Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear. — from The Habit of Perfection by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
Elected silence, in generously deep and stilling pools, is a part of the fabric of my life. I spend about three weeks being silent a year, in chunks that range from a day to a decade of days, and have done so for many years. It's not quite a tithe of my days, but close enough.
My parish talks about giving of time, talent and treasure, the returning of the gifts we are given. I often think of the "time" part of the triad to be the hours I volunteer for the parish, whether as cantor, or spending the night sleeping in the school hall, serving as 'portress' when we host struggling families, or going to a committee meeting.
But I'm starting to wonder if the gift of time we are called to share and return is not just busy time. My book group talked a bit last month about silence in liturgy. How much is there, and how do we respond? Are we reluctant to leave it because we are afraid someone will think we don't know what we are doing? How do we use it when it comes? Are we itchy to get on with things, or thinking about the shopping list, or listening to God? Can we give of our time in this setting, not in busy-ness, but in stillness?
As I prepare to cantor the vigil Mass tonight, I thought again about time and silence. My parish sits well with silence, we can do 5 minutes at a stretch in a liturgy filled with kids, and we routinely leave space after readings and psalmody and homily for silence. (Reverent, contemplative silence is not the sole purview of celebrations of the Eucharist in the Extraordinary Form, no matter how many people want to make that case. I'm convinced it is about forming the community, not about the form of the liturgy used.)
As cantor, I'm one of the people (along with lectors and presider) responsible for reading the silence at Mass, and bringing it to a close. When do I stand after the reading to lead the psalm? The norms for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours call for silence, but not in quantities that might be a burden for the community celebrating, and surely the same applies in this context. I feel responsible to both offer this gift of time and to be sure that it does not weary us. I don't want to count to a certain number, or watch the clock, or even get lost in my own meditations on the first reading (that would be unbearably selfish), but want to listen carefully and deeply to the assembly. I don't want people to be thinking, did the cantor forget? I'm not quite sure I can describe what I'm listening and waiting for, but I can often sense a deep stillness that follows the reading, and somewhere before that starts to fray, I stand and move to the ambo.
This listening is prayer. We believe that Christ is present in four ways in the liturgy, including in the assembly itself. I listen and sit before the assembly holding that contemplation front and center. This is the Body of Christ, can I listen and respond to what Christ is saying in this moment? Can I let the silence sing to us all before I raise my voice?
Photo is of copper basin of rainwater in ruins of old farmhouse in rural Japan.