Silence in the Liturgy

Come, Holy Spirit, searching fire, whose flame all evil burns away.

Come down to us with light and love, in silence and in peace to stay.

(Hymn at Morning Prayer, week 1)

I have celebrated Mass in a prison on most Saturday mornings for more than seventeen years. As I have grown to know the men, and the ladies before them, I have also become aware of their gift of silence. At our pause for personal petition in the Bidding Prayers, in the moment after the consecration, in the intimate moment after receiving Holy Communion, the silence is almost tangible. I have often spoken of this to others, with a sense of wonder really, for these men have discovered something special. They would shy away from the word liturgy. By definition liturgy is a public act of worship. By experience these men have discovered that the outer trappings of their worship can lead to an inner sense of presence and reverence, and that the inward quiet experience can bring transformation in their lives. No wonder that we often pray (not sing) the words of the hymn that concludes ‘the power of the Lord is working in this place.’

The liturgy, our act of public worship, reveals itself in the form of dialogue, greeting and reciprocation, reading and response, shared expression of faith in creed and acclamation, declaration of our firm assent by our robust ‘Amen.’ There is a rhythm to all this, that must include pauses, else we can be carried away. So we pause, for reflection, for re-focussing our attention and our intention and, frankly, for silence, because friends can sit quietly, companionably, in silence.

In the Mass there are evident built-in silences after we have heard the readings proclaimed and after we have received Holy Communion. In fact we receive the Lord who ‘comes to us in Word and in Sacrament.’ We take full advantage of these moments in order to develop further a stillness of mind and heart resting in God. Throughout the Mass, in spoken word, in singing my praise, and in silence, I am aware of St Augustine’s urging, ‘We pray to him, through him, in him; we speak with him, he speaks to us. So we must recognise our voices in him and his voice in us.’ (On Psalm 86)

‘When the Lamb opened the seventh seal,

there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. ‘ (Rev 8,1)