The song, the sound, and the silence

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 10:21am on 5th April 2012

The Catholic press reported a few congregations resisting the new translation deliberately with rebellious silence.  Some worshippers responded with silence for fear of making mistakes, unsure which phrases had changed and which remained unaffected.  Where Catholics are voicing the new texts in speech and song with increasing confidence, initial hesitation over unfamiliar words is decreasing, but I am left wondering about the place and value of silence in liturgy, intentional or unexpected, measured or denied.


As a Londoner, my world is noisy, and silence is rare.  Even when I escaped city life for Iona, the sound of the wind and waves was constant.  Silence is invaluable, although it is not necessarily comforting:


I stayed dumb, silent, speechless, but the sinner’s prosperity redoubled my torment (Ps.39:2)


The challenge of silence may be faced willingly on occasions such as Remembrance Day ‘lest we forget’.  Silence brings back memories, which can be frightening.  The contents of silence are unknown, although this presents an opportunity to encounter and engage with the unfathomable mystery of God.  Everything that is hidden (even in our own hearts) is known to God (Luke 12:2; Matt 10:26) and strong and safe worshipping communities allow this to emerge and be held in love. 


Frustration arises when it seems God is silent but it can be equally frustrating to experience communal prayer devoid of a single quiet moment.  It’s particularly disappointing when leaders of worship with children, including school Masses and Liturgy of the Word with Children, fearing negative reactions to silence plan instead for everyone to take a turn, be entertained and constantly active.  This denies participants silence within which an interior spiritual life may develop. 


The benefits of silence are not only interior.  Within a silent church, worshippers become aware of more people around them than they can see (in a large venue) or have time to talk to.  The silence of a crowd can express solidarity and unify people of different faiths and languages.  Participants hear each other breathing, fidgeting, perhaps even crying or snoring!  So each individual understands more of the whole of which we are a part.  We hear the sounds around us - traffic, birds, sirens, the rain - so communal silence becomes a starting point to listen to the local community each congregation seeks to serve.  Self-awareness is also increased, including perception of pulse and breathing.  The deprivation of one sense invariably leads to heightening of the others: the seats and clothes that bodies touch; the smell of flowers, wood and incense; all that may be seen.  After a period of silence the words we subsequently hear sound clearer and more powerful. 


The hymn text Let all mortal flesh keep silence refers to this image from Wisdom 18:14-15:


When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leapt your all-powerful Word


Silence is a colour in the sound palette.  To begin to sing while people are chatting and distracted has been compared to painting on a used piece of paper.  The outcome cannot but be blurred.  So ideally, our singing emerges from an expectant silence and leads into a reflective quietness.  In Taizé worship, a brief chant is repeated into the silence, highlighting a particular aspect of faith from which worshippers listen to God’s response and develop individual prayer.  Gentle movement out of silence is enabled by using a lengthy introduction to the next piece of music, beginning quietly and introducing the elements of organised sound (rhythm, melody and harmony) gradually.  Continuing to sing while the accompanist is silent highlights certain words, such as ‘O still small voice of calm’ towards the end of the hymn Dear Lord and Father of mankind.  When only the men, only the women, or only the children sing particular verses, everyone else listens, giving attention to fragments of the text through decreased rather than increased volume.  Partial silence also highlights the moment when the whole congregation resumes singing, or the accompaniment returns. 


Silence, like sound, may be helpful or distracting.  In the Diocese of Westminster, the Bishops require silence during the anointing at Confirmation ceremonies, but this does not necessarily lead to a more prayerful rite.  As with congregational song, the participation of a proportion of the group in the silence is necessary to enable others to join in.  Worshippers may need guidance to appreciate silence; for example, explanation, images to visualise, mantras for meditation.  The length of silence in liturgy may be increased as it becomes a more familiar means of prayer.  The new translation prompts us to incorporate more silence into liturgy, allowing individual personal experience to be called to mind and offered within a communal response to readings or the prayer of the faithful.  Silence after the sermon offers time to absorb what we have heard.  Silence after Communion helps us to cherish intimacy with Christ.


Reproduced from Issue 344, Volume 38, Number 1 of Music and Liturgy, March 2012, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory


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