A Noisy World Needs More Silence in Our Churches

The contemporary allergy to silence is, in fact, our malady.

Gustave Léonard de Jonghe, “Sunday Morning,” 1864
Gustave Léonard de Jonghe, “Sunday Morning,” 1864 (photo: Public Domain)

Back in 1964, Simon and Garfunkel branded silence a “cancer” that “grows.” Some think they were reacting to the JFK assassination. Perhaps they foresaw a future that was silent, automated and impersonal.

If they did, they were wrong — at least about the silence. 

The Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana (LNBQ) ran an insightful piece Sept. 6 on what it called “walls of sound” and “analgesic noise.” Aurelio Porfiri was reacting to a growing phenomenon in Europe, where churches cannot seem to decide if they are places of worship or tourist sites. He complained about the piping of canned music — usually organ pieces or Gregorian chant — into otherwise empty churches to give visitors a churchy ambience, what we might call ecclesiastical elevator music. LNBQ noted a paradox: there’s a whole lot of chantin’ goin’ on when nobody’s actually chanting or praying, while a whole lot less takes place when people actually assemble for the liturgy.

Would it be so bad for those visitors actually to enter a quiet church that invites them to do what a church is for: pray?

Porfiri is on to something. If “silence like a cancer grows,” our times have mounted aggressive chemotherapy in the form of ubiquitous noise. We are just not comfortable with quiet.

I currently reside in Washington, whose Metro is possessed by a therapeutic voice that — between “apologizing for the [constant] delays” — just never shuts up. I understand announcing schedule changes. But do people really need instructions on how to use an escalator? (If they do, should they be wandering around in public?) Or a flood of admonitions that, in the same message, urge riders to report unattended packages as potential bombs and “as a reminder, eating and drinking are prohibited in Metro?” Are those two warnings of the same gravity? Or should we keep our eyes out for that bomb masquerading as a Big Mac?

Even the Church has succumbed to this unending prolixity. In how many churches is the period before Mass filled with people milling around and carrying on conversations? Or music people conducting last-minute rehearsals (or discussions about last minute music selections)? There are places for this: in the parking lot or the prep room. But a church should be silent, because this community is going to talk with its Master, and its members need time to focus, recollect and devote themselves to that most important task. This is a special kind of community, not the farmer’s market at prayer. (It’s also why people should not arrive late or “just on time” — should one keep the Master waiting?)

How often are the few times the liturgy sets aside for silence — especially the period of silent post-Communion thanksgiving — treated cursorily? Improv priests feel the need to “fill in the airtime” with their own homespun reflections. The choir’s soloist apparently feels the need to pierce the silence with her high C. 

At least those activities are semi-sacred. There are still parishes that stuff the time reading the bulletin (which, if it occurs, takes place after the Postcommunion Prayer), only to end with urging the congregation to “please take home a copy of the bulletin!” (Why?)

The contemporary allergy to silence is, in fact, our malady. It’s the aural counterpart of what St. Thomas Aquinas attacked as “busy-ness,” the obsession to “do something.” (How often do we use that expression?) We “do something” because we might otherwise have to face the vacuity we so desperately want to hide.

Silence is essential to recollection, to examining and reorienting one’s compass. It is critical to real prayer. Father Donald Haggerty, in his book Contemplative Enigmas, asks how we can accept God’s silence if we can never accept our own? How can we adore the Eucharist, which involves the silence of cor ad cor loquitur? Is our “information” or “sensory overload” an excuse for asking whether what’s overloading us is worth our time?

It’s that reorienting of compasses that modernity so desperately wants to avoid, most likely because it would expose so many idols of contemporary pieties that consume our time.

The Sabbath, at least, should be a time of peaceful and, preferably silent, recollection. When the Sabbath became the “weekend,” the rest of the Lord suddenly became just another thing to be wedged into an already-overstretched schedule. 

How much has even Sunday lost its quiet? Americans have largely forgotten that because we have spent a half century turning it into just another day, at best another “weekend” day. Americans got a bit of a taste of the past in 2021: July 4 was both a Sunday and Independence Day. Independence Day is one of the few American holidays still not celebrated by shopping. Most everything was shuttered. Most everything was quiet. It was nice.

I lived in Switzerland from 2008-2011. Bern was a Protestant canton, but it kept Sundays. By 5pm Saturday, most of the businesses downtown and the stores along the highways (think IKEA) were closing down. Around 7pm on Saturday, the bells of most of the churches of Bern began peeling the “Sonneneinleitung.” The ringing of the church bells was the “introduction of Sunday.” On Sunday itself, little was open in Protestant Bern. There was usually one bakery in a neighborhood that closed by noon or 1pm. Afterwards, the restaurants and movie theaters downtown were open, but little else: want to buy something, go to the 24-hour shop in the Main Train Station downtown or some gas station on the highway leading out of the city. Sundays in Bern had a palpable, tangible quality: quiet. (Indeed, it’s telling that those restaurants that opened on Sundays were closed on Mondays, called “ruhe Montag — “quiet Monday.”)

Americans would do well to recover Sunday silence, at least by deliberately and intentionally carving out “quiet time” (say, in the afternoon) on that day. We need it … because it’s not silence that is today’s cancer.