November 09, 2004

OK, I've vented my spleen about the Evangelical Quakers. So, Camassia, what was your good church experience this week?

Well, let me explain the background first. I have a friend who used to be a Hare Krishna, who thought I could benefit from learning to meditate. I have a very bad case of "monkey mind," as the Buddhists call it, and the constant chatter of thoughts, many destructive, obstructs sleep, prayer, and life in general. He suggested I try a non-doctrinal yoga place of some sort.

So I mentioned this to Jennifer, who was alarmed at the idea of my going off to another religious tradition and sent me this website on centering prayer. I'd never heard of it before, but apparently it started in the '70s with some Trappist monks who were trying to revive the old Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer and make it user-friendly for the laity. A number of churches across the country, mostly Catholic and Episcopal have regular sessions of it.

I didn't really think about doing it at first. But as the election approached, I found myself getting more and more stressed out. I wasn't really consciously worrying about the election that much, but the general anxiety of the country seemed to infect me. So I saw on the site that an Episcopal church in Hermosa Beach does centering prayer every Tuesday evening, and decided to go. It seemed like a much better idea than watching the election coverage at its frenetic yet glacial pace.

I was even more stressed when I got there, because I took a few wrong turns and was late. (Hermosa Beach is a pretty, upscale little town with tastefully discreet street signs that disappear in the dark.) Fortunately they'd taken a while to get rolling, so I didn't miss anything. The session was in a parlor-like room in the parish hall, and there were seven people there in all, including myself. We sat in a living-room set around a fireplace.

The group's leader explained the technique of centering prayer. Everyone chooses a "sacred word", which could be a name or a word from the Bible or some such thing. We sit in silence, and if any thoughts intrude upon your mind, you focus on your sacred word and brush it away. This was so much like the Buddhist concept of mantra that I wondered if the monks had lifted it straight from the East (this was the '70s, after all). But such parallel cultural evolution certainly happens, as people find the same solutions to the same problems. The session seemed solidly Christian; when we weren't silent, we said the Lord's Prayer and the leader quoted a few relevant Bible passages ("I leave you my peace...").

The first stretch of silent prayer lasted 20 minutes. The leader lit a candle and place it on the coffee table, and turned out the lights. I wondered how I was going to think about only one word for 20 minutes.

I wasn't actually able to do it, but I was better at it than I expected. I heard my word (I chose "holy") repeated rhythmically in my mind, sounding a lot like a Tibetan monk chant actually. I couldn't really stop my mind's eye from seeing things, so I visualized the word repeatedly -- a wall covered with holy's, holy's filling the space around me. Toward the end I even managed to black that out, and think nothing for maybe 15 or 30 seconds. When the beeper went off, I actually didn't want to quit. I was just starting to get good at it!

We stopped for a few minutes to talk and eat, then did another 15 minutes (we were supposed to do another 20, but the leader cut it because we were running late). Most of the other folks there had been doing it for longer; one woman had been at it about eight years. As with meditation, it apparently takes a lot of practice to clear one's thoughts. But everyone enjoyed the feeling of peace and serenity it gave them.

I wouldn't use those words to describe my own experience; my mind was still too busy, even focusing on one word. But I did feel a lot better afterward. I didn't really want to leave the place and go back to the world. But I was in a cheerful mood on the way home, and admired the drive up Highway 1, even though I couldn't see much in the dark.

Another interesting thing one woman mentioned was that she could only really do centering prayer when she was doing it with the group. She'd tried to do it at home but she couldn't get in the right frame of mind. I understand what she means. It seems like such an unsociable activity, yet it did matter that there were these other people around me all doing the same thing. It's innate to the human animal, I suppose. But also I think that when you're alone it can be frightening to conjure nothingness. If you're not actually at the point of encountering God in it, you can feel like you're in a vacuum.

After visiting the Quaker church on Sunday, I started wondering if the Quaker tradition of "silent worship" was meant to be like centering prayer. A lot of churches, like the one I attended, have abandoned that for "programmed" worship, and it sounds like even the officially silent-worshipping meetings aren't very silent. I remember the pastor at my recently ex-church once did a sermon about "fear of silence," clearly assuming everybody in the congregation shared it. I don't really have that -- in fact I am rather oversensitive to noise -- but apparently a lot of people do. Maybe it's that fear of nothingness again, that fear that nothing will be there to fill it up.

Anyway, I'm heading back to Hermosa this evening for another round. Here's hoping.

Posted by Camassia at November 09, 2004 01:13 PM | TrackBack

Hey, Camassia,

Loved reading your thoughts about Quakers!

Regarding Evangelicals and pastoral Friends. It is true, that Evangelical Friends tend to be more evangelical than Quaker. However, this is not true of all Quaker churches. I know of one in Whittier that tries to emphasize both equally. Back east, some Friends churches are actually "semi-programmed"; that is, half of the meeting is music with a short sermon and the other half is in expectant silence. I am not aware of any churches like that here in southern CA.

I should have been clearer regarding the "worship sharing" amongst unprogrammed Friends. This is actually not formal worship, but a way of including silence in a group process of reflection. My complaint is how it often seems to devolve, at least from my perspective, into a lot of psychotherapuetic nazel gazing. :)

Glad you liked the centering prayer. I know of one Episcopal church that includes it before their service. Several members of my Meeting also do centering prayer. I've found it very rewarding the few times that I have participated in it.

As to whether Quaker silent worship was supposed to be like centering prayer: yes, I think in some aspects it is meant to be that. However, instead of the use of a specific mantra, people have traditionally been encouraged to dwell on God, on Jesus in their hearts and minds.

Posted by: Joe G. on November 9, 2004 05:40 PM

This is actually not formal worship, but a way of including silence in a group process of reflection.

Ah, thanks for clearing that up. I also had that impression because I went to an unprogrammed meeting long ago that was very non-silent, but that might not have actually been a Meeting for Worship (I was 16 and not paying attention to that). It would be interesting to go to an actual silent meeting; maybe I'll do that next week. Actually, the nearest silent meeting to me might be yours, if you go to the meeting near USC.

Posted by: Camassia on November 9, 2004 05:56 PM

Glad that cleared things up for you.

Actually, I attend the Friends meeting in Santa Monica. The Meeting near USC is very small and has had some struggles in remaining open (for many different reasons). However, I don't wish to discourage you away from it, but only want to offer a little perspective if you happen to go.

If you ever do want to try Santa Monica Meeting, then just let me know and maybe I can meet you there, if you'd like that.

In any case, I'm enjoying your efforts to try a wide variety of churches and worship groups. I've done the same myself, from time to time. I think of myself as a spiritual anthropologist when doing so! :)

Posted by: Joe G. on November 10, 2004 06:08 AM

Some silent meeting for worship can be very talky, especially in large meetings and politically charged times (such as at the beginning of a war). We call these "popcorn meetings," and occasionally, in such a meeting, someone will stand up and simply be silent, to get across that we need more space for silence. Usually, though, there is a significant amount of silence between messages. I've even been to meetings where there was silence the whole meeting (no one happened to be moved to speak that day).

"Worship" also gets used to describe a lot of stuff other than our meeting for worship, from the worship sharing groups Joe talked about (which I've generally encountered on retreats and at yearly meetings), or even the meetings where we conduct our business ("meeting for worship for business," as we're occasionally reminded), so, it could either be the case that you happened to hit a popcorn meeting, or that you attended something other than a meeting for worship.

I've heard that the liberal/evangelical split is sharper in California than in other parts of the country (though there are exceptions, such as Whittier Friends Church and one Friends church in Berkeley that shares a building with an unprogrammed meeting). There are also, in some parts of the country, what are called Conservative Friends, who may be closer to older Quaker traditions than either liberal or evangelical Friends.

The Episcopal church where I take my EFM course is also involved with centering prayer; I am thinking of giving their group a try sometime.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on November 10, 2004 07:24 AM

If you're going to start doing centering prayer (or Centering Prayer, as some like to call it) regularly, I recommend reading up on the "Relaxation Response," a technique popularized by Dr. Herbert Benson, which as a technique is basically indistinguishable from the Centering Prayer of Frs. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating.

Benson's take on it is that the physical process has measurable beneficial physical effects.

My take on it is that people shouldn't confuse physical effects on the natural order with spiritual effects on the supernatural order, so it's good to know what the physical effects are apart from any graces centering prayer might bring.

Posted by: Tom on November 10, 2004 07:49 AM

Is the Santa Monica meeting silent? I could never find anything about it, beyond its address and worship times. That's good to know, since it's actually closer to me than the USC one (I live in Mar Vista). So I might take you up on that, Joe. It would be nice to meet you, and it would be nice to go to a church where I know somebody for a change!

Posted by: Camassia on November 10, 2004 07:56 AM

That would be fun!
You can find the information about the meeting here:

I probably will not be at Meeting until the 28th of November, which is Thanksgiving Day weekend. I will be there because I'm leading the Friendly Bible study before the actual Meeting for Worship, which starts at 10 AM. If you can attend then, then let me know and then we can make plans to say hello.

The Meeting is unprogrammed (if that is what you mean by "silent"). It does typically have a few messages each Sunday. However, as Lynn stated, there are times when it can be like listening to pop-corn popping with all the messages. I've mentioned my concerns about the quality of the messages in some previous posts at my blog. However, the Meeting seems to be trying to address this on a more concerted level now.

Hope to see you soon!

Posted by: Joe G. on November 10, 2004 06:15 PM

Have you tried the Jesus Prayer?

I wish I could find Frederica Mathews-Green's article about it. I'm fairly certain it was a chapter from one of her books, probably Facing East:
A Pilgrim's Journey Into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy

Her book, The Illumined Heart might also have some reference to it.

After googling "Jesus Prayer" myself, I found several very dry descriptions it, none giving any sense of the depth of the practice. You could use the prayer in your meeting, or simply try it on your own. It's a very powerful and wonderful prayer.


Posted by: Kizmet on November 13, 2004 06:15 AM


I attend a silent Quaker meeting in Wellesley, MA. It is probably typical of many meetings except that it is a very busy, growing congregation. I had an insight recently in meeting for worship. (Quaker business meetings once a month are also supposed to be worship services, with silence and consensus on decisions.) Anyhow, It occurred to me that in "silent" meetings the silence is the equivalent of music in a conventional Christian service. Only in many meetings there is this kind of impatient "ticking" like people want something interesting and inspirational to be said, as though they were talking during the hymns. I suggested that people realize that they need to -participate- in the silence, or, to put it another way, to "sing" the silence.
That is also sort of what you do in transcendental meditation or disciplines with concentration on the breath. But the idea with quaker worship is that you -share- the silence, as you would share a song.

Good luck on your spiritual journey. Be sure to allow yourself some time for "creative listening" in natural places.


Posted by: Chris on January 6, 2005 01:36 PM
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