Friday, June 01, 2012

Column: An active silence

I've been reading Wound of Love, by an anonymous Carthusian (or as Google books would have A. Carthusian). It's a miscellaneous collection of essays, conferences and homilies, written by contemporary Carthusians for their brothers. The essay referred to below is called "The Facets of Silence."

This column appeared in the June 2012 issue of the Catholic Standard & Times. Read it at Catholic Philly.

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountain and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. 1 Kings 19:11-12

“Take a look at measure 12, it’s the most critical thing you will do in the entire piece,” cautioned the director. “Note the two rests there? Do not sing! Stop, or you’ll be very lonely.” And embarrassed.

A couple of dozen parents of choral seniors are gathered in a small practice room, trying in twenty minutes to master a sung blessing (acapella, in four part harmony) to be sung to our graduating children at the end of the night’s concert.

The text is the beautiful blessing given in Numbers — “May the Lord bless you and keep you…” — set to two dozen measures of music, hundreds of notes rippling over each other, every space on the staffs filled, except for this beat and a half. Stop. Wait.

It may sound odd, but as a cantor, my favorite part of singing the psalm is not the moment when the Church first fills with our response to the first reading. It’s not even the moment of exquisite relief when I’m sure I’ve found the note that I was tentatively hunting for in practice. No, it’s the thirty or so seconds of silence my parish keeps before the psalmist stands and goes to the ambo. We stop. We wait.

Unlike my students, who often let me know it’s time to move on to their next class by noisily packing up their books and papers, these silences are still. We aren’t collectively itching to get on to the psalm and second reading; we are as engaged in listening as we were when the lector was reading.

“Reading is bound to silence,” wrote Peter of Celle, a 12th century Benedictine abbot, in his lessons for monks. Like composer Claude Debussy, who 700 years later defined music as “the space between the notes.” Peter suggests that silence is not just empty space, but something that is active, that tunes us in to words just spoken and words to come. The silences in our liturgies aren’t accidents, the inevitable result of the time it takes to move one person off the ambo and the next person on.

As Elijah stayed safely in his cave while rock-crushing winds and harrowing fires swept past, emerging, head covered, to hear God calling him in the near total silence that followed, we hear God approaching us in the reading. So, too, we emerge, wrapping ourselves in the silence, to hear what God is calling us to, here and now.

Last week I read a series of reflections on silence by an anonymous Carthusian novice master who pointed out that sacred silence is a communal activity, that it’s not a private affair between individuals and God. We are entrusted to each other’s care in these silences, he notes, safeguarding the silence for our neighbors.

While my parish does not practice the profound silence that the Carthusian monks and nuns do, even in these brief moments at Mass, I sense the support of the assembly as we craft a silence — together — to listen to what God has to say in each of our hearts.

The novice master encourages his young monks to consider the ways in which their silence wells up and flows out over the earth, supporting God’s revelation of Himself to those far beyond the boundaries of the monastery gates.

In the end, the parents did not have to carry the sung blessing on our own. We were supported by the rest of the chorale, their gloriously well-trained voices welling up and flowing out, their eyes pinned to their director’s hands. Holding us in song, and binding us together in perfect silence.

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. — Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. in The Habit of Perfection


  1. "No, it’s the thirty or so seconds of silence my parish keeps before the psalmist stands and goes to the ambo. We stop. We wait."

    Amen and amen and amen.

  2. Lynda7:01 AM

    Our pastor sits for a moment after the celebration of the Eucharist and I really appreciate that moment of silence to provide the opportunity to be in awe of the sacrament in which we have just participated. When I thanked him for that, he was very pleased that someone knew the silence was purposeful. Thanks for this reflection.

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  4. Eileen4:59 PM

    Our parish does not have enough silence during Mass, and I miss it. My old parish had the lovely tradition of, after the recessional was sung, kneeling in silence for a moment in prayer before people started to leave. It was the perfect way to end the Mass. I get frustrated when there has to be noise and movement all the time, in any venue.