Quakerism as Contemplative Practice


"The Society of Friends is perhaps the most remarkable demonstration in history of the availability of mystical experience to groups of open but otherwise ordinary people."

John Ferguson - Encyclopedia of Mysticism

"Great things did the Lord lead me into and wonderful depths were opened unto me beyond what can by words be declared; but as people come into subjection to the Spirit or God and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty; they may receive the Word of Wisdom that opens all things and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being".

"I came to know God experimentally."

"This I knew experimentally"

 George Fox - as quoted in Friends for Three Hundred Years

Meeting for Worship

Meeting for worship based on silence can be the setting for powerful unitive experience.

"There was little said in that meeting but I sat still in it, and was bowed in the spirit before the Lord, and felt him with me and with Friends, and saw that they had their minds retired, and waited to feel his presence and power to operate in their hearts and that they were spiritual worshipers who worship God in Spirit and in truth and I was sensible that they felt and tasted of the Lord's goodness as at that time I did, and though few words were spoken, yet I was well satisfied with the meeting. And there arose a melody that went through the meeting and the presence of the Lord was in the midst of us and more true comfort, refreshment and satisfaction did I meet with from the Lord in that meeting than ever I had in any meeting in all my life before."

John Gratton 1641-1712

Rudolf Otto says there is the silence of sacrament, the silence of waiting, and the silence of union or fellowship.

"When the Quakers assemble for a quiet time together, this is first and foremost a time of waiting and it has in this sense a double value. It means our submergence, i.e., inward concentration and detachment, from manifold outward distraction; but this again has value as a preparation of the soul to become the pencil of the unearthly writer, the bent bow of the heavenly archer, the tuned lyre of the divine musician. This silence is then, primarily not so much a dumbness in the presence of Deity, as an awaiting His coming in expectation of the Spirit and its message."

"That is, silence, and especially the silent communion of worshippers, is the most desirable state for the conduct of collective worship. Any speaking that should take place during worship must emerge from the inward silence of the speaker and be directed toward bringing the auditors to silence or enhancing the condition of silence in which they already reside."


"Quaker worship: "It is impossible for the enemy, namely the devil, to counterfeit it so as for any soul to be deceived or deluded by him in the exercise thereof . . He can accompany the priest to the alter, the preacher to the pulpit, the zealot to his prayers, yea, the doctor to his study . . . when the soul comes to this silence and as it were is brought to nothingness as to her own workings, then the devil is shut out."


What is your practice in meeting for worship?

In an article in a British Quaker journal the author searched for the method of worship used historically by Friends. The title summarized his findings, "They Just Sat". But how did they just sit? Did they just sit in the Zen Buddhist tradition of just sitting (Zazen)? Or did they just sit in a passive, Quietist, openness to Being or Surrender to God? Or did they just sit in some other way?

Did Friends sit in an "attitude of vigilant expectation" (listening, waiting)?

"As Benoit pointed out, my thinking process will start up again only when I cease the "Speak, I am listening" attitude. He summarizes this inner gesture by stating that it "is realized when I authorize the totality of my tendencies before the conscious appearance of any one of them; and then none of them appears". And when none of these imaginative-emotive tendencies appear as conscious objects, then I am grounded in pure non-dual organic consciousness, "thanks to which I am virtually already free."

Ken Wilber - Spectrum of Consciouses

Someone has said that what we are aiming for in meeting for worship is a powerful energetic vigilant total listening. Listening, like that which we experience after being awakened in the night, for a potentially threatening sound to repeat itself so that we can identify it.

High energy may be generated in vigilant listening, especially if we take seriously the possibility of receiving a Divine leading to speak. A good deal of energy can be generated in the process of discernment (is this an insight just for me, an ego prompting, or true leading); the danger of not speaking when we are called (called quenching by early Quakers); and the danger saying more than we are called to say (called out running our measure of truth by earlier Quakers).


Query 5
Do you "just sit" in meeting for worship? Do you sit in vigilant expectation? If you don't just sit, how would you describe what you do in meeting for worship?

Does formal meditation practice such as concentration or insight meditation feel appropriate to you in meeting for worship? What about centering prayer?

Is there a formal practice which we should be recommending to newcomers to meeting for worship?

How do you discern between leadings to speak and your own ego driven promptings and personal insights?

Is meeting for worship linked to unitive experience in your own life?


Silence And Compassionate Action

In Meeting for Worship we listen in silence with the expectation that we may be called to speak. This adds prophetic dimension and dimension of ministry to our experience of silence. Unitive experience often leads to insight which cuts through our social fictions as well as our personal fictions and has led of social action and peace work among Friends. Some times the spoken word carries these insights.

"If contemplation, which introduces us to the very heart of creation, does not inflame us with such love that it gives us, together with deep joy, the understanding of the infinite misery of the world, it is a vain kind of contemplation; it is the contemplation of a false God. The sign of true contemplation is charity."

Marius Grout - French Quaker

What we receive in contemplation, we pour out in love.

Meister Eckhart

At this point lets look at a most provocative paradox which a Japanese Zen Buddhist, Teruyasu Tamura, sees as he looks at Quakerism..

". . . A bodhisattra (an enlighten one who vows to return until all sentient beings are enlightened) is supposed to save others before saving themselves. But Zen has done very little to save the poor and the suffering. It seems to me that Quakers have been far greater Bodhisattras than Zen Buddhists."

Yet he thinks that vocal ministry, which may be one source of Friends action orientation, tends to reduce the depth of unitive experience.

"A greater, more serious difference consists in "vocal ministry." The problem is that it is not merely a difference from Zen but seems to be a great cause of confusion and frustration even to Quakers themselves. From the standpoint of Zen, of the Cloud of Unknowing, and depth psychology for that matter, vocal ministry seems to be an irrational form of devotion rather a hindrance than a help to attaining the deepest spirituality, because it breaks silence and prevents one from sinking further down into consciousness."

Teruyasu Tamura - A Zen Buddhist Encounters Quakerism

Do you find a link between unitive experience and compassion in your own life? Are there ways you are expressing in action, the oneness with all being found in contemplation?

Have there been moments of action in which you have felt something like unitive experience?

Monasticsim and Testimonies

Friends have not withdrawn to monasteries, but the sober simple life style of early friends might be seen as the equivalent.



Remember those testimonies which make the old Quakers seem like such fuddy-duddies? The testimonies against frivolity, music, celebrating holidays, feasting on holidays, playing idle games as pastimes, fancy dress, etc. Is it time to mentally revisit the forgotten testimonies with the idea that they may be ways to remove hindrances to the spiritual life?

Do you embody spirit of these Friends' testimonies or are they errors or anachronisms?

How does your life style help free you from desire, aversion, and illusion?


Meeting For Business As Spiritual Practice

Though it is not always approached in this way, meeting for worship for business can be experienced as a spiritual discipline of emptiness and non-attachment. In fact Scott Peck gives us a very interesting approach to arriving at community through emptiness, which seems to be a group equivalent of meditation. He argues that there are four stages of community: pseudo community, chaos, emptiness, and community. He says that we need to go through these stages to arrive at real community.

"There are only two ways out of chaos," I will explain to a group after it has spent a sufficient period of time squabbling and getting nowhere. "One is into organization - but organization is never community. The only other way is into and through emptiness.

The most common (and interrelated) barriers to communication that people need to empty themselves of before they can enter genuine community are: Expectations and Preconceptions. ... Prejudices. ... Ideology, Theology, and Solutions ... The Need to Heal, Convert, Fix, or Solve. ... The Need to Control."

Scott Peck - A Different Drum


Is emptiness in group process the communal equivalent of contemplation for the individual?

It is one thing to enter deep silence in meeting for worship, but do you maintain this same inner peace at meeting for business? If not, do you use the emotions (both positive and negative) that you feel to examine your attachments?

Do you share your deepest intuition of truth at meetings for business in a spirit of love?

Is this one place to practice the presence (mindfulness) corporately?


Contemplative Mentors

Other contemplative traditions have Gurus or Spiritual Directors who offer spiritual direction and guidance along this path. Modern Friends tend not to have developed these roles in at least as visible a form though there have recently been some moves in this direction. Spiritual nurture groups, spiritual friends, and friends enrolling in spiritual direction courses of study are examples of this. Other Friends have found guidance from spiritual directors from other traditions.

"And when all my hopes in them and all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power."

George Fox

"The proclamation of George Fox in the first generation of Quakers should be enough to startle us right out of our chairs. It is that Christ has come to teach his people himself, in the same way that the historical Jesus walked in Galilee proclaiming the imminence and immanence of the Kingdom of God, and that the risen Christ lived in the hearts and souls of his people in the days following the resurrection."

J. Anthony Gaeslen - Christ Centered Quakerism

The radical Protestantism expressed above, the belief in equality, and the rejection of authority that characterize American Friends seem to have moved us away from developing spiritual teachers in the same way that other traditions have.


Are we standing outside of Friends' tradition in efforts like these web pages or the work shop they were developed for? Should we instead rely on Christ to teach us directly in worship?

Does our tradition tell us that spiritual directors, Eastern teachers, and perhaps even weighty Friends only stand between us and Christ (Inner light) and thus should go the way of paid pastors?

Or, have we erred to the other side and by overvaluing individuality and tolerance so that we are now in danger of losing our discipline and hence our integrity as a religious society? 

Are we losing potential members to other groups that are more explicit in their teaching of contemplative disciplines?


Contemplate Practice and Nature

There is a group called Quaker Earthcare Witness (formerly Friends in Unity With Nature) who from a conviction and consciousness that the global crisis of ecological sustainability is at root a spiritual crisis. The following quotes from other contemplatives seem to strongly support this restatement of contemplative wisdom. 

The manifold delight I learn to take in earthly things

Can never drive me from my Love.

For in the nobility of creatures,

in their beauty and in their usefulness,

I will love God -

and not myself!"

The truly wise person

kneels at the feet of all creatures

and is not afraid to endure

the mockery of others.

Mechtild of Magdeburg


Every creature is a word of God.

Meister Eckhart


Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars.

Gaze at the beauty of earth's greenings. Now, think

What delight God gives to humankind

with all these things . . .

All nature is at the disposal of humankind.

We are to work with it.

Forwithout it we cannot survive.

Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179)



Do you find that natural environments have been conducive to unitive experience for you?

Do you think earthcare can be a contemplative practice?

How do you honor the life of all living things, the order of nature, the wildness of wilderness, the richness of the created world?

How do you seek the holiness which God has placed in these things, and the measure of Light which God has lent them?

What are you doing to reduce the destructiveness of the human impact on the ecosystem?


Injunctive Knowledge of Quakerism

We started out talking about an injunctive form of knowledge that leads to knowledge that does not seem to be expressed well in words.


What do you believe to be the elements of the Quaker recipe for an injunctive knowledge of Quakerism?



The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley

Though not easy reading and somewhat dated (1948), I find this to be one of the best collections of literature and ideas concerning mysticism. Huxley's thesis is that there is a common core to mysticism across time. He states what he believes this common core of beliefs to be and illustrates ideas with quotes from various traditions. His approach is universalistic but draws more on the Eastern traditions than on Western traditions.

The Observing Self by Arthur J. Deikman

This book looks at mysticism and meditation from a contemporary psychological perspective. An interesting secular introduction to the topic.

The Miracle of Mindfulness by Trich Nhat Hanh

If you are looking for clear practical suggestions and exercises for beginning meditation and the associated life disciplines, I can think of no better place to start than with this book. Short and straight forward.

Pilgrimage Home: The Conduct of Contemplative Practice in Groups by Gerald May

This book can provide some good ideas if you are interested in starting a group aimed at spiritual development along the lines we have been talking about. Based on the experience of some weighty folks including some Quakers, who have been engaged in ecumenical spiritual development groups. I think that most Friends would feel comfortable with the practices they have developed.

Original Blessing by Matthew Fox

If you are coming from a Christian perspective you may find this interpretation an exciting new look with a mystical point of view. Some of his other books offer a more popular, less theologically oriented introduction to his ideas.

No Boundary, A Sociable God, or The Spectrum of Consciousness, Grace and Grit, by Ken Wilber

Wilber presents a developmental stages approach to understanding personal and transpersonal growth. If you prefer a psychological approach try the first book, for a sociological approach try the second. For a biographical approach to his ideas try Grace and Grit.  Quite readable and very thought provoking.

Shambala by Chogyam Trungpa

An attempt by a Tibetan religious leader to describe a humanistic nonsectarian approach to the contemplative life. Don't be put off with the image of the warrior until you have read how he defines the term. Very interesting metaphors and has the virtue of being short.

The Choice is Always Ours by Dorothy B. Phillips, et. al.

A very good anthology of the contemplative way that makes good devotional reading.

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

This is my favorite book by Merton but you may find others more to your taste. Though interested and knowledgeable of other traditions Merton's practice and self understanding come from the Catholic tradition.

Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill

Another classic which concentrates on the Western mystical tradition through history. Check this out of the library first to see if you like it, before buying it.

Care of Mind. Care of Spirit  by Gerald May

May looks at the interface between psychological counseling and spiritual direction in this short but interesting book. May was a psychiatrist who is interested in exploring the contemplative way looking for terms that are meaningful for us today. You might also enjoy his more theoretical book titled Will and Spirit. In the latter he tries to outline a contemplative psychology using psychological terms that are familiar to most of us.

Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating

A very nice practical guide to contemplative prayer. Outlines the theory and practice of centering prayer from a Christian context. Though written from a Catholic perspective it is not narrow in its view and I think that anyone comfortable with Christian language will find it useful.

Seeking the Heart of Wisdom - Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield

A very readable, useful introduction to Buddhist insight meditation which offers a very contemporary applications and examples.

A Zen Buddhist Encounters Quakerism - Teruyasu Tamura.

A very provocative Pendle Hill Pamphlet (302) in which the author who values both traditions points out what seem to him to be fascinating contradictions within Quakerism.

The Seed and the Tree Daniel A. Seeger Pendle Hill Pamphlet (269)

A wonderful exploration of nonviolence as an expression of contemplative practice. The best writing on spiritually based nonviolence I have ever read.

Transformations of Consciousness by Ken Wilber, Jack Engler, and Daniel Brown.

Very interesting exploration of the psychological problems and meditation. Fairly technical psychological jargon.

Ordinary Magic - Edited by John Welwood

My favorite book of readings on contemporary contemplative daily practice. Highly recommended.

A Path With Heart - Jack Kornfield

Very good from American Buddhist perspective but which uses examples from other traditions as well.

From the Quaker perspective of course read Rufus Jones, Douglas Steere, John Youngblut, and Howard Brinton.