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Silence in Church ~ Good, Beautiful, Holy

Into the Deep 

The world is a loud and crazy place. Every day we are faced with noises competing against one another. We, as inhabitants of this world become accustomed to the chaotic uproar that all of these voices and sounds create. Advertising firms recognize this and will, on occasion, program an extended moment of silence into a commercial precisely because that silence becomes a notable interruption to the noises of society and grabs our attention. Seldom do we come face to face with a silent moment in our daily lives. When we do, it is often uncomfortable and we can respond by turning on the radio or television for some “background noise” to ease the tension. There are several problems that find their root in this constant commotion. 

First, we gradually lose the ability to think for ourselves. It’s hard to stop and think about something when somebody’s always doing the talking. Political and Economic talk shows become verbal abuses when speakers interrupt and talk over one another so that the viewer is forced to listen to multiple voices at once. Advertising for sitcom programming has been changed so that one half-hour time slot rolls right into the next with the commercials coming later in the program with the result that viewers will be drawn into the next show without taking a break. Airports, malls, restaurants, and bars are filled with televisions and music that, at times, makes it difficult to have a normal conversation. It is a rare moment in which we are left with our thoughts in silence. When is there time for imagination, reflection, deliberation, creativity, or prayer? 

In the second place, the voice of our conscience becomes the voice of a stranger, and an unwelcome one at that. Many people become uncomfortable with silence when it occurs because countless unprocessed thoughts begin to rise to the surface. Should I have said this to that person? Could I have handled this in a better way? Am I really going to ignore what my daughter said to me this morning? How am I going to pay the mortgage this month? I haven’t had enough time to sit down and talk to my spouse about “us” in so long! The conscience comes in like a flustered personal assistant with an unmanageable list of unaddressed concerns that only you can resolve. Who would welcome that? Naturally, a person’s response is to escape into the noise... escape into the world of a television show, a reality show that allows you to watch the concerns of other people and take a rest from your own. 

Finally, and perhaps the most deadly of all is that we become unaccustomed and unable to pray. This is the true evil of all the noise. We forget how to talk to God. We push Our Lord away just as we do the voice of our own conscience. 

When they heard the sound of the LORD God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. The LORD God then called to the man and asked him, "Where are you?" He answered, "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself." Then he asked, "Who told you that you were naked? You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!"   Genesis 3:8-11 

Silence is good. As human creatures we have the unique ability to imagine, to marvel, to adore, to worship, to create, to build, to mold, to plan, to repent, to forgive, to love, to pray, to reason, and to believe. We are meant to experience silence in the normal, everyday routine of life so that we can enter into these uniquely human experiences. It is essential for each of us to safeguard and search after the times and places where we can experience the goodness of silence. 

Silence is beautiful. Even though we can run from it, silence attracts us. Why is it that most of the world’s vacation resorts are on isolated coasts, remote mountains, quiet lakes, and even on the open seas? We are thirsting to get away from the noise and the distraction and to enter into the beauty of silence. In many ways, the need to “get away from it all” is a hunger for silence. Our very being cries out to experience peace and quiet. 

Silence is holy. Whenever we approach the Lord in the silence of our hearts He hears us. He is constantly speaking to us each and every day. But He will not shout over the noise that we allow to drown Him out. It’s important for each of us to take some time each day in silence to enter into the presence of Almighty God. But above all, when we enter into the sanctuary of the Most Holy Presence of the Lord of Hosts, we approach His throne in humble silence. This is precisely so that our hearts, our minds and our ears can be opened to the Word that He speaks to us in Jesus Christ. 

“Silence in the presence of the Lord God!” 
Zephaniah 1:7 

“Silence, all mankind, in the presence of the LORD! 
for he stirs forth from his holy dwelling.” 
Zechariah 2:17 

When we come to church, we come to encounter and to adore the Living God. To be sure, it is a wonderful thing that we enjoy one another's company, that we see familiar and beloved faces. It is natural to want to catch up on current events in the lives of friends and parishioners. We experience the joy of being brothers and sisters in faith. The love that we share as sons and daughters of God is meant to be expressed at all times. As brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a way of life for us to come to church and pray. Knowing the great difficulty it is for each one of us to find those silent moments, it becomes a crucial obligation of charity to one another to help safeguard that sanctuary of silence before the Lord that we call the church. 

Let us seek the Lord together in silence that we may hear His Voice and receive His Word. As we do this together, as we fall to our knees before the majesty of God, united in the silent bond of prayer, we will delve into such a deep fraternal bond of faith to which no amount of conversation, or handshaking, or reveling could ever take us.

Saint Peter Martyr Enjoining Silence
About this painting:
Fra Angelico (Florentine, 1400?-1455)

Original (after 1438)in the Cloister of San Marco, Florence Fresco.  The original is in the lunette over the door that leads from the cloister into the sacristy and from there into the Church of San Marco.  The knife in St. Peter Martyr's back and the bleeding wound on his head refer to his martyrdom.  He was the second most important saint to the Dominicans, after Dominic.  Here, he enjoins silence from the monks who are entering the church.

Christ the Holy Silence
Christ here reminds us that silence is not just the absence of sound, but the profoundly full language of Heaven, for St. Isaac says, “Silence is the language of the age to come.”  May we, as he did, love silence above all things.

About this Icon:

The original model for showing Christ as a beautiful young angel with His hands crossed over His chest and a two-colored eight-pointed star in His nimbus, or halo, comes from a 14th century miniature in a manuscript (Codex Grecae 339) at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mount Sinai.   The figure of this icon is in reference to these verses from the Prophet Isaiah, “I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.  He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.”  (Is. 42:1-2)

“Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer,” says St John Climacus. “The friend of silence draws near to God and, by secretly conversing with Him, is enlightened by God.” 
The Ladder of Divine Ascent 11 (transl. by L.Moore, p.92).

The United States Bishops Teach: Upon entering the church, we should maintain reverent silence so that we and those around us are able to pray before Mass begins. This will ensure that we are at peace within ourselves and with others. (Download pdf)  “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper”: USCCB