" 'What do I do?' I ask my Quaker friend Ruth. 'You are the Great Pooh-bah,' she says. 'You don't have to do anything.'
"As acting clerk of the Gila Religious Society of Friends, my main job is to open and close the hour of silence to watch the clock. A clerk also runs the business meeting held once a month after silence. According to my copy of Quaker Faith and Practice, a six-hundred-page guide to being a Quaker, a clerk 'needs to have a spiritual capacity for discernment and sensitivity to meeting.'
"Faith and Practice does not mention that the title of clerk instantly ages you twenty years. More often than not, this is exactly the age as clerk that you want to be.
"In the Gila Friends Meeting, we are what is called 'unprogrammed' Quakers. Meeting is our version of church, and a clerk is our version of a minister. Quakers believe that the Divine is right here, right now, and that the best way to find one's version of that is to sit quietly and wait. The idea of silence began more than three hundred years ago with George Fox, an Englishman who experienced a Light in his soul and who determined that this Light is in everyone, that there is 'that of God' in every human being.
"On time, then, at ten o'clock Sunday morning, I sit in my chair in a circle of chairs. If possible, clerks start the hour of silence by example. There is no shushing. I am not a librarian. I am here to wait for the Divine, and soon, nicely, all the other Quakers are sitting down and waiting, too. It's a big crowd for our small Meeting, with visiting Friends from other Meetings and with other friends just here to visit. Twenty of us (I count secretly) sit, breathe, get comfortable. Most of us close our eyes. Outside the door, a truck shifts into low gear.
"In this circle, each time, I feel the same wonder. What makes a group of people at the beginning of the twenty-first century come together and sit silently in a room, as though we were doing something important? Do we really wait for a visiting God? Are we all thinking about peace and love? Do we believe in some kind of group vibration?
"Are we trying to levitate?
"I don't think so, although I can't say for sure. I think we are simply trying to be silent. We hope for this still mind. We notice our thoughts and let them go. We believe faithfully that in a moment of listening, we will hear something not our own voice. Then we won't be so lonely. We will feel a Presence. We will know what we have always suspected: eternal life is under the words.
"I believe this in spite of myself, in spite of my experience and my education, so that it seems a Presence has been whispering to me, that I believe in something I do not yet know.
"I think about these things more than I believe in them. Truthfully, my best thinking has been done in silence, where I have an agreement: this is not the place for work, relationships, children, sex, money, or vacation plans. There is not much left to do but be still or be thoughtful. The latter is so interesting that I often forget to concentrate on the present moment or on waiting for the Light.
"As clerk, I keep looking at the big clock on the wall. Each time, another Quaker is looking, too.
"Each time I look up and look around, I see other people. Quakers believe that corporate worship is more powerful than individual worship. This seems to be true. In any case, this circle of human beings is deeply reassuring. Both the familiar and the unfamiliar faces are all, somehow, familial. Their cheeks and brows look soft, relaxed in the struggle of letting to, going under the words.
"Given the depth of this struggle, it seems odd that Quakers also endorse a 'vocal ministry.' Any Quaker at any time can interrupt the silence and say what is bursting in her heart, what she feels must be said. Very early Quakers got their names because the emotion of hearing God's voice and seeing the Light caused them literally to quake. Understandably, they might have imploded had they not been allowed to speak about the experience. Modern Quakers do not quake at all. Still, we continue to break silence. Some Meetings are quite talkative. My meeting is not. Commonly, no one says anything."(see new books)