Sacred Silence

Wisdom for Today
Fr. Andrew McNair, L.C.
From the Jul/Aug 2004 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

Like many Catholics, Steve works hard to do the right things in life. He goes to Mass on Sunday, spends time with his family, and tries to give a good example at work. Many would characterize Steve as a devout Catholic. Yet Steve doesn’t see it that way. At 45, Steve wonders if going to Church really helps him make sense out of life. In a conversation, Steve summed it up like this:

“I go to Mass because it’s the right thing to do. At least, that’s what my parents always said. To be honest, Father, I don’t get much out of it. I try to pray to God at Mass but nothing seems to happen. I’m not sure what to do.”

I think many of us like Steve struggle to make the Mass a personal and meaningful prayer. The question is: Why? I don’t think the problem stems from the Mass itself or its structure. The problem lies in what we do in God’s presence to pray at Mass. The Second Vatican Council’s document on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, points out that “all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical
celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy . . .”

Many think this simply means going through the different gestures of the Mass: standing, sitting, kneeling, and responding vocally to the different prayers of the Eucharist. Yet these gestures in themselves aren’t prayer. To live the Mass in a personal and meaningful way, we need to rediscover a virtue of the spiritual life that few talk about anymore. The Fathers of the Church call this virtue “sacred silence.” The Fathers understood sacred silence as a
profound recollection of the body and soul before the loving presence of God.

Scripture teaches us that God speaks in the silence of our hearts. Isaiah says, “Listen to me in silence, . . . let the peoples renew their strength” (41:1). Silence, in the Bible, characterizes our attitude before the holy presence of God: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation” (Ps. 62:1). Moreover, God’s Word reminds us that God’s presence demands silence: “Listen to me in silence . . .” (Is. 41:1).

From a practical viewpoint, when and how should we live “sacred silence” at Mass? The General Instruction of the Roman Missal gives us the answer. Silence, the document affirms, needs to be observed at designated times during the Eucharistic celebration. The purpose of silence in the Eucharistic celebration will depend on the time it occurs. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal calls for several precise moments of silence in the Mass.

The first moment of silence comes at the beginning of the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass. The purpose is evident. Silence here provides us with the spiritual recollection to recall our sins and ask God’s forgiveness. After that, we observe silence at the beginning of the “Collect” or opening prayer. This time of silence gives the faithful the opportunity to offer their petitions to God and remind themselves that they stand in God’s holy
presence. At the end of the readings or the homily, all should mediate in silence on God’s Word addressed to them. Silence will help us grasp the meaning of God’s Word in our life. After Holy Communion, everyone in silence should elevate praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for the precious gift of the Lord’s Body and Blood.

By learning how to live the gift of silence in God’s house, we gain that necessary disposition that allows us to truly connect with God and receive more from the Mass. That’s what I call wisdom for today.

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