We have all seen signs like “Do not litter” or “Keep off the grass.” These signs exist because people are littering and walking on the grass. The church has a “sign” like these. In a variety of forms, it says, “Be quiet” or “Keep silent” or “No talking.”
Sometimes it is an actual sign posted at the entrance to the worships space. Sometimes it is an announcement from a minister at the microphone. Sometimes it is just cultural expectation. But the sign exists. It exists because people are noisy in church.
However, the sign-makers (and the noisy parishioners) often misunderstand what we mean by liturgical or sacred silence. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is another place where we find a posting about silence:
Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its nature, however, depends on the moment when it occurs in the different parts of the celebration. For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him. (45)
Why you can’t just post a “Keep Quiet” sign
This passage from the GIRM implies that people are noisy. It is telling us we need to maintain sacred silence at certain parts of the liturgy and that the purpose of the silence varies depending on when it is called for. A few purposes it mentions are recollection, mediation, and praise (in our hearts).
I would suggest that approximately zero percent of the people in our assemblies understand either that they are to keep silent at these points in the liturgy or what those silences are intended for. In other words, the only reason we need a “Keep off the grass” sign is because people are walking on the grass. The only reason we need a “Stay silent” rubric is because people are not silent.If we want to convert people to an appreciation of sacred silence, we have to start where they are at. So let’s ask ourselves, what causes noisy people to be silent? Click To Tweet
We know, of course, the signs don’t work. People ignore them. There are two ways to keep people off the grass. You can hire a police officer to keep watch. Or you can convert people to a deeper understanding of the beauty of grass. If you want your assembly to keep sacred silence, you can become a police officer or an agent of change. Just posting a sign (or a notice in the bulletin) won’t work.
None of us want to be the liturgy police. So, if we want to convert people to an appreciation of sacred silence, we have to start where they are at. People’s lives are noisy and mostly they like the noise. They may come to church looking for a little less noise, but they are not interested in silence.
That’s not true of everyone, of course, but it is true of the noisy parishioners. So let’s ask ourselves, what causes noisy people to be silent? I think there is a spectrum of motivations for sacred silence, depending on one’s level of spirituality.
The first level is concentration. When I am trying to put together an IKEA bookshelf, I need to fully concentrate on the instructions. I can’t be talking about or listening to anything that isn’t directly concerned with fitting Object B into Slot L. Children, catechumens, and barely-engaged worshipers are at the concentration level. They are following the missalette closely, focusing on what to say, remembering when to sit or stand, and finding the next song. Anything that is not in the misallette (that is, the times of sacred silence) are times when they can relax their concentration and, ironically, let go of being silent.
Meditation is then next level. A common understanding of meditation is something like sitting in silence or repeating a mantra and completely emptying your mind. But that’s not really what meditation is. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain.… Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire… This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him. (2705-2708)
So at the meditation level, we don’t empty our minds. Instead, we work hard to think, imagine, feel, and desire whatever we are meditating about. I might look at a blank wall in my apartment, for example, and imagine a bookshelf there. I might get lost in thought, thinking about the design of the shelf and the kinds of books I’d put on it. I might develop a strong desire to have a small library of books about all the subjects I love.
In the liturgy, this is similar to what the elect and some active parishioners experience. They aren’t worried about following the parts of the Mass; they know them by heart. What they want is a liturgy that helps them focus on their lives as Christians. Songs that inspire them, readings that stir their imaginations, homilies that make them think are important to them. During times of silence, they may be thinking about how to put into action what the learned at Mass or imagining how the parish or the world could become better if everyone followed Jesus more closely. In other words, the silences have a goal. The silences facilitate our quest and help us imagine our next steps.
As the Catechism says, this has great value. But Christian prayer should go deeper.
If we can manage to bring our eucharistic worship beyond meditation, to the next level of prayer, we won’t have to post signs or become liturgical police. Worshipers will begin to sense the beauty of the Divine Presence that can only be fully experienced at the deepest level of prayer. We’ll look at what that level is in a future post.