Quaker Theology - Issue #5 - Autumn 2001

Stillness: Surrounding, Sustaining, Strengthening

Ann K. Riggs

July 2, 2001

Friends General Conference Gathering
Blacksburg, Virginia

Be still, and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10


Materials giving information about the 2001 Gathering and its theme included a memorable quotation from Thomas Kelly and a reflection on the value of stillness: "We hope you will join us in the beautiful mountains of southwestern Virginia to focus on Stillness, that place where we find, in the words of Thomas Kelly, that ‘objective, dynamic Presence which enfolds us all, nourishes our souls, speaks glad unutterable comfort within us, and quickens in us depths that had before been slumbering.’"

In the stillness of the Gathered meeting, Kelly writes, another form of stillness is disrupted, "depths that had before been slumbering," are quickened. Stillness leads to awakening from stillness. What can this mean?

In my remarks this evening, as a reflection on the Gathering theme, "Stillness: Surrounding, Sustaining, Strengthening" I would like to offer some suggestions for a way of understanding this insight of Kelly’s. In order to pursue this, I would like to suggest and consider three images for you to call up in your minds. The first of those images is the stillness of a long slow summer’s afternoon in the sun, not too hot, just warm. The second is stillness in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute; and finally, the stillness of the cross.

I use the word image here in part because I am going to ask you to draw up images in your minds. In part, I use the word image here to hint at the status I wish to give to these notions.

I offer them as ways of thinking about and remembering complexes of ideas and feelings that might otherwise be hard to take and keep hold of. Like most attempts to give insight into the spiritual life, the life of the Spirit, what I have to offer tonight is always less than I want to say and more than I can say in any linear manner.

The Stillness of a Long Slow Summer’s Afternoon in the Sun

Some years ago now I worked as a hospital chaplain at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, not too far from here.

When I was working there, I often had the feeling that the night times were the best. The hospital would be still in a certain kind of way. Some people would be sleeping. Lights would be turned down. I would sometimes be overwhelmed by a sense that the Spirit was surrounding me and sustaining me.

The day times were much more hectic and irritating, really. You had to get along with all the staff and deal with all the ins and outs of hospital life. But the occasion I am remembering now did happen in the daytime. I was in a room too small for the occupants. There was machinery all over the place–all kinds of dials and lights that I didn’t really know much about, being a theologian rather than a medical expert. Outside the window, the sun sank, slowly, slowly down.

Over the course of several hours, I was present with a family as one of their members died quietly, surrounded by people whom he loved and who loved him. This is the first image I would ask you to call to your mind.

The man who was dying had been very sick for quite a long time. He had come to a decision that the quality of his life was not being improved by extraordinary interventions aimed at supporting his lingering in this world. He was relatively young, perhaps about 45 years old, but there was nothing further that medicine could do for him. Neither comfort nor any hope for cure was being offered by all the medical equipment surrounding us. He was, however, deeply at peace with his parents and siblings. His wife was ready to let him go.

They were a family of deep religious conviction – Presbyterian I think – and their minister was with them also. There was another person from his congregation elsewhere in the building also dying so he was grateful for my presence. As I walked in to be with them, really all I had to offer was to stand in the Presence myself. And that was enough.

This man was dying before all the physical interventions had changed him. He wasn’t emaciated. My recollection of him is rather of a beautiful person lying in a bed, surrounded by people who loved him. He took off his light oxygen mask and turned to those around him to tell them "I love you," before he settled into a quiet rest of several hours.

His family at first had expected some kind of sudden change, but this was a leisurely passing. As the time wore on his family got a little tired and I was able to persuade his wife and mother to let me take a turn holding his hand while they went to get something to eat and a brief rest for themselves. To my surprise, they agreed and came back refreshed.

I suggested that they were enjoying a slow summer afternoon together in the sun. The dreamy, gentle stillness of a peaceful afternoon together with those you love settled over us, surrounding, strengthening and sustaining everyone. Time passed and the shadows grew long. Breathing grew slower and more shallow but was never labored or strained. There was no evidence of pain or distress. Nothing disturbed that peacefulness as one well-loved was released into the care of the eternal One.

The words of the psalmist addressed to God might well apply to the feeling of that day.

From Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from you presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest

limits of the sea,

even there your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light

around me become night,"

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

(Psalm 139:7-12 NRSV)

Or from Psalm 131:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things too great

and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

my soul within me is like a weaned child.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

(Psalm 131 incorporating alternative reading in verse 2)

Or in the words of George Fox, one might say that that afternoon, we knew one another in that which is eternal.

Experiences of the kind I had that sunny day in Durham, that are recorded in the Bible and in the journals and other writings of the religious heroes of Quakerism are so deeply appealing. We long to have all our moments seem blessed and, in fact, to be blessed by this peaceful quiet.

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