J. Brent BILL. Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. pp. 143. $15.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-7403-0. Reviewed by John SNIEGOCKI, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207.


In this small volume, Brent Bill, a minister in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), reflects upon the value of Quaker silence. He compares Quaker silence to Catholic understandings of the Eucharist, arguing that in such silence the real presence of Christ is truly experienced – it is “the actual meeting of God with us and us with God.” (7) While Bill expresses his appreciation for liturgy, hymns, and scriptural readings (he was raised in a branch of Quakerism that includes these practices during worship along with silence), he shares that it has been silence that has most impacted him spiritually. “Friends’ approach to silence,” he says, “is a pathway to God that sates the spirit unlike anything I have ever experienced.” It “speaks to my soul in a way nothing else does.” (5)

Bill briefly highlights the role that silence has played in various religious traditions, including eastern religious traditions, Native American traditions, in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, and in the history of Christianity. He suggests that there are many different types of spiritual silence. His purpose in this book is primarily to explain what is distinctive about Quaker practices of silence.

“Quakers,” Bill asserts, “believe that all of life is sacramental…Spiritual silence helps to prepare our souls for that possibility. That’s what differentiates Quaker silence from other spiritual silences. Quaker silence anticipates the real presence of Christ coming in a sacramental way among us and within us.” (20) Through Quaker silence, he contends, we come to more fully experience God in our daily activities, in nature, and in other people.

Quaker silence occurs in both individual and group forms. In both forms, active waiting is crucial, an openness to experiencing God’s presence and receiving guidance from God.  Early Quakers stressed that “Jesus comes to teach his people himself” and can be experienced through what Quakers call the “Inner Light.” [42] One distinguishing feature of Quaker group worship is that those who feel led by this Inner Light to speak out of the silence can do so, sharing their message with the others gathered as part of a process of group listening to discern the will of God.

Bill highlights some of the obstacles to silence in our culture, and suggests ways to overcome them. Above all, he stresses the power of silent listening to transform our lives: “[P]owerful spiritual silence, if we allow it, will blow fresh winds of the Spirit through us. Not like a safe spring breeze. More like a hurricane.” [41]

This book has numerous helpful features. In addition to the main text, there are “Quietude Queries” scattered throughout, encouraging the reader to put the book down, breathe, and reflect upon provided questions. There are also appendices consisting of some suggested ‘silence practices,’ additional individual and group queries, a glossary of Quaker terms, and suggestions for further reading.

Another valuable feature of the book is the inclusion of some poetry and musical lyrics, such as May Sarton’s powerful poem “Beyond the Questions,” which reflects on the value of silence, and Quaker folk singer Carrie Newcomer’s beautiful song “Holy as a Day is Spent,” which highlights the sacramentality of daily life.  This is one of the songs on Newcomer’s excellent album “Kindred Spirits.”  

Overall, this is a helpful book, one which invites us into a deeper appreciation of silence and a deeper experience of God’s presence in silence. It would be complemented well by other books that explore specific spiritual practices in more detail, such as Patricia Loring’s two-volume work on Quaker spirituality entitled Listening Spirituality.