Pastoral Reflection

The Sound of Silence (1)

We live constantly surrounded and assaulted by noise – and if there isn’t any we generate our own via all the electronic devices we carry with us.  It sometimes seems as if we are disturbed less by noise than by lack of it.  Back in 1964 in an address on the Feast of the Holy Family, Pope Paul VI, now a saint remember, said:

          May esteem for silence, that admirable and indispensable condition of mind, be revived in us, besieged as we are by so many uplifted voices, the general noise and uproar, in our seething modern life.  May the silence of Nazareth teach us recollection, inwardness, and the disposition to listen to good inspirations and the teachings of true masters.  May it teach us the need for…meditation, of personal inner life, of the prayer which God alone sees in secret.[1]

One of my first experiences of a spiritual retreat was the thirty-day Ignatian retreat I made when I was testing my vocation with the Jesuits.  One of the basic and essential elements of the retreat is silence in that for thirty days you talk to no one except once a day to your retreat director, and you are not allowed to listen to any secular music or the radio, to watch television or to read newspapers.  One of the biggest challenges is finding places throughout the day – other than your room or the chapel – where you can be alone with God and as free as possible from noise and disturbance.

The experience is like starting out on a strict diet – and in many ways that’s exactly what it is, except that it’s not food you are trying to go without.  In the beginning it feels like you’ll never get through one day let alone thirty, deprived of all the usual distractions and diversions, and especially not being able to talk to others.  However, once you get into it, it becomes an amazing spiritual journey, discovering God in the silence, which – like Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness – is the whole point.

By comparison almost every retreat I have made after that experience was something of a disappointment until I learned to decide from the outset of each that silence and solitude weren’t going to be part of it.  In the seminary every retreat director would explain the importance of silence and ask that we respect everyone’s right to prayerful quiet, but everyone would start talking before they’d even left the room!  I think it’s probably a societal thing and has a lot to do with today’s lack of personal discipline and self-control.

We have become so used to our world of noise and distractions that we really don’t deal very well with silence – which makes it all the more poignant when, for example, sixty or seventy thousand people at a football match are asked to observe a minute’s silence as a mark of respect for someone who has died and do so, immaculately.  Sadly, however, there is often someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the word respect and has to give voice to their ignorance.  Sadly also, because there is a fear that so many people won’t keep perfectly silent even for a minute, the modern trend (an import from the Continent) is to have a minute’s applause instead, but what that also does is make it difficult for people to pray for the deceased – which was the original purpose of the silence – and so once again noise wins out.

Our pre-Victorian ancestors would have been appalled at the level of noise that we live with.  They would have heard nothing much louder, disturbing their peace, than a horse trotting along the street, the noise of carriage wheels, or a brass band in the park on a Sunday afternoon.  It’s no wonder actual fear was generated by the sight and sound of the first locomotives, not to mention the machinery of the industrial revolution.

Increasingly in recent years we have got used to being constantly in busy-ness mode.  Our lives are full and fast – sometimes obsessively so – to the point that we can’t do without it.  We can’t sit still for five minutes and we especially can’t cope without our various electronic connections to the universe.  Even when we go on holiday, it isn’t really a holiday from anything other than work and sometimes not even that when people pack their laptops and their smart phones. 

A church is meant to be a sacred space, a haven of peace and silence, but that depends very much on the people who go there.  Clearly even back in Our Lord’s time he had difficulty with people who brought the world with them into the synagogue – his Father’s house, a house of prayer.  They quite literally turned the temple into a market place, setting up stalls to sell the birds and livestock that people needed as sacrifices, and where they could exchange local currency for the special coinage needed the pay the temple tax.  Jesus was so angry with what he saw going on that he drove everyone out, admonishing them for their behaviour.  Their response was one we hear all the time: “But we’ve always done it this way” – which may well have been true, but that didn’t make it right and it was no excuse for the resulting abuse of God’s house as a place of prayer and worship. 

And that’s the whole point, really.  As places of prayer our churches should be quiet and peaceful.  The churches of some denominations are basically no more than meeting rooms and so perhaps it doesn’t really matter if they sit talking before the service begins.  However, coming into a Catholic church is different: 

The Lord is in his holy Temple:

Let the whole earth be silent before him. (Hab 2 v 20)

Adoration is the first attitude of man acknowledging that he is a creature before his Creator.  It exalts the greatness of the Lord who made us and the almighty power of the Saviour who sets us free from evil.  Adoration is homage of the spirit to the ‘King of Glory’, respectful silence in the presence of the ‘ever greater’ God.[2]

As Catholics we believe in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle.  The purpose of the sanctuary lamp, perpetually burning, is to remind us of that fact – if we need reminding – and to hopefully make a point about reverence and prayerfulness to non-Catholic visitors even if they don’t share our belief.  People say it makes a difference when you enter into a Catholic church, the fact that as a sacred space, a place of peace and prayer, it has a different “feel” to it.  It’s the presence of God.  And the fact that we enter into his presence when we come into church has to make a difference to us and how we conduct ourselves.  It’s not just a meeting room and it’s certainly not a market place, but that’s what it becomes if we behave as we would in such places, sitting there chatting to others, creating noise and disturbance and, worse than any of that, making it difficult or impossible for other people to pray – which is totally unacceptable.  Yes there is a social dimension when we gather to celebrate the eucharist, but that is more appropriately kept to outside the church or over a cup of tea in the parish hall if there is one.  It’s one of the reasons why, weather permitting, I stand outside  church after Mass to meet and greet people rather than at the back of church inside.

In church we are in the Real Presence of God – or do we not really believe that?  If we do believe it, do we think his presence is somehow limited only to the front of church – beyond where the altar rails used to be – so that if we are still at the back we can conduct our business first, including talking to others, before we get round to talking to him?  If so, how do you think God might feel about that?  If you had an audience with Her Majesty the Queen, I guarantee you wouldn’t stand talking before you paid her any attention.  But when it’s “only” God it doesn’t seem to matter to us.  The Redemptorists at the John Paul Centre in Middlesbrough used to have little cards in their chapel that read something like I am Jesus and I’m waiting for you here in the tabernacle.  Please talk to me rather than to those around you. Obviously they too were having problems with people sitting talking in their chapel.    

In every one of my parishes I have had to address the issue of people talking in church before and after Mass, and sadly it has proved to be a fruitless task.  In one of those parishes there was one lady in particular who was totally and absolutely incapable of sitting down next to someone without immediately starting to talk to them – usually before she’d even spoken to God!  She seemed to be psychologically incapable of sitting next to someone without talking to them, even when they were clearly praying to God.  I had hours of CCTV footage from the security camera in church of her talking and talking, and no matter how often I mentioned the subject in the newsletter and verbally, it made absolutely no difference.  She just seemed incapable of not talking.  St James reminds us:

If anyone deludes themselves by thinking they are serving God,

when they have not learned to control their tongue,

the service they give is in vain. (1 v 26)

I often feel like going up to such people (except then I’d be talking in church as well!) and asking them what they are talking about: whether it’s an appropriate topic of conversation for church anyway and what is it that’s so urgent that it couldn’t wait until later, outside church.  What they don’t seem to realise is that they are giving in to temptation because there is only one person who would want to stop people from praying and they are doing his work for him.  Just as worryingly, when they ignore Church teaching (as we’ll see in a moment) and the priest’s request not to talk in church and talk anyway, basically they are committing a sin of disobedience – right before Mass and receiving holy communion or right afterwards!

They are also responsible for setting a very poor example to our children of how we should conduct ourselves in church and why, and we have Our Lord’s own teaching in the gospels on the consequence of leading little ones astray.  And that lesson in reverence and respect for the Blessed Sacrament begins with genuflecting in the aisle before we take our seat and as we leave and any time that we cross in front of the tabernacle.  Also men and boys remove their hats when they come into church.  Once upon a time these things were drilled into us not only by our parents but also by the nuns who taught in our parish schools and by our Catholic teachers who always seemed to live in the parish and were therefore at Mass to spot any misbehaviour and to correct it.   

I asked the question above whether we really believe in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, or is it rather that we take his presence for granted?  The people of the Old Testament had a very different relationship with God – sadly one based on fear (which was odd, really, when you consider how close God was to his Chosen People and how much he had done for them).  They believed that if they looked on his face they would die; they were even afraid to call him by name – which is why he gave them a description of who he was (“Yahweh” – “I Am Who Am”) to use instead.  They also attributed to God everything that happened – especially bad things; it was easier to blame God than to accept responsibility themselves.  And so God came to be seen as a vengeful punishing God, but at least it instilled respect and reverence in the people, something we could be in danger of losing in our over-familiarity with God.   

And so, for example, we have the incident in 2Sam 6 v 1-8 when King David was supervising the return of the Ark of the Covenant – the symbol of God’s presence with his people in the ten commandments he had given to Moses.  No one but the levitical priests were allowed to touch the Ark so sacred was it and so, when one of the oxen pulling the cart on which the Ark was being transported stumbled, a bystander, Uzzah, put out his hand to steady it and, so the account says, he was struck dead on the spot – or at least that was the interpretation the people put on his death, the fact that he had touched the Ark.

We come into the presence of God in our Ark – the tabernacle – sometimes without even acknowledging his presence, speaking to other people before we’ve even spoken to him, failing to genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament, and then sitting talking to anyone and everyone as if Our Lord wasn’t even there.  Even if in some churches the tabernacle is less prominent, in a side chapel for example, this should challenge us even more to consciously acknowledge the Blessed Sacrament and the fact that we have come into God’s house and his presence, wherever the tabernacle might be. 

Even if God wasn’t present (though all the more so because he is) and even if, therefore, reverence and prayerfulness weren’t immediately called for (though they are), why are we so incapable of sitting quietly with our own thoughts?  Why do we have to generate noise and disturbance and especially when we know it is interrupting other people’s prayer and when, being in church, we have been asked (and as children were taught) not to?  On the subject of what it refers to as “sacred silence” the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says:

Even before the celebration itself, it is praiseworthy for silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner.  (para 45)

As an illustration of the sort of disposition we should have in the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament, I will end with a quote from a rather unusual source:  the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.  Water Rat and Mole are drifting along on the river in their boat when they have a rather mystical experience.  In the context of the story what they experience is actually their god Pan, but for our purposes we can read into this episode what our experience and conduct should be in the presence of our God: 

With no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals moored their boat and in silence they landed.

“Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!”

whispered the Rat. 

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great awe fall upon him, he bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground.  It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.  And still there was silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them. 

“Rat, are you afraid?” whispered the Mole.

“Afraid? Afraid of him?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “O, never, never!” 

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship. 

*          *          *


[1] From the Office of Readings for the Feast.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 2628.