The Sound of Silence


We stood in the ancient meeting hall, our feet on a red brick floor laid in 1688, windows leaded in tell-tale fashion.

The windows are the only giveaway from the outside, that this is such an ancient building. Its unfussy exterior looks almost 1940s in its utilitarian style. Each window catch, though,  is beautifully, artlessly pretty. Worn benches face each other in the hall.

This is a place of worship. King James II said it could be, in that oddly named Declaration of Indulgence, which permitted men to worship freely in the way they wished. No longer must they adhere to the Anglican church’s rituals.

But compare this to the hushed aisles of a village church and so much is overwhelmingly different. No shrines, no tombs, no echo, no ancient churchy smell; no pomp. Not busy at all. Plain, silent, listening.

A more profound space I have rarely encountered.

This was Jordan’s meeting-house. It is where William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and his kin are buried, and where Quakers have met and made a life for themselves these three hundred years and more.

It is simplicity itself. And every time I come here, there is someone to welcome me and show me around. Without intent, it is always a pure act of hospitality. I will never forget the woman who showed me everything on this visit. The best thing about this place, she said, was the silence. The space to contemplate.

We fill our lives with sound and fury, signifying nothing. Our minds, created to contemplate, have no time to do so and become frenetic, unbalanced. And the silence: well, that rebalances our spirits.

That place, a humble hall fit-for-purpose, surrounded by green, green Buckinghamshire gardens, and a burial ground where everyone has the same stone; a marker, no more. Jordans is a salve, a tonic for the fevered mind, a silver stream winding musical  through the crammed, busy, gnarled old world.

What are these? I asked my Saturday afternoon guide, pointing to alcoves in the wall, plain white spaces with no statue or ornament to fill them.

People put their prayers there, she told me. Lots of religions do it. Us too.

Phil stood with me on the red brick floor, next to worn-wood benches, and the bibles on the shelf by the entrance. Look, he said: different translations.Lots of different translations, King James, New English, Jerusalem – the Catholic bible – and more. How typical of these people, he said,to have such a broad attitude.

It was. They have a library, crammed in a tiny room, packed with reading and texts from the major religions.

The Friends to the red-brick floored, white room and they listen. And when someone feels they must say something, they stand and speak and sit down again. And the silence rules once more, until words well up out of it in someone’s heart, and must be spoken once again.

It’s enough to make you wait for meeting time.

This is a place where every man is equal. Where contemplation banishes ritual.

Where one can hear oneself think.

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27 thoughts on “The Sound of Silence

    1. I have heard the view, Roger. And you are one of the wise who has sought out a quiet environment in which to live. If I could join you, I would, but instead I am in this frenetic black hold caused by the M25, and life is fast and loud. Whether you put a label on it or not, the silence and its practice in that place was palpable, and oh, so welcome.

  1. I’ve often thought the Quakers got it right. The sitting in circle, the silence, the speaking from the heart. Silence is at the heart of contemplation, of healing. We spend way too much of our day inundated with sound to where we cannot hear the beat of our own heart much less of those within our own circle of life.

  2. Oh how deeply replenishing. That kind of ancient silence with all those prayers tucked into all those corners, it must be like walking through a fresh breeze. How wonderful. I have much silence out here and though it is not accompanied by time and ancient heartbeats, the absence of frantic jabbering is addictive. c

  3. We lived next door to two Quakers on Deal Island. I loved chatting with them about their view of the world. Their religion is all about looking within for answers . . . not up to a pulpit.

      1. Absolutely!

        BTW: My favorite of your pictures are (1) inside the meeting room and (2) the view of the cemetery showing circular placement of markers.

  4. If I ever was to resort to religion — and there’s zero likelihood of it, to the power infinity — it would be with the Society of Friends. And though things have changed since the 17th century this meeting house clearly preserves the traditions I remember from attending a few meetings in the 70s in Bristol. Thanks for this post and the evocative photos.

    Speaking of Bristol, Penn’s father was born in Bristol. When I lived there I often popped into St Mary Redcliffe where on a north wall of the nave is hung the armour of Cromwell’s admiral Sir William Penn. It was another indirect North American link Bristolians revelled in — John Cabot discovering Newfoundland was another — and it always seemed incongruous to me that he was buried in an Anglican church when his son was a Quaker. But I suppose the fact that he died in 1670, 17 years before the Declaration of Indulgence, must have something to do with it.

    Interesting WordPress page on Admiral Penn here:

  5. I have been trying to figure out how I can possibly visit all of the blogs I’ve missed these past days, and here you are, Kate, giving me peace in the first one I land on. How beautiful this is and your photos. Oh my! A place I would love to visit.
    The gravestones look to be in semicircle as well. Are they?

  6. To each an individual opinion. It seems to me to be about as impressive, and as conducive towards contemplation of the infinite, as a minor council chamber. For all I know it does have the ‘atmosphere’ one finds in the great cathedrals, but it would really have to work at it.

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