Holy Silence (review)

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Holy Silence:
The Gift of Quaker Spirituality
Second Edition
Written by J. Brent Bill
Reviewed by Iris Graville

Brent Bill – a writer, photographer, and Quaker minister – considers silence to be “the Quaker sacrament.” In the first chapter of this small volume, Bill makes clear that holy silence “. . . is something we do, not something done to us. It is a participatory act. It engages our heart, mind, soul, and body in listening for the voice of the Beloved. Quaker silence is not passive.”

For Brent Bill, Quaker silence is “. . . more than an abstract spiritual idea. It is both life-changing and personal.”  I’m grateful that he didn’t shy away from the “absurdity of trying to write about silence,” for he’s provided a guide for anyone who hungers for silence as “a good way to meet God, no matter whether our souls are anxious or settled, swamped by insecurity or swathed in peace.”

With humor, warmth, and humility, Bill offers gentle, compelling guidance for those of us hungering for silence. Following a thoughtful discussion of silence as a Quaker sacrament, Bill moves the reader along the path with practical steps toward silence, including the practice of communal silence and individual silence practices. 

Bill sprinkles “quietude queries” throughout the text to support the reader’s personal contemplation. Here are a few examples:

How could taking time for silence enlarge my day?

Have I ever expected to hear God’s voice? How would I know if I heard it?

When I think of my sacred silent space, what does it look like?

For each query, Bill instructs the reader: “Relax your body and mind. Breathe deeply. Put down the book. Think about the following Quietude Query slowly and gently. Savor each thought.”

The book also devotes a full chapter to an additional set of individual and communal queries such as: “Are my private, holy silences a source of strength and guidance for daily living?”  Many of these queries, particularly the individual ones, are worded as yes-or-no questions. The questions that are more open-ended – “How do we prepare our hearts and minds for worship?” – encourage deeper reflection.

For people new to Quakerism, Bill’s glossary of Quaker words and phrases might remove some of the barriers that “Quakerese” – or as he labels it, “Friends’ Talk” – can create. He defines terms and phrases used in the book as well as ones you might hear at a Friends meeting. They include, for example: as way opens, Christ within, gathered meeting, leadings, queries, and speak to thy condition.

Bill concludes the book with a good-sized list of titles suggested for further reading. I regret that this second edition recommends only a couple of titles written by women, and none written by people of color. I wish this revised edition had included more diverse books written in recent years. (Most of the titles listed were published in the 1980s and 90s, with the newest from 2012.)

Additional strengths of Holy Silence are Brent Bill’s engaging style of storytelling and his ability to bridge varying practices among programmed and unprogrammed Friends. Bill conveys the importance of silence among all forms of Quaker worship, offering awareness of its differing and yet universal value.  The book would be an ideal gift to a new member of a Quaker meeting.

In the book’s introduction, Philip Gulley suggests, “. . . read it, then read it again, absorb it, savor it, treasure it.” That’s exactly what I intend to do with this wise and supportive book. Before long, I expect corners of pages in my copy will be turned, and sections will be underlined, as they always are in well-loved books.  ~~~

– Iris Graville is a member of Lopez Island Friends Meeting (NPYM).