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Let Us Keep Silence

July 15, 2010

One thing I’m not real good at – sitting still and being quiet.  I really have to try hard.  You all remember my sermon (just nod and say “Yes, of course Father”) where I spoke of attending a Quaker Morning Worship service and found out the difference between being silent and being quiet.  I was physically silent, but my mind was far from quiet; in fact, it was racing.  And yet, silence, inward and outward, is an important part of our worship because it is when we are quiet that we can most readily listen.  I know I’m not the only one who has a hard time with this.

Our liturgy suggests that we keep silence at several locations throughout, and demands it once.  Let’s take a look at these liturgical silences (from Rite II) together.  Ready, set, shhh!

The first instance where our rubrics suggest silence is following the readings.  Once the lector has concluded the reading, the rubric appears, Silence may follow. Here the silence is intended as an opportunity to let the reading sink in, to think about what we have heard, and to listen for what God might be saying to us or inviting us to do through the reading.  When we do not observe this silence, either corporately or individually, we are in danger of letting the words of the readings wash over us:  Just one more thing we hear in a day.

The next silence that we observe at St. George’s is actually one on which the prayer book rubrics say nothing.  We observe a silence following the sermon, for much the same reasons as we observe a brief silence after the readings.  Also, the preacher needs to catch his breath and collect his thoughts before moving on with the worship!

After that, silence is recommended in each of the six example forms of the Prayers of the People.  In each example form, silence shows up somewhere.  How that gets observed is different in each parish.  Here, we use different Prayers of the People each week that were written to reflect the themes of the readings for that day.  Sometimes they include silence, but more often they call for a verbal, congregational response.  What would it mean to keep silence following a petition to God?

The next silence comes at the time of the Confession.  After the priest says, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor,” the rubric appears again, Silence may be kept. This is a really good place for silence as we call to mind those specific things for which we will be seeking forgiveness, even though the words of the confession are in general and corporate.

Finally, there is the silence that is demanded by the prayer book.  This is a rare thing for the 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, a book noted for its permissiveness of a wide variety of liturgical customs and traditions.  It comes following the Eucharistic Prayer (a.k.a. the Canon of the Mass) when the priest breaks the consecrated bread and elevates the pieces.  The rubric there says, A period of silence is kept. Notice the difference in tone from the previous rubrics.  In this period of silence we are to ponder the Paschal Mystery of the Eucharistic Prayer and the sacrificial actions of praise and thanksgiving that we have made in the Eucharistic.  Consuming the blessed Body and Blood is how we participate in Christ’s sacrifice.  It is the single act in which we are most united with Christ.  Contemplating this mighty action is well worth a moment of silence.

So there you have it – when and why we should keep silence during the church service.  Knowing is half the battle, but doing it, that’s the hard part!  As 21st century Americans we are bombarded daily by thousands and thousands of messages and communications.  From Facebook to the iPhone, from Twitter to e-mail, from billboards to radio commericals to tv ads, from magazine ads to spam to solicitous phone calls.  Silence is something that is being beaten out of us.  We’re not particularly good at it in the first place and we’re losing what facility we did have quickly.  Church, it has been said, should be counter-cultural.  I say that this way, “What we do in church should not look like what we do in the world.”  It should be different.  It should inform how we are in the world, but it should not mirror it.  Keeping silence is an incredibly counter-cultural action.  Go on.  Be a rebel.  Try it.

Fr. Ryan+

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Pete permalink
    July 15, 2010 2:34 pm

    Some of my favorite moments in Church have come during periods of intended silence and are always the product of a young child blurting out something! I.E. a loud “Amen!” seconds after the congregation says it or the ever popular “Mommy, I have to go Potty!”. Silence & I would be strange bedfellows, indeed and I think my head would literally explode in a Quaker Service.

  2. Allison M. permalink
    July 18, 2010 5:20 pm

    hymn singing – glorious … prayer – restorative … silence – priceless!

  3. Joe W. permalink
    August 11, 2010 2:12 pm

    Next time you are sitting quietly in an area with a few people, watch as time goes by how many people check there cell phones to see if they have any new messages. I always laugh that it is like someone yawning, because after one person checkes there phone most of the room will follow suit. I was also fortunate to experiance that Quaker Worship and really struggled to relax. For me and my responsiability’s at work there is only 2 hours during the week when I can be seperated from my phone, and they just happen to be when I am at St. George’s on Sunday’s.

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