In recent months there has been a good amount of discussion about silence. This has been prompted by Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.
Those who have a deep prayer life understand the power of silence. They understand, too, that there is no interior life without silence and that growth in the spiritual life only occurs if we give ourselves to the Lord in prayer and in prayer close our mouths so that we can listen to the Lord.
A simple definition of prayer, after all, one that is emphasized by many spiritual fathers, is that in prayer we enter into the presence of God. To experience his presence, we need to be silent. Our Lord gave us this path when he told us to go to our inner room to pray:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mt 6: 5-6, RSV)
Commenting on this Gospel passage in his ninth conference, St. John Cassian tells us:
“We are praying in secret when we speak to God with the heart alone and with a concentration of the soul, and make known our state of mind to him alone, in such a way that even the enemy powers themselves cannot guess their nature. Such is the reason for the deep silence that behooves us to keep in prayer….” (Quoted in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism)
Many today have difficulty keeping silent or doing anything without noise. Everywhere one goes in our society today there is noise. Sometimes the pounding noise of others enters through the walls of our houses. We cannot avoid noise. We live in a world of thousands of everyday dictators of noise.
Some, to close out the noise of others, wear noise canceling headphones throughout the day so that they hear only their own music, one more way of making themselves less human.
The need for constant noise has altered Christian liturgies in the effort to engage the many today who seem incapable of sitting silently even a few moments.
Many of today’s Christians seek more and more contemporary hymns so they can sing loudly along. They love the “kiss of peace” where it is done so that they can hug, kiss, or high-five those around them. They shout out prayer responses as if at a pep rally for their high school football team. Many today have difficulty listening to the epistle and the Gospel because it demands that they sit in silence.
This is where the dictatorship of noise meets the dictatorship of the people and moves us closer to the dictatorship of the relative. The lack of reverence in liturgy owes something to the dictatorship of noise.
Some young people today speak of the irrelevance of traditional liturgy. They are not even satisfied with these altered liturgies that have been made more contemporary. Their prayer gatherings are filled with loud and boisterous preachers and music. Some of these gatherings look no different from a pop music concert.
The more you spend your time in such gatherings, the less likely it will be that you will be able to find your way to deep silence. The fortunate ones who do find their way to this silence walk away from these noisy gatherings.
Some find their way to the Roman Catholic Latin Mass, others to Byzantine Rite Divine Liturgy and prayer services. The Latin Masses that I have experienced have been deeply prayerful. There has been abundant silence at those I have attended.
I cannot say the same of Byzantine Rite Divine Liturgy as wholeheartedly as I would like. Divine Liturgy is more dynamic than the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church. Almost all is sung and there is more movement.
But even though sung the liturgy, as well as the Divine Office, traditionally also includes moments when the people are called to listen in silence. Some Byzantine churches today, perhaps in an effort to follow the Roman Catholic Church’s desire for more audience participation, have largely erased these moments.
Yet in my experience there is nothing more beautiful at a Byzantine Rite liturgy than when we are called to listen to the lone voice of the reader, cantor, deacon, or priest when it rises above the singing of the people and the singing stops to allow this one moment when everyone must stop and listen to a single voice that directs each person to turn to Jesus Christ.
Such moments of silence in liturgy teach us to listen. They open us to hearing the voice of God instead of our own. They train us so that we can enter the inner room to pray with the heart alone and to concentrate the soul in the presence of God. Deep silence in prayer of this type, in turn, trains us for a deeper experience of liturgy and the prayer and praise of heaven.