In a previous post, we discussed the quest for sacred silence in the liturgy. In contemporary worship, the rubrics of the church call for times of sacred silence. And very often, this rubric is ignored because either parishioners are unaware of it or they do not understand it.
We noted that there are various reasons for silence. At the lowest level, we keep silent when we need to concentrate on a difficult task. At a higher level, we are silent when we meditate on a profound truth, such as why Jesus died for us or how we are to live a Christian life.
There is, however, a still higher level of silence — contemplation.
Contemplation — seeing and hearing
Contemplation is often used interchangeably with meditation. However, in worship, these are two different forms of prayer. Meditation is a form of prayer that we might employ at times within the liturgy. The liturgy as a whole, however, is contemplation. We do not take time out from the liturgy to contemplate. We enter into contemplative prayer from the moment liturgy begins until we are sent forth at its conclusion.
Contemplation comes from the Latin word templum. In the ancient world, a templum was a designated space within which a visionary would look for divine omens. In addition to the space itself, the word came to mean the action that took place within the space — observing, looking, seeing, gazing. That meaning is carried over into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says: “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus” (2715).
The catechism goes on to expand the meaning beyond seeing: “Contemplative prayer is hearing the Word of God” (2716). But we shouldn’t understand that contemplation is passive. It is active in the sense of Mary hearing God’s announcement that she would conceive and bear a son. It is a word of invitation that requires an active response.
Sacred silence is not the absence of sound
In order to hear the invitation, we need to keep silent: “Contemplative prayer is silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love.’” However, “silence” here does not mean the absence of sound. It means that the only sounds we admit are sounds that have true meaning. In the same sentence, the catechism continues: “Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love” (2717).
One way to think of contemplation is to imagine that silence is our first and primary way of “gazing” on Jesus and “hearing” God’s word. When words, songs, proclamations, movements, and actions can assist us in feeding “the fire of love,” we should employ them. When they distract from or diminish the “fire of love,” we should avoid them.We do not take time out from the liturgy to contemplate. We enter into contemplative prayer from the moment liturgy begins until we are sent forth at its conclusion. Click To Tweet
Contemplation, especially in the liturgy, cannot be restricted to private moments of reflection. To see, to hear, requires a response. When we see the Lord, we must move toward the “fire of love.” When we hear the Lord, we must say, as Mary did, “yes!”
Contemplation compels us to love those Jesus loves
Contemplation is transformation. We are changed by our deep, gazing, heart-filling encounter with Jesus. That is not a passive response. It is an active conversion.
And our conversion compels us to act in the world as Jesus did. We show our love for Jesus by loving those he loves most — the poor, marginalized, weak, and wounded. In the end liturgy is a rehearsal for gazing on Christ in the faces of those who are “other” and hearing God’s word in the voices of the voiceless.
When we are able to see God’s face and hear God’s voice in every molecule of creation, we will know that our liturgies are truly contemplative. Then, we won’t need rubrics and announcements reminding the assembly about sacred silence. The “fire of love” will form them into contemplatives.