I believe (with the church, actually) that we are hard-wired for God. Essentially, God calls us beyond ourselves into union with the divine. Something inside us seeks this drive towards the infinite horizon as Karl Rahner called it. And when we realize tangibly that this is a place that we are called, we are struck with a humble hush.
Silence is golden. A cliché to be sure, but true enough. When I was in Kentucky I took a bit more time than usual to present myself before God in the quiet of their beautiful chapel. I do this every day, mind you, but I was a bit less rushed during that week when I had a bit more contemplative space and less work to pay attention to. And it was there that God hushed me further, just enough to open myself more to hear what God wants for me and how much God loves me.
Elizabeth Scalia, over at the Anchoress, asks a similar question about the quiet that seemingly doesn’t exist in our communal worship at mass. The cacophony at mass seems to have developed favoring the community aspects of mass over the more reverential. It often brings me great joy to hear this low rumble before mass in the church and more joy when the rumble rises in our community room. Something is going on here, something great, something by which people want to be engaged further, with one another.
But I wonder if just above all that noise, if God is lurking and we’re just too noisy to notice? At our 8PM student mass where there is less noise but still some, I enter each week and from the ambo I call the community into worship. We intentionally call for silence and center people to open them into that contemplative space. We ring our church bells to help people feel the atmosphere of this “time like no other.” After communion a similar period of quiet occurs–the low vibe of a Sunday evening–marking the end of a long work week with the beginning of another.
We don’t “do silence” particularly well as a community. From my days in radio, I can remember silence being a bad thing. It meant the transmitter had failed or that a board-op had fallen asleep at the switch or that a Microphone was disconnected. In short, it meant nothing was on the radio and when that happened “the suits” would come a-running and wondered what went wrong.
Silence, it seems makes people change a channel.
And perhaps that’s what we’re trying to do here. We need that switch from not even an overwhelming noise, but a distracting hum, to a level of quiet contemplation away from cell phones and laptops, televisions and talking. Even Amtrak has picked up on this and created a quiet car for some time now. I find it to be one of the few signs of civilized society we have left.
One of the other places, Scalia points out is the yoga studio, where the contemplative attitude seems to have a familiar form to older Catholics. Scalia reports on a visit to a yoga class recently:
It was held in a simple, unadorned room. Outside of it, there was a great deal of socializing and chatting, but once people entered the room, all talking ceased. People moved carefully, so as not to disturb others who, having placed their mats on the floor, were sitting or kneeling in postures that suggested recollection. This oasis of calm remained until the instructor arrived, and then—silent, still, but for the teacher’s voice—the class began to move through their forms: forty-five to fifty minutes of focus, silence, and shared striving.
At class’ end, the students bowed respectfully to each other, and made their exit, and in the lobby the chatter started up again—friendly, hospitable talk, some encouragement; someone complimented my friend on something she’d improved. Amid the “see you next time’s” it occurred to me that this little class was successfully “being community”—the goal of so many Catholic parishes—but without giving up its reverences.
She goes on to bemoan the lack of reverence in churches today and wonders what happened to the times when people would enter at worst in hushed tones and would pause to kneel and pray and sit quietly before mass would begin?
But yoga studios have created that culture, almost in a way that a place that does massage has engendered with their new age music and their candles. “This is the way it is here” is the unspoken message for people to engage with and understand. The Taize community also does this well.
The quietest place I know most of the time: The Bank. Very little is said and almost no noise is present besides the whir of the money sorting machine and the printing of receipts. There’s little small talk–people need to concentrate on their transactions which are too complicated to use an ATM machine for in these cases.
That says a lot about silence’s value in our society and for what purpose does silence serve?
Silence needs to be engendered and people will find a way to do it because they can not do anything else. God calls them to worship.
What I think Scalia is missing is how a parish staff can engender well that quiet culture amongst a society mostly unfamiliar with both the need for silence and the former church landscape of which she describes. We shouldn’t assume that people know to be quiet, even out of respect for the fact that others might be praying. Rather, people need to be reminded that they are always in God’s presence, always being called forth by God into relationship–and more importantly, we’re being called into this relationship as not mere individuals haphazardly gathered on Sunday, but we’re called to see God in the community around us. We’re called to relationship not merely in the vertical “God and us” way (important to be sure) but also we’re here finding that connection to God around others, called to others to be Christ and to help them find Christ in the center of this church–not merely the center of their individual hearts. We’re called to be one heart beating in union with one another in the silence just as a much as we’re called to hear our own heartbeat and know that God is with us and is even closer than our very life pulse.
But nonetheless, Scalia’s take reveals that in order to be called to community we first have to be called into God’s presence—to be aware that this is a time like no other. My students are prone to distraction and many don’t know how to pray–or think they don’t. They lack what they would call “the basics.” For many, they don’t even know how to slow down, disconnect and face the quiet stillness. One former student told me that they realized how distracted they have become after reading the article I wrote on distraction last weekend. He had a hard time engaging at mass and later a harder time during eucharistic adoration. Another can’t stand being in silence and needs help with shooing away the distractions and the whirring of her mind.
As one of my colleagues sarcastically points out, “Most of our work is remedial.”
And while snarky, it’s true. How can people engage with the work required by social justice if they aren’t called into deeper union with God in the relationship that we call prayer which often drives people into a passion for justice? Even our movers and our shakers, the ones who are engaged in the passion for justice issues, I wonder if they are able to sit in the quiet before they are off to Habitat or the soup kitchen? Are we just filling life up with work and avoiding a deeper relationship that might call us to even more?
Have we become human doings, instead of human beings?
I think if we do one thing in ministry, especially with the young, it would be to help them foster a sense of quiet contemplation in their lives on a regular basis. I fear the 30 seconds or so that we take before mass and the 2 minutes or so that we take after communion at our student mass might be the only time that they get to spend in quiet.
In spiritual direction, I sometimes, ask my directees to remind themselves that they are in God’s presence and to center themselves and spend some time in quiet before we begin. I let them end the silent period by breaking it when they are ready. Most take a longer period than I expect. Visiting a local NYC church with my students, I turned to say hi to an old friend who was there and before I knew it all 15 students has found their way to a pew and simply knelt down and prayed, enjoying the quiet of the church after a long day of justice work. I am embarrassed to say that they certainly didn’t learn that from me, or at least I didn’t direct them to it.
Instead God called them into worship. And it is good.
We should do the same often and remind ourselves and our parishioners, especially during this Lenten time, that we are always in the presence of God.