Cinquant’anni Dopo 12-13: The Virtue of Silence

Fr Ev farewell MassCardinal Robert Sarah’s June 2015 essay for L’Osservatore Romano had some great thoughts on silence. Let’s read, including words of caution for liturgy on his native continent:

“Silence is not a virtue, noise is not a sin, it is true,” says Thomas Merton, “but the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society,” or of some African Eucharistic liturgies, “are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins—its godlessness, its despair. A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is a world without anything to live for…. Mass becomes racket and confusion; prayers—an exterior or interior noise” (Thomas Merton The Sign of Jonas [San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1953, 1981], passim).

As it was true for 1953, it is today.

We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations. We fall into the temptation of the Hebrews in the desert. They sought to create for themselves a form of worship on their own scale and of their own stature, and let us not forget that they ended up prostrate before an idol, the golden calf.

As I mentioned yesterday, there are two forms of silence. One happens when other people have their turn and the rest of the aseembly attends in silence. The other is when it’s God’s turn and everyone is silent. Both are important. Good leadership at the local level sets the tone. The factor Cardinal Sarah misses here is the need of the learned and leaders to fill every open space with something. Think about it–which is better: a ten minute speech with no silence, or an eight-minute oration with two minutes of quiet?

Notes: I’ve used an “early” translation, attributed here to Michael J. Miller at Catholic World Report. I wasn’t able to find the original essay on the L’Osservatore Romano site. Reader comments, however, are most welcome.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Cinquant’anni Dopo 12-13: The Virtue of Silence

  1. Liam says:

    Regarding silence. Sister Wendy Beckett, widely known as the semi-eremetical consecrated virgin (sheltered by the Carmelite order, of which she is not a member) commentator on art, has a telling story of her First Communion. Sister Wendy says she was certain that when she finally received Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, she would hear him speaking to her. So, after receiving it for the first time, she knelt and waited expectantly. She heard – silence. It was not what she expected. It was then, she said, that she had an epiphany that God’s communicates in silence.

    My take on this is that silence allows a special context for *beholding* the Beloved and for *being beheld* by the Beloved. And, in corporate worship, this obtains no less; to relegate it to the context of individual prayer and devotion/adoration is a mistake. Families can behold each other communally in silence: I’ve seen this. I have a particularly searing memory of it at my mother’s deathbed last October. This belongs to the communal dimension no less than the individual one.

      • Liam says:

        Feel free to repurpose my above comment when facing the prospect of opening the hearts and minds of fellow liturgical ministers to silence.

        My belief is that we don’t have a proper understanding of contemplation. I myself lacked it until I was gobsmacked in spiritual direction. I had always (mis)understood contemplation to either (i) have a kind of quality of Eastern meditation of complete quieting of internal chatter (this is pretty much the prevailing understanding of contemplation in American culture these days) OR (ii) patiently tuning in “communications” from God (the model being, say St Teresa of Avila or St Therese of Lisieux). Not so. My sensory wiring is such that I am rather radically open to all sorts of stimuli that I can’t shut down (synaesthesia, among other things), which for years upon years meant I felt I couldn’t be contemplative. My spiritual director explained to me that, in my radical openness to “distractions” and silence, that was indeed contemplative.

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