Be Not Afraid of Silence — Silence is Critical to Prayer

Ours is a society that is uncomfortable with silence.

(photo: Register Files)

As I’ve previously written, Father Donald Haggerty’s Contemplative Enigmas focuses on the spirituality of prayer, with major prominence given to the role of silence, both ours to hear God as well as God’s, who chooses to reveal Himself as He wishes and often in silence, particularly as one’s prayer life grows deeper. I also expanded on a particularly interesting point I derived from Father Haggerty’s book: how the stimuli of modern information technology, creating a kind of perennial, background “companion presence”—the equivalent in ubiquity and seriousness of mental elevator music—debilitates our ability to pray. It lessens our capacity to “be still” and/or to “know that [He is] God” (Psalm 46:10) because our lack of recollection masks a superficial “abyss of self.”

While Father Haggerty notes the human need to learn to accept silence as a prerequisite to real prayer, he puts even greater emphasis on how God is also often silent, especially in contemplative prayer and how, paradoxically, His silence often speaks volumes to the soul. To underscore and support our faith in our silent Lord, Father Haggerty frequently writes about prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. God’s Presence there is certain and assured, even if silent and “hidden.” That spurred these reflections.

“The profound experience with God’s loving presence in praying before a tabernacle or monstrance never removes the reality of his utter mystery” (p. 134). That said, if we are praying before a tabernacle, the truth is evident. The hidden, transcendent God steps out of hiding in some manner and makes himself known to the soul who loves him and longs for him” (pp. 135-36).

That provokes two questions about contemporary Sunday praxis: the ethos in church, especially before Mass, and silence at Mass.

By “ethos” I mean the whole atmosphere encountered when one enters church on Sunday. Silence plays a critical role here. Silence is critical to prayer. The church, most basically, is the domus Dei, the “house of God.” Jesus is clear: “my house will be called a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13). That is what we are in church to do. Whatever, then, detracts from prayer, whatever undermines its prerequisite silence, is unworthy of the house of God.

I make this point because there has been a tendency, stronger some years back but still persisting in some places before Sunday Mass, to treat the church as a kind of “gathering place” for the “Christian community,” together with conversations and pleasantries and similar levels of background noise in churches. Yes, the Christian community needs to talk—but it needs to talk first and foremost with Him without whose grace there is no Christian community. The Christian community is not created by small talk among its members but by the work of God. That’s not to downplay the value of “small talk.” It has its place, but its place is not in displacing the “big talk” that should be going on between the members of the Christian community and their Master, which is not limited to the formal liturgy. “Fully conscious and active participation” in the liturgy—which Sacrosanctum Concilium (no. 14) calls for—requires preparation. Preparation that means prayer, and prayer which presupposes silence that both recollects the one praying and makes him ready to listen to the One who speaks (1 Samuel 3:9) even to His Silence. To adapt St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:22) when criticizing the social divisions exacerbated by the common meal that once preceded the Eucharist, “Do you not have houses to talk in? Or do you despise the church of God” by impeding prayer there?

Let us strive to create an atmosphere of prayer in what should be houses of prayer, not just during formal liturgical celebrations but always. I can feel for Father Haggerty: working in a church like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which doubles as a tourist attraction in midtown Manhattan, makes it hard to foster that atmosphere. It’s nevertheless essential. My wife once commented that what felt alien about many Anglican churches we saw when we lived in London was that they didn’t feel “prayed in.” They seemed places to come and admire the aesthetic achievements of another era, but their primary raison d’être—houses of prayer—seemed anemic, if not absent. I’ll admit my positive impression when I stopped by the cathedral in Ljubljana, Slovenia, last November: because I only wanted to stop to pray and not necessarily to go to Mass, I did not know I arrived when Sunday High Mass was in course. The porter at the door told me, “Come back in an hour to visit the church.” Only when I noted I wanted to stay and pray did he invite me in.

My second point: silence at Mass.

Mass is first and foremost prayer and, even within that formal liturgical celebration, there are times for silence. I want to underscore them, because I often think we give them short shrift.

First and foremost, the silence after Communion. There is a twofold period of thanksgiving that follows Communion, first silent for our personal thanksgiving, then communal, captured in the Postcommunion Prayer. That time of silence should never be omitted nor reduced to the merely nominal, as if the celebrant simply needs a minute’s rest. Even more so, nothing should intrude on that silence. It is not a time for reading announcements. It is not a time for the priest to “share” his own thoughts with the congregation. It’s not time for some “post-communion meditation” encore by a soloist or musician. And it is absolutely and positively not a time for ushers to be taking up collections. That time of silence needs to be safeguarded.

There are other times of silence I think also often get truncated. There should be some silence after each reading of the liturgy, in order to reflect on that reading and not just provide time for the lector and the cantor to trade places. I’ll also admit some biases. There shouldn’t be “melodic bridges” between the Kyrie and the Gloria. One is a prayer of petition, the other of adoration. Break. Full stop. Some silence. And I think people would pray more (note my verb, “pray,” not “participate”) if ecclesiastical singing did not appear to be led by a conductor (please lead your choir if you must, but don’t wave at me) and if the presence of cantors was not amplified by microphones. “Leading” does not mean “dominating.” One should not be hard pressed to hear one’s own thoughts.

Ours is a society that is uncomfortable with silence. Just consider how “awkward” or “uncomfortable” many people feel with “merely” being quietly present, especially at difficult moments like sickness or death. That uncomfortableness is why I think Father Haggerty regularly emphasizes that deep prayer needs to be comfortable with silence.

Lent — especially this difficult and historic Lent — is an opportunity to get reacquainted with silence. In empty churches, church bells will be mute and the Gloria absent – but for a special appearance on Holy Thursday – until the Easter Vigil. This is a time for prayer… and a time for silence. Even on a Sunday.