The Sound of Silence

By October 30, 2014 One Comment

I’m not a person who naturally thrives in silence. During Lent, I have a hard time keeping the radio turned off in my car for the ten-minute drive to work. It is rather amazing then how annoyed I can become with unnecessary noise before and after Mass. And if the questions on the subject that the apologists get at Catholic Answers are any indication, many Catholics are disturbed by unnecessary noise at Mass. Here is a representative example:

I attend daily Mass after I drop my four children off at school. I look forward to my quiet time at Mass to pray. My days are full with being a mom of four and a full-time student, so I find it hard to find that quiet time that I long for. Recently, two fellow moms I know, a Catholic and a non-Catholic, have joined me at Mass—which is good—but they don't stop talking to me or using their iPhones.
I am not sure how to deal with this. I want to encourage them to keep coming to Mass and I don't want to sound rude so as to turn them off, but for me it is not a social time. I take my faith seriously and I want to grow in my faith. How do I address this without sounding selfish or rude?

At one time, society handled this annoyance for us by issuing etiquette edicts that established Quiet Zones. In addition to houses of worship, secular institutions such as libraries, schools, courtrooms, and theaters were all places in which common decency dictated that patrons ordinarily act in silence, and whisper only when absolutely necessary. Anyone who violated this protocol was unceremoniously bounced from the premises. Needless to say, this expectation has all but vanished these days, except perhaps in courtrooms where judges have the authority to confiscate phones and levy fines against malefactors.
In churches, pastors and their appointed delegates (such as ushers) theoretically could enforce a rule of silence, but this is a battle that many priests simply see no point in fighting—especially when the most egregious violations occur during the Christmas and Easter seasons, when many of the congregants hardly attend anyway the rest of the year. However annoying the noise, individual congregants simply do not have the authority to correct other adults’ behavior in the absence of a “house rule” to which they can point (such as a sign in the sanctuary that says “Silence, Please”).
So, what can you do to defend silence in church? Here’s how I answered the question posed above:

Perhaps one way to begin is to take a step back and look at the Mass for what it is(the sacrifice of Christ re-presented in time and space) and not at what it means to you (quiet time that you cherish). If you make the point that these women are rudely interrupting your "quiet time" that you have managed to carve from a busy schedule of mothering and schoolwork, you are going to sound to them to be "selfish or rude." That is why you should instead try to make the point that their actions are not appropriate in church at Mass.
Seize on the fact that one of these women is non-Catholic and make your tone helpful and informative rather than defensive and annoyed. Whisper to the non-Catholic, "I'm so sorry, but during Mass Catholics maintain a reverent silence." If you stage-whisper just loudly enough for the Catholic to hear you, perhaps she'll get the message as well.
If that doesn't work, all you can do is move away from them. Smile and whisper, "If you'll please excuse me, I'm going to go and pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament." Then get up and move as close to the tabernacle as you can.

While that may solve a problem with individuals near you who are trying to talk directly to you, it doesn’t solve the problem of people around you chattering among themselves, or the problem of choirs practicing right before Mass when some people are trying to pray, or the rounds of applause after Mass when personal thanksgivings are offered. No individual congregant has the personal authority to shush other adults who are minding their own business.
In the absence of a cooperative pastor willing to enforce a “Silence is golden” rule in your parish, what can you do to live with the background noise at your parish? First, let’s look at why noise in church might be so bothersome, even to people who ordinarily don’t mind dealing with a low hum of background noise in their lives.
The Friend of Silence

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. . . . The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us (Bl. Teresa of Calcutta).

This quote is all the more remarkable when viewed in the context of Mother Teresa’swell-documented struggles with faith. But just think how much more difficult her struggle for faith would have been if she did not have the silence found in the rhythms of religious life in which to pray. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the modern world has seen agnosticism and atheism skyrocket in contradistinction to the plummet of periods of silence in many people’s lives. Modern man has so many ways to distract himself that he has no need to patiently wait for God in silence.
Nonetheless, when you walk into a church, there seems to be an inexplicable necessity for silence. I remember the first time I walked into a Catholic church some twenty years ago. My baptismal sponsor decided to give me a tour of the parish in which I would be attending RCIA and eventually be baptized. Even though she said nothing about a need to be quiet, and I had very little by way of a Christian background, in that space I naturally lowered my voice. Without any conscious thought, we limited our discussion to the bare essentials. We did not linger to chat. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but in retrospect it seemed curious that I instinctively understood a need for quiet within sacred space.
This apparently subconscious understanding of how quiet can permeate sacred space and make it a place in which we instinctively feel a “difference” in the air, and a need to contribute to maintaining the “atmosphere,” is not unique.
A Dominican once told me of his community’s move from the house they were using as a priory to another location. After the house was sold, the Dominicans moved out and a Jewish family made plans to move in. My Dominican friend was present when the wife came to assess the house for renovations needed to kasher the kitchen. While they walked through the house, this Jewish woman paused in the empty room that had served as the Dominicans’ chapel and said quietly, “I don’t know why, but this room seems so peaceful.”

Silence cannot be simply "made," organized as if it were one activity among many. It is no accident that on all sides people are seeking techniques of meditation, a spirituality for emptying the mind. One of man's deepest needs is making its presence felt, a need that is manifestly not being met in our present form of the liturgy. For silence to be fruitful, as we have already said, it must not be just a pause in the action of the liturgy. No, it must be an integral part of the liturgical event (Joseph Ratzinger, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy).

Do-It-Yourself Silence
Perhaps the only thing I have accomplished so far is to whet your appetite for sacred silence, and now you are sighing with frustration because you know your pastor will not cooperate in imposing silence on the congregation before, during, and after Mass. Perhaps you also know that you don’t have the luxury of attending Mass alone, and must interact to some extent with others in the church—some of whom may be your own noisy family. What to do? Is it possible to create your own silence?
Well, it’s worth a shot. Here are some ideas:
Respond in silence. St. John of the Cross suggested, “Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent.” St. John was not mentioning Christ crucified as a mere pious platitude, he was alluding to Christ’s silence during his passion as Christ’s response to suffering. If you read through the passion narratives, you’ll see that Jesus didn’t say much during his trial, or during the walk to Calvary, or during his crucifixion. What he did say may well have been remembered more vividly because of the contrast to his overall silence (e.g.,Matt. 26:63, Mark 14:61, John 19:9–10).
Whenever you can avoid saying something, and instead get your message across by a nod of the head, or a raised eyebrow, then you are creating silence. Of course, if there is some legitimate need to speak, you should do so without scrupling over it; but if you can avoid speaking without drawing undue attention to your choice to do so, then why not?
Filter out the distractions. Have you ever noticed that when you try to focus on meditation, such as during adoration or while praying, that you suddenly start having all sorts of distracting thoughts? What is it about staring at the monstrance or fingering your rosary that brings to mind your shopping list, the mysterious squeaks your car makes, and your child’s report card? The more you try to block the thoughts, the harder they press in.
One way to cope might be to let them “pass through.” Assign an image to the thought and visualize it floating away. For example, watch your shopping list or a child’s report card flutter out a window. Imagine your car starting up and roaring off without you. (If that brings on the giggles, then imagine a spouse or helpful friend driving off in your car.) Then turn back to prayer.
You can do something similar at Mass. If the choir hits a sour note in the middle of your Act of Contrition, imagine them behind sound-proof glass and soldier on. If the people behind you chatter about their after-Mass brunch plans, imagine them with mouths stuffed full with IHOP pancakes and resume your prayer. If you don’t have family with you, earplugs (discreetly inserted) might help.
Meditate with the noise. Yes, you really can do that. The Mass is the re-presentation in time and space of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. So think about Calvary. While Christ was offering up his life to the Father for the salvation of the world, soldiers gambled at the foot of the cross for his clothing. Criminals jeered from both sides—until one was inexplicably moved by Christ’s silence. Spectators heckled him to prove he was who he said he was by coming down from his cross. Others undoubtedly passed the time with gossip and making plans for the upcoming Passover holiday. Only a handful of people, including his Mother and his beloved disciple, stood nearby in sorrowful silence.
If you can visualize all this, then imagine yourself standing beside the Blessed Mother, her relatives and friends, and the apostle John, watching Christ in silence. Suddenly the noise around you in church becomes less of a distraction and more of an aid to recreating the experience of Calvary.
Put silence into action. Remember what Mother Teresa said about how silent prayer enables us to give to others in our active life? If we can create silence within us, we can take it with us from the Mass and give it to the world. When you have cultivated silence, especially when done under less than optimal circumstances, you have a tool for responding to frustrations in your ordinary life. For example, the next time you see a scandalous headline on the Internet, you might see it as a distraction to be filtered out rather than a trigger for outrage.
Are you worried about current events in the Church? You can use the same techniques for dealing with worrisome events as you do the distractions at Mass: Respond in silence; filter out distractions; use the noise as an aid to prayer. Perhaps by your example you will be able to contribute to a reduction in the noisiness in the universal Church that seems to be getting on everyone’s nerves these days.

In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence (Bl. Teresa of Calcutta).

Written By: Michelle Arnold

One Comment

  • sydneyguyC says:

    I always find silence a great way to meditate and to listen to the silence. I think we have too much noise around us and it is in the stillness of silence that the Divine Master just may answer our prayers. So next time your are in a Church sit and listen to the silence.Pax et Bonum

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