A couple of weeks ago, PrayTell had a thought-provoking post on cognitive engagement and liturgy, based on a comparison between an experience of a Dominican rite liturgy in Latin and the current ordinary Roman Rite. Fritz Bauerschmidt's final questions offer, at least in my opinion, an implicit definition of excellent liturgy: "Can we craft liturgy that is clearly both something we do and something that sweeps us up in a movement quite independent of our efforts? Can our liturgy be intelligible without being mentally taxing? Can it be mysterious without being mystifying? Or is the quest for such a liturgy just tilting at windmills. I, for one, certainly hope not."
There was some suggestions in the comments that the old Latin masses (what these days is called the extraordinary form) were inherently more reverent and perhaps more silent. I responded to one such with by noting what I see as a tendency to conflate “contemplative/mystical” with the extraordinary form and “noisy/didactic” with the ordinary Roman rite.
Fr. Allen McDonald replied that "The silence of the EF Mass is different than the silences that should be observed in the OF such as before the penitential act, after the readings, the homily and Holy Communion." These are "silences just for the sake of silence"1 rather than silences which emerge from a properly prepared congregation contemplating "official prayers of the Church being prayed in a silent way."
I'm going to admit that I'm a bit put off by his characterization of the Eucharist as a contemplation (by the properly disposed) of someone else praying and gesturing in prayer. I say this even in the face of a memorable retreat where my own prayer was certainly sustained by meditating on the stalwart prayer of the sisters around me in the chapel.
That said, I'm grateful as his comments have made me attentive to the nature of the silence during Mass in my parish over the last two weeks. Silence is not what my community does because we should, it is our default stance in the celebration of the Eucharist, you can hear it (or rather not hear it) even between the words of the prayers. It's a silence that feels, in fact, not of our doing at all, but part and parcel of our being. Be still — let go your grasp — and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10) Here, at the Eucharistic table, we find ourselves in such intimate communion with God we cannot help but know that, and respond in kind. I think this might be what Fritz Bauerschmidt is getting at with his description of being swept into a mystery, where our own responses swell into the stillness and fade, where the presider's prayers cascade down the altar steps and wash over us, the chant swirls up and out, but all of it, ever and always pouring into a silence whose depth and breadth and height knows no bounds. Be still — be silent — and know that I am God.
1. Sacred silence in the Roman Missal, according to the GIRM, is not just for the sake of silence, but has a variety of purposes: "For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him."
Photo is of the door to the chapel at the old Jesuit novitiate. A place that has held within its share of silent prayer and more...