When was the last time you encountered complete silence? This question came to me this past Sunday as I sat in church waiting for the Eucharistic celebration to begin. As I sat there wanting to pray, I couldn’t. I couldn’t seem to find a moment of silence to help me focus and prepare for Mass. All around me was chatter. Don’t get me wrong, I too am a culprit in all this. I am notorious for talking during Mass (usually giving commentary) and it’s very easy for me to join in the conversation as people are talking: before, during, or after Mass.
In the back of my mind, I could hear Sr. Frances (my 1st grade teacher) and my parents telling me to stop talking and to listen or to pray. Over the years, I began to heed their advice and practicing silence. My practice and real attempt of entering into complete silence began when I entered the novitiate in 2002. I struggled with silence. I struggled because when I was younger, I was led to believe I had to be actively speaking to God in prayer. After about two weeks, I ran out of things to say and wasn’t sure what to do with the silence. This was not a good feeling only two weeks into a two-year novitiate. Over time, my Norbertine confreres helped me realize it wasn’t just about asking for something or telling God something, but listening to God and becoming aware of what God was stirring-up within me. I had to practice this – just like I had to practice the piano. Very soon, it was easier (not easy though) for me to engage the silence during the liturgy of the hours or at Mass. All these practices were reinforced during my time studying at St. John’s.
I don’t want to take this out of context, but the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says,
Even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in the adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout and fitting manner (45).
This seems pretty serious since it names places like the sacristy and vesting room. In my experience this particular instruction has not caught on or been taken very seriously. More and more, I find it is the norm to chat before Mass. When did this become the norm? I have heard the argument by some that this is a time for the parish to gather and “catch-up” or “build community.” I love these ideas, but isn’t this the function of a gathering space or socials after Mass. I am afraid we are losing (or have already lost) our sense of the sacred. I don’t want to sound all stuffy, but I do think we need to reclaim some silence in our churches as we prepare to joyfully celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Silence is important in the life of a Christian. It is the time we can set everything aside and rest in the presence of the Almighty. Silence can be uncomfortable, challenging, and life-giving. Whether we’re in a group or alone, we encounter the Risen Lord in silence. Silence is still a mystery to me; I am drawn into it and hurled from it to act. It sometimes bears immediate fruit and yet, at other times I seem to wallow in its desert. I am sure someone wiser than me has written on the importance of silence and spoken eloquently about its function in the liturgy and our prayer life.
In the liturgy, silence invites us to offer our personal petitions and also reflect on and embrace God’s word. Silence before the celebration helps prepare our hearts and minds to receive the living God in word and sacrament. The celebration of the Eucharist demands more of us than the commonplace activities of our daily life, especially everyday chatter.
Sr. Frances used to tell us that we were supposed to pray before Mass to prepare ourselves for Jesus. At 30, I think I am beginning to finally hear her wisdom. Our lives are filled with noise and I know my life gets overloaded rather quickly. I cherish the little silence I now practice and I certainly pine for more opportunities to enter into silence.
I think it’s about time for us to reclaim the gift of silence. Let’s help our assemblies practice silence, respect those who seek silence, and welcome the gifts God offers us in the silence. I have a hunch, that if we accept the GIRM’s invitation to practice silence that our celebration of the Eucharist will be transformed.