(This is the sixth in the ten-part series of Bread and Concrete: Where Liturgy and Ministry Meet from Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, August 2015)
Voicing the silent prayer of sojourners
“Truly, I have set my soul in tranquility and silence.” Ps 131
One of the greatest obstacles for our evangelizing efforts in our Church today is to break through the sound clutter of people’s lives. Silence is becoming a lost art. A woman who works among marginalized youth and at-risk teens recently told me that one of her greatest fears for our younger generation is “madness.” She explained that so many young people have no experience of silence. Their lives are lived outside of themselves, not relying on conscience or inner reflection. Their time is taken by technology and their days are completely programmed by parents and teachers impatient about making sure they have all the skills to get to college. She explained that conscience is waning in many of our teenagers. For many, their inner ability to make decisions is being lost and happiness is eluding many teens today. Silence within the liturgy today might very well become the most beautiful and artful evangelizing tool we possess for outreach to people’s suffering, loss and insecurities. Silence is a holy and ancient gift of evangelization and worship, of personal prayer and satisfaction for us in our generation.
I also realize that people whom the Church is trying to reach also feel they have no voice in society and within the Church. Our efforts to reach so many people in our desires for people to know God are somehow lost on many people. We need to recapture the gift of silence but first we need to listen to people with acute awareness and love.
I continue the liturgy by inviting the assembly to pray before reading the Collect. Silence follows. Within those few sacred moments of silence, we are all called to offer our lives once again to God. We are to ready our newly absolved souls to again stand together in prayer and to eat together. Most people do not realize that when I invite people into prayer and become silent – that God is initiating prayer within their silent yearning. The words I speak in the Collect are to be on their behalf, from their broken lives and sincere circumstances. The written words are spoken to break through the silence and to literally collect the prayers of the people and offer them to God.
I pay close attention to this holy exchange of silence and words. These are the moments we live out in the liturgy when Jesus immersed himself in silent prayer to the Father’s will and then entered into people’s suffering fully, lovingly and without judgment. I do not take this dialogue for granted within the liturgy, especially with people who suffer severe depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness.
People need time to absorb and comprehend spoken words, sacred gestures and holy actions. I have learned in my time at the parish that I need to preside in a gentle and holy pace; a holy rhythm of silence, speaking, gestures, and actions within the liturgy itself. People with emotional disabilities often become agitated when the pace of our common prayer is impulsive, quick or inconsistent. This has taken time for me to understand as people react to my calming voice in prayer and the pace that I set as a celebrant and homilist.
These initial moments of silence also signify to people that what we are about to enter into as a community is important. From our common silence we need to listen together to words that form us into becoming a better community, a people of love and understanding. Silence also gives people time to make a transition from the stressful, hectic week and challenges of daily life into Sunday prayer.
Most people do not have adequate moments of silence within their lives to encounter their own suffering or stirrings of God’s actions within their lives. Many people feel robbed of reflective moments living lives that are chaotic, challenging and sometimes even brutal just in order to survive another day. So many people do not want to face the reality of their decisions, their relationships, their job loss or ill health, so they will flee silence altogether. This silence in the Mass speaks to the silence that people are missing all during the week. Silence can be a refreshing moment of integrity and anticipation of what is to come within the liturgy. These moments prepare the heart for love.
I hear this dialogue of silence and response when an autistic child throws a tantrum and his mother stands by. When the child stops and lies quietly on the floor, there is sacred moment of silence, a quiet, before the mother speaks tender words of consolation.
I hear this dialogue again at the breakfast table when an elderly grandfather reviews again his options for cancer treatment and his wife sits next to him holding his hand. When he breaks down in tears out of his fear of dying, his wife of so many years speaks tender and reassuring words from the familiar silence of fidelity.
This sacred dialogue happens when a young man waits for a response from his beloved a response to his question about marriage. This is the silence when a young high school student finally makes a decision about college and stands at the dinner table waiting to open her acceptance letter or email with his family. This holy engagement can also be heard in the silence of a family gathered in the intensive care unit of the hospital waiting to hear the news of grandmother’s last breath.
I try to wait in silence for people to settle into the calm. So often the silence is brittle. It cracks open so easily from a cough in the first pew or feisty child near the door. One kneeler slamming to the floor or one impatient priest may shorten the feeling of grace in our common silence. The pause for prayer is a holy moment. We all come to realize that God has already given us the grace to be present at the Eucharist. Prayer comes from God’s initiative toward his people.
As I lift my arms in prayer to read the collect, I feel the vulnerability of this gesture. This is the first moment of facing the congregation in a ritual of dialogue and prayer with the assembly and God. I feel the responsibility of standing at the chair, the place were Christ has promised us he would also be. I understand this assurance especially on days when I am most distracted by my own life or tormented by the circumstances of the people in front of me. In this moment I become more than a role, I am the caretaker of people’s prayer, the intercessor for people who live in pain, doubt and suffering. This is not just my job on Sundays or at noon on weekdays; this is my vocation to intercede for people who wait for life to change.
I lift my arms and feel my chest open up. The angst I feel in my body settles around my heart and my sternum opens as my arms extend beyond my torso. I am also very conscious that my palms are lifted up. I do so because I do not want to cling to anything that will keep people’s prayer from being received by God. My open hands are signs to me that I am also ready for change, ready to be molded by the fire of prayer and compelled into a new fidelity of living the gospel among people in poverty. My hands extend beyond my heart in gratitude.
I realize praying the collect out loud that our silence is bundled together in the written text of the liturgy. The words act as a holy offering to God. We all stand with Christ Jesus offering our human poverty back to the Father. This is our posture of prayer within the entire liturgy. We bundle our silence like the wheat at the harvest. Our offering begins in our grateful souls and from people desiring healing, forgiveness and new life.
People respond aloud with an “Amen”. This accolade is the recognition that their prayer is part of the offering; the Father will hear that what was silently shared. This response is our assertion that God receives the offering of loneliness, sinfulness and questions about the future. This response comes in strength and healing grace for every person in the assembly.
I sit down with the quiet assurance that we are all ready to hear the sacred Word of God. I feel relief that our family story will be told one more time. Our community will become closer as the passages of Scripture from our common story are proclaimed to us. We sit together now with a deeper attentiveness, waiting for God to break through the patterns of our daily lives. We long to become a home for the Word of God.
Beautifully written and calming and comforting to read–
Once again, a very well written reflection. I thought of a musical analogy, I once heard one of our directors (it may have been Sue Seid-Martin) say that the “rests” in a musical score are just as important as the notes, and without those brief periods of “silence”, making music would be impossible. And for music to be truly “music”, it must be “of the moment”, that is, the choir and other musicians responding each moment to where the director wants to take a certain piece. Now that I’m older I have a much deeper grasp of the meaning of these concepts. I totally agree with you that young people today have so many things demanding their attention that they have very little opportunity or encouragement to experience true silence. We need that silence, and like you observed, it does allow our conscience and inner life to grow. Without a living, spiritual center, life is empty. That’s why your emphasis on the arts carries with it such a deep spiritual message! Art allows us to somehow touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, we get a view “through the glass, darkly” as St. Paul said, at the glory that is all around us, if we could but see it. I love that line from the Gospel of St. Thomas, “The Kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it.”
Have a great day, Ron!