I got is the crown that your wore
Is the crown that you wore

I'm having a lot of frustrations with Quakerism as I see it. The frustrations are enough that I often think about leaving and not coming back. I don't know what to do about it. I don't know how to reconcile what I want to be and believe in and who I want to learn from... with what Quakerism is like presently. cubbie said it's about the practice and the community, and I like the Quaker practice, but the community is the part I struggle with. I am curious about this community - http://www.missionbaycc.org/ - I haven't been yet because I've been throwing all my eggs in the Quaker basket in the hopes that I may be wrong. Why is it that it seems other groups, despite having a faith practice I don't believe in personally (in their case, Presbyterian), can somehow manifest a community that more fits the vision of what I saw in the Light?

Hystery said...

Thanks for this post. I see this kind of work as a sort of evangelism for a more peaceful approach in group work. You may not know how deeply you affected the others who benefited from this sharing.

One of the reasons I decided to seek a Quaker meeting was a week long seminar I attended on Silence and Spirituality. It was a graduate seminar in which all learners were non-Quakers save one. The rest of us included a Goddess woman, a RC nun, an Eastern Orthodox priest, an African immigrant who was a convert from Islam to Christianity, and two Buddhists. All of us, being grad students, were very talkative and full of ourselves...very committed to our own perspectives. Imagine us trying to spend several days debating religion!

But our facilitator was a Quaker and he applied a simple rule to our meeting- We were to embrace silence between each speaker's words.

What could have ended in a contest of wits and egos instead became a gentle and generous communion of people. We did not leap upon one another words as new opportunities to prove our own cleverness. Instead, as silence descended upon us after each speaker completed his or her thoughts, we sat in long minutes of quiet. At first this was uncomfortable. It felt like "doing nothing." It was hard not to leap forward with our own rebuttal. Soon, however, as the silence provided space for deeper listening we found ourselves viewing each speaker as a blessing rather than an opponent. We learned to hear each other. Remarkable.

Allison said...

PS - I'm reading a book you'd like that I think also explains what I attempted to say in What Young People Need. The book is Jesus Today by Albert Nolan and how people are open and hungry for spirituality and mysticism.

PPS - Thanks for the shout-out! Actually my blog has changed from ruminations to rainbowfriends.net

Chris M. said...


That's a great story. Thank you for writing it. Deep listening is a radical and countercultural act.


Thanks for the K-OS lyrics. They definitely resonate for me. And I will look up the Albert Nolan book.

I'll switch the link, too; thanks for the alert.

-- Chris M.