The Word and Silence
Aug 2, 2018

The Word and Silence

The only way we can be saved from succumbing to the inflation of words is if we have the courage to face silence and in it learn to listen afresh to the Word. Otherwise we shall be overwhelmed by “mere words” at the very point where we should be encountering the Word, the Logos, the Word of love, crucified and risen, who brings us life and joy.[1]

As surprising as it might sound, sacred silence is “part of the celebration” and is indeed demanded by the nature of the “dialogue between God and his people taking place through the Holy Spirit” (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], 30; Introduction, Lectionary for Mass, 28).

Silence is observed in different ways in the different parts of the liturgy being celebrated (GIRM 45). For instance, before the liturgy, silence disposes the faithful “to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner.” During the liturgy, silence serves personal recollection (Penitential Act and after the invitations to pray). After the Scripture readings and the Homily, silence facilitates meditation on what has been heard. “[A]fter Communion, [the faithful] praise God in their hearts and pray to him” (GIRM 45).

This silence is certainly not passive, for it is one of the means by which “the people make [God’s] divine word their own” (GIRM 55), grasping it with “the heart and” preparing “a response [to God] through prayer” (GIRM 56). Indeed, knowing how to use periods of silence is essential for active participation, but it does not always come naturally—it needs to be taught. For this reason, Pope St. John Paul II challenged the Church: “Why not start with pedagogical daring a specific education in silence within the coordinates of personal Christian experience? Let us keep before our eyes the example of Jesus, who ‘rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed’ (Mk 1:35). The Liturgy, with its different moments and symbols, cannot ignore silence” (Spiritus et Sponsa, 13).

Silence is an invitation to hear the Lord speak. Catholic novelist Walker Percy famously referred to man “as Homo loquens, man the talker, or Homo symbolificus, man the symbol-monger.”[2] But if that is the case, it is only because God spoke first. Indeed, as Richard Lischer puts it, we

speak because we have a speaking God, deus loquens. If there were stage-directions attached to the Old Testament they would read, Enter God, talking. Jeremiah issues the ultimate put-down of the gods of neighboring tribes. He says, “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak” (Jeremiah 10:5a).[3]

Man’s ability to listen is irrevocably connected to his ability to hear the Lord’s voice. It is no wonder that the Liturgy prescribes periods of silence, that the Bride may listen to the Bridegroom and ponder his Word. As Romano Guardini put it:

We cannot take stillness too seriously. Not for nothing do these reflections on the liturgy open with it. If someone were to ask me what the liturgical life begins with, I should answer: with learning stillness. Without it, everything remains superficial, vain. Our understanding of stillness is nothing strange or aesthetic. Were we to approach stillness on the level of aesthetics of mere withdrawal into the ego, we should spoil everything. What we are striving for is something very grave, very important, and unfortunately sorely neglected; the prerequisite of the liturgical holy act.

Meditations Before Mass, p. 6

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 73.

[2] Walker Percy, The Message in a Bottle (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 1989), 17.

[3] Richard Lischer, “Resurrection and Rhetoric,” in Marks of the Body of Christ, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 15.

Jeremy J. Priest

Jeremy J. Priest is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, MI, as well as Content Editor for Adoremus. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife Genevieve have three children and live in Lansing, Michigan.