Finding idyllic idleness in Quaker meeting.
By Anna Patchefsky
In a 2019 Facebook post, @BritishQuakers promoted their next meeting with a screenshot from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. The accompanying caption included a quote from Olivia Colman’s stepmother: “It’s very intense. It’s very quiet. It’s very … very … erotic.” Below the post, one commenter facetiously cautioned against the danger of becoming “the Religious Society of Friends With Bonuses.”
A veteran of 13 years of Quaker school, I would not immediately call a single hour of the 520 I spent in meeting “erotic.” Meeting was always before lunch. My grumbling stomach and sporadic coughs contributed to an orchestra of other kids who couldn’t quite shut up, even with daily practice at silence. As I tried to count the light fixtures and lines on the ceilings, I grew increasingly anxious that everyone was watching me: from my hair-tie fidgeting to the very thoughts I would never share aloud.
The palpable eroticism referenced in Fleabag is a result of these tensions—between speaking and silence, between a slouched spine and the straight backs of the pews, between your thigh and the one next to you. And these tensions arise, perhaps, from the unusual stillness induced by meeting.
Last fall, I shared my experience of Quaker meeting with my Lit Hum class after my professor asked if anyone ever takes time to be still, sit in silence, or worship. We had just finished a session on Montaigne’s Essays. “The mind that has no fixed aim loses itself, for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere,” the Frenchman once noted.
Montaigne wrote in a secluded tower, his stone walls lined with etchings of his favorite quotes. He chose, then, the construction of his thoughts as respite from the surrounding world of political and religious tumult. For him, writing was a “complete idleness” that facilitated rest.
So I, too, went searching for idleness. But I did not find it on 15-minute breaks between classes—those were devoted to hurried lunches in the form of vending machine Cheez-It. Nor did idleness hide in Joseph Defraine Greenwell’s wellness tips (neither a daily glass of water nor a plant adoption). Even on the toilet, my mind was not still—that time reserved for a 15-minute TikTok scroll.
Unsuccessful and uncertain I would ever find a vacant turret to write in, I sought out more familiar territory.
When I enter the Zoom for Morningside Quaker Meeting in August, a message in the chat pops up, asking if this is my first time in attendance. I pen a reply: “Yes! Thank you for having me.” The friendly, albeit anonymous messenger wonders if I have any questions and then requests that I introduce myself when the meeting concludes.
As we settle into silence, I am unsure that I will be able to focus. Resolved to sit in silence for an hour, I cannot Zoom chat with friends to distract myself and pass the time. Like everyone else, I will simply wait—until someone, and I know it will not be me, feels moved to speak.
Only one person does. A girl, around my age, unmutes herself and raises her head. Bravely discussing her recovery process, she shares an unattributed quote that she has written at the top of her journal: “I am grateful for having raised myself to find the person I am proud to be.” People slowly nod in agreement as she mutes herself again, reintroducing that familiar, erotic silence for the rest of meeting.
Later, during a brief extended worship for sharing joys and sorrows, a gray-haired man channels the religious pacifism of Quakers. “There is a war going on,” he says, “and it is impossible for me not to read about it and also not to be appalled and saddened, frightened, and amazed that people can behave in such a way against each other needlessly.”
For an hour, I have sat in front of my laptop doing absolutely nothing more than thinking. But, somewhat impossibly, I have been surrounded by other people, scattered across generations and all corners of Morningside Heights. Grateful for the silence we have shared, I finally introduce myself.
I explain that I will be back in person in the fall to be idle, silent, and alone with my thoughts. But most importantly to do so with them—to be together. There was a time when I used to think that sitting in silence for an hour—let alone for 520—would have been better spent sleeping, studying, or eating a cheesesteak. But older now, having experienced a pandemic’s worth of intense physical isolation, returning to Quaker meeting has convinced me that everyone deserves time to be communally idle.