Work of the People – Silence is not absence

Dr. Karen Shadle

by Dr. Karen Shadle

I write this column from St. Meinrad Archabbey, where I am spending a few days with the priests of our archdiocese during their annual assembly. I help with daily prayer and Mass, but otherwise my responsibilities are few and I am left to soak in the unusual quiet of this place, tucked in the farmland of central Indiana.

Seminary is out of session. There is no traffic noise. My phone barely gets a signal here. Televisions and computers are nearly nonexistent.

The great silence of each day is punctuated by the tolling of bells, word and melodies of prayer and mealtime conversations. It’s both peaceful and a bit bizarre for someone like me who is unaccustomed to long stretches of nothing.

It is no great insight to observe that our modern world is overwhelmed with noise. Many have written of the detrimental effects of our hurried pace of life with its constant background noise. A very real addiction to screens — the constant buzzing and beeping of simulated human contact — threatens our most important relationships.

In his recent book “The Power of Silence,” Robert Cardinal Sarah argues that all this noise inhibits our spirituality: “Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing.”

I’m guilty. There is plenty of time in my schedule for some quiet contemplation, but I usually choose to fill it with junk instead.

Silence can be so rare that it’s physically jarring to me. It sets off alarm bells of concern. Parents of little ones know that feeling when you suddenly realize that it is too quiet. This is usually a prelude to learning that someone ate toothpaste or took a crayon to the dining room table.

One of the things I appreciate most about the liturgy is the way it challenges us to reconnect with silence in a positive way. Silence is not absence. Rather, it is intense presence. In silence, we intentionally make space for deep thought and a sense of awareness of God and others.

As we explain in video #5 in The Work of the People series, the liturgy invites us to participate in this type of contemplative silence at various times — after each reading from scripture, after the homily and after communion, to name a few. In her wisdom, the Church provides exactly what we need — a respite from the noise.

My plea to liturgical ministers: Do not rush. Let these moments breathe deeply. And it’s okay if it’s not a perfect hush. Babies can cry, toddlers can babble and people can cough and shuffle. It’s not the absence of sound that we seek, but the clearing away of the junk around our hearts.

When a silence goes on for a while at Mass, I sometimes catch myself looking around, feeling unsettled, wondering if someone missed their cue to speak. That’s because I am out of practice. Our contemplative muscle, like any muscle, needs to be worked out regularly. If you don’t use it, you lose it. And if your capacity for silence has atrophied, the church is one of the best rehab facilities. Come to stretch out and practice being quiet again. If we make regular time for silence, we will start to hear God’s voice more clearly.

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