Shh! Be Still - Silence is Essential

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Be Still - Silence is Essential

Be Still – Silence is Essential

Silence is not just golden, it’s essential. “Be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:10) is a directive from on high. I am an unlikely candidate to deliver such a message as my former grade school and high school teachers can attest.  They frequently moved me around on their seating charts in search of students who would not indulge my propensity for conversation.  Being the friendly sort, I made friends with those around me and I liked to talk with my friends.

I’m still not the quiet sort, but I’ve come to see the value of silence, particularly in church. Especially in church.  As a daily churchgoer, I’ve attended Mass in many cities and states, on vacations, speaking engagements, and visiting family.  Occasionally, I come across a congregation that treats their church like an auditorium; acting as if they are waiting for a basketball game to begin.  Since it seems that the mass renovations (no pun intended) of Catholic churches resulted in gathering spaces as accessories to Church buildings, I don’t understand how it is that the visiting moved into the sacred spaces.

A Place and A Time

Loud talking, laughing, and strutting should be done somewhere else, like for instance, the gathering space!  Hello? Do the chatties not remember why their parish had fundraisers and why Mass was held for many months in a gymnasium until construction of the gathering space was complete?

When I was a girl, churches were quiet. I know that’s old people’s speak, but the fact was that everyone knew they were entering the house of God.   Walking into church meant leaving the everyday world behind and entering into God’s vestibule–the place were he comes to us and we come to him.  Even whispering, beyond just a short, essential message, was frowned upon.  Yes,  things have changed in many ways, but  our need remains for quiet time to connect with God and prepare to enter into the sacred mysteries of Mass.  Listening the chatter of others is not conducive to embarking on such a spiritual exercise.

If the congregation is chatty before Mass, I can pretty much guarantee things are going to get worse after the priest gives the final blessing and tells us, “The Mass is ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  It’s over so people assume social time should resume. Except not. Many people want a moment to kneel and pray, to reflect on the Mass and the fact that they just received Jesus in the Eucharist.  The church should be a good place to do it.

One summer while at a family reunion in Michigan, my husband and I chanced upon such a congregation. Praying before and after Mass was next to impossible.  When I returned home, I wrote a letter to the pastor telling him I found it very hard to pray in his church.  I heard about Jack just getting out of the hospital and Joyce’s plans for her flower garden but what I yearned to hear was silence.

The Value of Quiet

The poet, Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus, 1831, expounded on the virtues of silence:

“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule…. Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.”

I am not an old grouch who frowns at babies and shakes my finger at little children.  Truthfully, I tune out most of the babbling of little ones during Mass, short of blood curdling screams or a toy truck inadvertently flung across two pews. It’s just that I can’t concentrate on prayer when Bill and Sam talk loudly about the afternoon football game or Hilda tells Samantha that JC Penny’s sale ends on Tuesday. I’m easily distracted. Most of us are.

For the record, if you belong to a chatty Church, know that the loud visiting in the body of the Church is not the norm for most parishes. At least I personally don’t come across it very often and I have been to Churches in a large number of states.  So if your congregation talks a lot in Church, they are behaving badly and everyone else isn’t doing it.

If it applies to you, just stop. I know it’s a hard habit to stop. We all enjoy seeing friends and fellow parishioners. We are a Church family, after all.  But you are in God’s house and should quiet your mind and spirit. Don’t talk with the people around you, talk with God in heaven.

Once Mass starts, you will enter into public worship and be present at the representation of the Christ giving us his body and blood in the Eucharist. These are divine moments of grace.  It’s before and after that we should have some moments of silence to be in the presence of God.  Even if you don’t personally want to spend some time with God yourself, at least have the courtesy not to interfere with that experience for others.  Sharing the secret ingredient in last night’s sloppy Joe recipe or commenting on the changing weather forecast, etc, is not important enough to crowd out God’s time with his people.

If you are a part of a noisy congregation, I know one quiet soul is not going to get the message across and catch on.  At least don’t contribute to the noise. Pray and look for opportunities to encourage others to treat Church time with quiet respect. Talk with your pastor and like-minded others about this issue. Messages in church newsletters, appeals from the pulpit and announcements in bulletins might help.  These are just suggestions.  Since my home church is relatively quiet, it’s only infrequently that I happen upon a talkative congregation.  Whatever measures you take, you will be showing love and respect to both neighbor and God.  And that is something to get quiet about!

Copyright 2012 Patti Maguire Armstrong

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About Author

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series and authored: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families, a collection of stories to inspire family love.

Patti is a correspondent for the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor & Dakota Catholic Action.

3 Comments

  1. At our parish everyone talks and it is very annoying. The old people, who should know better, seem to be the worst. I want it to be reverent and peaceful and quiet. It is not. I think what would help would be to lower the lights. Instead of it being real bright, when the lights are real dim people almost automatically lower their voices and try to be quiet. They know something different is going on. I think it also filters out a LOT of distractions – that woman there with the spaghetti straps, that kid piling up the song books to entertain himself, that woman there with the tag hanging out the top of her shirt. All the distractions add up. The kids are more quiet too when the lights are lowered. People start to realize where they are and what they are supposed to be doing there. You can do your reading at home. Perhaps we could see Christ’s light better if the church is dark!

  2. Patty,
    I completely agree with you. We have recently moved to a new parish & it’s definitely not as noisy there … they actually pray the Rosary prior to Mass & either the St. Michael prayer or a Novena immediately after the final blessing, before the priest leaves to greet those heading out (we are currently doing a Novena for the election…SO badly needed).

    Anyway, at our old parish, my kids & I would kneel right after Mass to pray together (3 Hail Marys & the St. Michael prayer) and…get this…even though one of my boys would be quietly reciting a Hail Mary or I would be whispering the St. Michael prayer, we had people just walk right up to us, stand in front of us & start talking to us as if we weren’t doing a thing!!!!! Uhm, hello, we are kneeling down, huddled together here…can it wait????

    To me, it seems that we have just lost pure common sense & common courtesy along with it.
    Peace (and quiet) be with you,
    Mary

  3. Thank you so much for this post! I have been a lifelong member of one of those “chatty” parishes but did not fully realize until after I read your reflections how much this habit detracts from the celebration of the Mass as well as meaningful preparation and reflection upon completion. As I tend to be quiet by nature, talking after Mass while still in church is not something I have done regularly, but even on occasion I let myself get distracted by engaging in conversation or answering someone else’s invitation to do so. My mom was a convert to Catholicism from congregational protestantism and brought her “greet and update your neighbor” practices with her (saving them until after Mass was over…but I grew up with this and because nothing was ever said, thought it must be okay to do). Now that I have two young sons, I am more aware of many aspects of the Mass and I hope that they will grow up with a richer understanding and appreciation of the celebration and show respect for the Holy House of the Lord. As a member of the choir, I have become increasingly troubled by the number of unnecessary “communications” before, during and after Mass by our own…many often forgetting that the tiny microphones pick up everything, not just our singing voices! So, inspired by your words and at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I have decided to take up a silent silence campaign. I understand now why our current pastor has stopped trying to change this habit by speaking out against it (because of the proverbial “going in one ear and out the other”), but maybe one small written deed will eventually grow into expanded sounds of silence. My plan is to design a prayerfully-worded short message about my silent silence campaign, print it on business cards, and hand them out to my fellow choir members (so that they are not offended when I no longer answer their questions or acknowledge their comments about my family while we’re in church!). In a way, I guess that’s preaching to the choir…but we need it! If the reception goes well, maybe I’ll print more and encourage others to join me in my campaign; it could be the best gift we’ve ever given to each other. With your permission I’d happily include the link to this post so that others can see where this inspiration began. Again, thank you for this post! May God continue to richly bless you in your ministry of words and in your vocation as a wife and mother.

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