The Eucharist and Silence

Thursday, May 01 2008

Laurence Freeman OSB
Excerpts from Lecture at The School of Prayer
Archdiocese of Melbourne
20th April 2005

A group of rabbinical students were once arguing about the meaning of a biblical text. They appealed to their teacher who told them to show him the page. “What do you see here?” he asked. “The words we are discussing,” they replied. “These black marks on the page,” the old rabbi said, “contain half the meaning of the passage. The other half is in the white spaces between the words.” This is the margin of silence around any page. It is also the necessary pause between breaths, the stillness between thoughts, the rest between bouts of activity.

For a growing number of people today the Eucharist is a ritual whose significance is and has long been hemorrhaging. Let me share with you what I recently heard during a retreat I was giving in Sydney. A pastoral assistant from a parish in New South Wales told me that the priest there has actually done what Pope John Paul II asked priests to do and what the Guidelines of the new edition of the General Instructions of the Roman Missal reinforce. He has restored liturgical silence to the worship of his parish. I was surprised, not at this per se, but by the degree. They have silences after the readings, five minutes after the homily and fifteen minutes at communion. I asked how the people responded and was told that nobody has walked out and many are expressing their approval. I don’t, however, want to reduce this subject to the number of minutes of silence – and for good reason.

There are many kinds of Eucharistic celebration and the discretion of the celebrant is crucial. But, I think it is significant that an ordinary Sunday parish congregation can be introduced to this degree of silence and enjoy it. It may be as surprising to some as the fact that children respond well to meditation – times of silent prayer without words or images. They do it and they like to do it and they ask for more. 

Meister Eckart typically said that ‘there is nothing so much like God as silence.’ Mother Teresa, who insisted on the centrality of two hours of silent prayer for the life of her apostolic sisters, typically said that ‘silence is God speaking to us.’  Each of these sayings illustrates a way of understanding the meaning of silence.

Why is God so like silence? Eckart doesn’t say God likes silence or likes silent worshippers but that God is like silence. St Benedict has two words we translate as silence: quies and silentium. Quies is quiet, physical silence, an absence of noise – not banging doors, not scraping chairs, not coughing or unwrapping sweet papers. It is the quies we expect good parents to train their children in, a physical self-restraint and modesty that respects the presence of other people. Quies makes the world habitable and civil. It is often grossly lacking in urban modern culture where music invades elevators and there is rarely a moment or place where we are not in range of manmade noise. There are now expensive headphones that people wear, not to listen to music but to block out noise. Silentium, however, is not an absence of noise but a state of mind and an attitude of consciousness turned towards others or to God. It is attention. When someone comes to see a priest or counselor to share a problem or grief, the priest knows that what he must above all give is his attention. There may not be a solution to the problem and most of our hopefully helpful words glide off the back of grief as failed platitudes. To listen deeply, to give oneself in the act of attention is in fact not to judge, or fix or condemn but to love. Seen this way there is indeed nothing so much like God as silence because God is love.

Liturgy – like all ways of prayer – is essentially about attention. At the Eucharist we train our attention towards God through the gift of self that Jesus made historically and makes continuously through the Spirit both in our hearts and on the altar. Although our attention may wander, looking at new faces in the congregation or browsing the bulletin, the attention of Jesus directed to us never wavers and does not even condemn or dislike us for our distractedness. Though we are unfaithful, he remains faithful because he cannot betray himself. This, at least to the believer, is the inexpressible mystery of the Eucharist and the ultimately irresistible and sweet attraction of the real presence.

Silence is work, the work of loving attention and its fruit is a heart filled with thanksgiving. This connects Meister Eckart’s idea of silence with Mother Teresa’s. Silence which is like God as nothing else is also God speaking to us. When we pay attention to God we soon realize that God is paying attention to us. Indeed it is God’s attention to us that allows us to pay attention to God. It is God who strikes the first spark of good will in us, according to Cassian who debated with Augustine about free will. But then we have to play our part. As St John says, This is what love really is: not that we have loved God but that he loved us. We love because he loved us first. When we celebrate the Eucharist we are in fact taking the first step to being caught up in the divine life. In the silence of the Eucharist we taste and enter the silence of the Father from whom the Word eternally springs. In Rubliev’s icon of the Trinity the three persons are gathered around the Eucharist.

This is the mystical dimension of the Eucharist that for many Sunday worshippers is the main spiritual food for their week and daily work. Every effort should, therefore, be made to ensure that this rare and precious moment is enjoyed to the fullest degree. The way in which the Eucharist is celebrated is all-important in allowing time and creating the space for its inner mystery to be manifested.

Prescribed silences cannot be made compulsory and still be expected to work spiritually. As long as the fundamental approach to the Eucharist is conditioned by legalism or excessive control it will seem that Eucharist and silence are incompatible. Silent moments or extended periods of silence will seem impractical, pretentious and artificial; or an imposition on a congregation who are good enough to come in the first place and who should not be subjected to something unfamiliar which lengthens their hour in church. The silences in the Eucharist must rather spring from the experience of the mystical depth being explored by the whole community. But like the whole Eucharist itself, these silences need to be guided by the celebrant in collaboration with the liturgical leadership of the community. Clearly it is in the seminary that the contemplative dimension of prayer needs to be nurtured if future celebrants are to have this feel for liturgical silence.

Priests are often fearful or suspicious of silence on the altar. Fear of silence in the Eucharist generally affects the celebrant more than the congregation. Is it that when he opens his eyes after a long silence he may find the church empty?  Is it the fear of losing control? Fear of silence is often a fear of absence, of the void we dread, the growing terror of nothing to think about. Or, is it also perhaps that our theological and liturgical training have not prepared us for the other half, the mystical half of the Eucharist?

Silence restores and recognizes this missing contemplative dimension. Silence refreshes language, restores precision and meaning especially to oft-quoted, familiar texts. Without silence even sacred words can become noise, babble. Silence in the Eucharist does not threaten emptiness or denote absence but exposes presence and invites responsiveness.

The places in the Eucharist where silences are especially useful and enhancing have already been identified. Many celebrants begin with a few moments of silence in the sacristy with the acolytes and lectors before processing in. Whenever the celebrant calls the community to pray, Let us pray demands a moment of silence before the words of the Collect are spoken to collect the unspoken prays of the whole people. The penitential rite then invites people to reflect interiorly so that they can prepare to experience the Eucharist as a healing and forgiving celebration in their imperfect lives. The readings especially call for silent pauses, before the responsorial psalm or the gospel acclamation rush us on. Often where silence is observed during the Liturgy of the Word it will also encourage a brief spoken commentary on a difficult or obscure passage that may otherwise escape the cognitive faculties of the congregation and sometimes the celebrant altogether.  Readings must be proclaimed with preparation and devout attention and meditative silence that enable the Word of God to touch people’s minds and hearts. (Mane Nobiscum Domine)

Catholic preachers are generally very self-conscious about the length of homilies, unlike protestant ministers who are often expected to give the people their money’s worth in terms of length and passion of delivery. The more modulated style of most Catholic preaching makes an ensuing period of silent reflection even more appropriate. It treats the congregation with the respect of assuming that they have listened intelligently and would like time to think about it even if they are not allowed to respond yet.

The breaking of the bread, the fraction of the host is a mystical moment of great sacredness and a moment of silence during this is natural. But the most significant and necessary time for silence in the Eucharist is of course after Communion. If the whole Eucharist is the culmen et fons of the church surely this moment is its mystical epicenter. Yet it is generally glossed over without a moment of silence except that occurring between songs or the purification of the vessels. This may be the stage where the celebrant is getting nervous about keeping people too long, the children may be getting restless and another congregation may be gathering outside. Now above all we need to remember that silence is not merely the absence of noise but the spirit of loving attention. I have sat in a prolonged silence after communion at Sunday mass in our monastery parish in suburban London while a chorus of wailing babies, restless toddlers and invisible stagehands were making noise. It did not materially affect the silence. The parents and others appreciated it and many, if not all, of the children became quieter. And when we concluded with the Post-Communion prayer there was a sense of thankfulness and refreshment not relief that we were finished. The celebrant has to hold his nerve at the beginning of such silences and of course to prepare the congregation for them. It is a significant period of silence not a quick pause that is needed. It can be helpful to have a prescribed time and to mark the beginning and the end of it by ringing a gong or chime.

Silence in the Eucharist does not, as some might fear, privatize the liturgy. This often happened in the Tridentine rite. People felt something very mysterious and sacred was happening but it did not personally involve them so they said their prayers while the priest got on with his role. Silence as a liturgical experience, by contrast, draws the community closer together and unifies their attention so that together in mind and heart they can hear the word and share in the mystery. St Ignatius of Antioch said that if we cannot understand the silence of Christ we will not be able to understand his words either. We can only understand his silence by being silent ourselves. In doing so together we experience the mystery of silence building community.

To conclude, I would like to recall a significant phrase of Pope John Paul. Having emphasized the importance of silence in the Eucharist he explains that it is not a self-contained artificial silence. We need to progress from the experience of liturgical silence to the “spirituality of silence” – to life’s contemplative dimension. St Francis once urged his followers to preach the gospel on all occasions and to everyone they met. When absolutely necessary, he added, use words. He meant, I think, not just silence but the silent or implicit witness of one’s life.

The link between the Eucharist and the way we live is crucial to any understanding or experience of its meaning and value. If we celebrate the Eucharist only as an ecclesial obligation or as a folksy get together it will have little influence upon better conforming our lives to the Gospel. Unless we have come together at a deep level in its celebration the closing words “Go in peace” will mean we go in pieces, just as we probably arrived. Silence allows the full meaning of the Eucharist at its deepest, post-verbal levels of sacramental efficacy, to unfold in our lives. This means that we will know that having shared the fruits of the earth symbolically together we can better serve the Kingdom of justice in our lives and work. We all took the same amount of bread and wine. There was enough to go round for everybody – if the sacristan did his job properly. Therefore if our lives are to be Eucharistic should we not work for the just distribution of wealth, the relief of the oppressed and care for the marginalized? The mystical depth of the Eucharist has direct political implications. Were not Thomas a Becket and Oscar Romero assassinated at the silent moment of consecration? Pope John Paul’s last public teaching and blessing from his Vatican window was silent.

So the implications of silence in the Eucharist take us to the heart of our faith and to the cutting edge of contemporary evangelization. It is not just about what happens at Mass times. It is about expressing what is real at the core of our being and in the fabric of our daily life and work. This I think must be why Pope John Paul linked the experience of liturgical silence to the contemplative renewal of the church. In a world increasingly fractured and frazzled by noise and stress, he recognized the necessity for the church to draw on its deepest contemplative traditions and to teach from these ways of contemplative prayer. It is vital to rediscover the value of silence, he said. John Main, who died in 1982, saw this too: the greatest challenge to modern people, he said, is to rediscover the value and meaning of silence. John Main in his writings on the Eucharist also saw that for modern people, recovering the contemplative dimension of prayer is necessary for experiencing the full meaning of the sacraments.

The teaching of contemplative prayer at the parish and diocesan level is a natural and perhaps inevitable corollary to liturgical silence. We have to start somewhere – with silence after communion or with meditation groups in the parish. The church being a living Body with a spiritual life, her pastors don’t have to be too preoccupied with systems analysis. They simply have to pray and encourage people to pray ever more deeply. It may be more daring in our time to apply this to the religious education and spiritual formation of children and young people.

A living silence after the readings, homily and communion will arouse or, better perhaps, identify the deeper hunger that is at the heart of our church and our world. Learning to pray at the contemplative level will teach us to live better in the spirit, because the way we pray is the way we live and the way we pray is the way we celebrate the Eucharist. This hunger for contemplation, then, is our greatest hope. It is vital to rediscover the value of silence.