I recently accepted an invitation to attend a local Quaker worship service, which meets at 9:30 a.m. Sundays at the Cypress on Hilton Head Island.
I was a teenager when I last attended a Quaker service, and I remember the silence most. Everyone sat quietly for a long time, then got up to speak their mind when they felt the moment was right. Coming from a Jewish background -- which is full of liturgy, communal singing, choirs and a sermon -- I found this to be quite outside the box.
On the day of the local service -- which I was delighted to attend -- I walked into an elegant room where about 12 people sat silently in a circle. It is one thing to have a minute or two of silent prayer. It is quite another to sit in silence for 30 minutes or more.
I grew a bit fidgety and wondered if I had the patience for such quietude. I even looked down at my iPad and considered whether I could get away with checking my email. Instead, I watched everyone engaged in what many of them would later say was a spiritual experience of clearing the mind and reflection. During that time, I actually was able to immerse myself in prayer -- once I released my need to stay busy.
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A part of me would have preferred to be an observer and hear worshippers say whatever was on their minds. But I was there to answer questions about Judaism.
Many of the people I met at the service were longtime Hilton Head residents. Some grew up as Quakers and others came to this faith tradition by way of marriage. Other regulars do not necessarily identify as Quakers, but see themselves as humanists. Even though this group is small, they are welcoming to those who would like to share in their tradition.
The Quakers have a long, established history in America that originated out of the Puritan movement in 17th century England. The founder of the movement, George Fox, was standing before a magistrate's trial in Derby, England. He excoriated the judge that he should tremble at the word of God. Fox's followers became known as "tremblers" or "quakers." In the Christian Scriptures, John 15:13-15 refers to adherents of Christianity as "Friends of Jesus." From that verse the Quakers named themselves the Religious Society of Friends.
The Quakers have a strong emphasis on equality and especially about the belief that God approaches the individual directly through the inner light, which is Jesus.
Their emphasis is not on theological doctrine, and their ritual life is one that focuses on simplicity and silence. Quakers are most known for their social conscience. The American Friends Service, for example, has always been in the forefront of social justice and human rights issues. They also have a strong pacifist tradition. Quakers were abolitionists and conscientious objectors in the wars America fought in the past two centuries.
Some of the finest colleges in the United States are Quaker schools, such as Haverford College and Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. Other great schools like Cornell University and Johns Hopkins have their roots in the Quaker tradition. Many cities, like my hometown of Baltimore, have private high schools called Friends School, which offer excellent educations.
Some of the most famous Americans with Quaker roots in history and today are Daniel Boone, folksinger Joan Baez, first lady Dolly Madison, musician Dave Mathews, poet Walt Whitman, civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and Julian Bond, Susan B. Anthony, Revolutionary Patriot Betsey Ross, and past presidents Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon.
The art of silence in worship is one that has much to offer. Just being able to sit with others and release ourselves from any distractions in order to look inward is a discipline that requires much concentration. Some call it "silence," others refer to the experience as "meditation."
There is no question that Quakerism is part and parcel of the American religious spectrum, and while their numbers are generally small compared with other religions, they have made an imprint over the centuries. Hilton Head's Quaker worship group compromises peace-loving, spiritual individuals who take their faith seriously. They call themselves "seekers." My sense is that they have found their pathway to the divine light and, therefore, to the presence of God in their lives.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.