Silence: the absence of sound? Or something more? The USCCB document Sing to the Lord has a lot to say about silence. In my workshop on the theology of choir and assembly at the recent Loras College Liturgical Music Conference, I focused on these aspects:
• Silence is part of interior participation (SttL 12)
• Silence looks back on the past, allows reflection on the experience (SttL 118)
• Silence looks ahead, allows the heart to open to what is to come (SttL 118)
• “The importance of silence in the Liturgy cannot be overemphasized.” (SttL 118)
The bishops quote Pope John Paul II (1998) in SttL 12:
In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.
It’s a good quote. It’s also quite true, but it only analyzes half the problem of participation in Western culture. Our culture not only disfavors meditation, but it also works strongly against the participation ethic in many ways. Note the performance sensibility in the rendering of the national anthem at American sporting events. Baseball fans have no problems with, say, the 7th inning stretch song, “Take Me Out …” but remain mostly silent when a patriotic effort marks the start of game festivities.
Silence, if we trust the bishops here, is far from a passive activity. It implies more than just a rest period for the assembly. Silence must link what has come before with what is to come in the liturgy. Otherwise, we’re worshipping in a stop-and-start style more reminiscent of rush-hour traffic than a unified whole.
I find silence to be more of a struggle for some pastors than for most assemblies. Letting go of a busy liturgy and allowing silence to take root requires a high degree of trust in people–and many ministers, clergy and musicians, are unprepared for this. Those who are have managed to reject the pragmatic approach to liturgy. This embrace of silence I’ve seen among both progressive and traditionalist folks. And when it’s allowed to work, it is deeply fruitful.