By Father Stephen Page
Personally speaking, the silent pauses that are to be done or experienced at prayer in the Catholic tradition are as equally rewarding as difficult to do.
At many of the monastic communities I have been privileged to visit through retreats and conferences, during Eucharist as well as at the morning and evening offices (i.e. communal praying of the psalms and Scriptures), silence is typically observed throughout all parts of the particular celebration. As the religious have shared with me, this “ain’t always easy to do” as prescribed by our sacred Catholic worship tradition.
The quality of communal silence requires solidarity as well as personal awareness. It also reveals much about our cooperation with one another. Even among monks and nuns, there is a tendency to want to rush through Mass or prayer time “so we can get on with the rest of our day!” Let’s face it, we live in an extremely dynamic and competitive society; many are uncomfortable with silence; many want to compete by being a hairs breath ahead of the rest. Listen while we profess the Creed, or pray the Our Father; some rattle it off fast! Others seem to savor the moment and are slow. Roman Catholic communal worship requires a spirit of cooperation from each person involved.
Before daily Mass is celebrated, in the old church building, and more especially in our new worship space, the silence of prayer is a powerful beauty. Sometimes as your priest-presider, I hesitate to begin simply because of this profound, deafening awe of silence. I don’t want to “break the mood” so to speak. Yet, to many of us Christians, silence is uncomfortable, perhaps for many reasons too long to ponder in this writing.
What Catholic liturgy (from the Greek word meaning “the work of the people,” in our case, “The work of the people of God”) has envisioned throughout centuries is the active as well as conscious practice of weaving sacred silence throughout our communal, God-time together. The moments of silent prayer help each of us to focus on what is happening within these walls. The pause of silence the presider gives to his sisters and brothers is to help us focus on our intention of prayer. The assembly ratifies the common prayer spoken by acclaiming: “Amen,” that is, “So be it!”
Preparing or orienting ourselves in silence for personal prayer is a developed habit. A good habit of mind, heart, soul; in short, a spiritual attitude. Like so many other habits we develop throughout our lives, giving adequate time to silence is sometimes hard to do or engage. There is no greater obstacle to our communal and personal prayer than a lack of silence at Mass. Would this actually be the root of the problem whereby many sense that Mass doesn’t have a sacred or special quality about it? Maybe it is not so much a matter of language or ritual style as it is a balance of the active and contemplative parts of our ever ancient, ever new worship of God.
It is a well-known fact that the larger the group, the more difficult it is to initiate the practice of silence. Perhaps much depends upon our expectations of Mass. Some like it quick; others, slow. Many prefer an intellectual engagement during worship; others prefer to keep things “simple.” Many find silence frightening, if not of little or no value. Perhaps it might be a trust issue: “Just how long is Father going to rest on his chair?”
In the summer of 1995 because of pastoral turmoil, I came to the conclusion that to keep my sanity and soul as a person, a Christian and a priest, God had been quietly pulling me into a practice of contemplative silence. Now was the opportunity to take a personal commitment to this universal (i.e. catholic) Christian meditation practice, not just talk about it, or watch others do it, or read about it. Let me just say that I did not slide into this practice of silence easily or swiftly. Some days, if not many months and years, it was one long continuous night of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God.
As we celebrate Mass presently, and as we prepare for the new translation, let’s consider being patient with ourselves, as well as others, in developing a healthy regard for silence. This is what Holy Mother Church asks of her children. Silence — as much as speaking and singing — is an integral part of the Mass. Let’s not limit this to our Sunday obligation, either. Families gathered at their table have a great opportunity to pause in silence before reciting their prayer before meals. Fathers and mothers can teach their children how to reflect on their actions throughout the day during a moment of silence before bedtime prayers. Perhaps youths and adults would practice what we preach by finding moments to simply be quiet. Quiet for ourselves, quiet for others, quiet so that we might develop the spiritual ears of our souls to hear God speak. I will be quiet now … for a moment or two.
Just a few years ago during a weeklong silent retreat, it hit me that someday we will all be dead. Although we believe and hope in Eternal Liturgy at the Banquet of the Lamb, there will be, on the other hand, much silence in the grave. I guess I should get used to it now. Nothing like the present to prepare for the next step, isn’t that one of the qualities of the Mass?
(Fr. Stephen Page, pastor of St. Mary in Fairfield, is also a practitioner of Centering Prayer as well as a commissioned presenter.)