- David Russell Mosley
24 April 2017
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
The first time I was properly confronted with silence was when I was in college. At the time I was double-majoring in Biblical Exposition and Preaching (I later dropped the Preaching major), and I was taking homiletics. One of the professor’s for that course organized a retreat for the class. He had written a short book few years prior , What the Monks Can Teach Us, and often assigned this retreat as a way enacting some of the practices he had outlined in the book. So, over a short weekend, we did lectio divina, spent time in nature, and spent a lot of time in silence. The silence part was easiest for me at the time, but only because I kept moving. The retreat took place at a large cabin in the woods and so we were free to go hiking, to take a canoe out on the pond, whatever we wanted, so long as we were silent. Of course, this was before the ubiquity of smart phones, so that made things a little easier too. But still, I spent half the day just wandering in the woods. Sure, I’d pause for a moment or two, think for a minute, maybe jot something down in my journal, but then I’d start moving again. I used activity to keep from really having to encounter the silence. I never just sat with it.
The next time I was properly confronted with silence wouldn’t be until 2013, when I went on retreat to an Anglican Benedictine monastery. I was going there to discern whether or not I was going to pursue ordination in the Church of England (I wrote about the experience here). Attempting to be silent, to only read the books I brought with me, to not get on my phone felt almost impossible. Worse, it was raining my first day, so getting out and wandering the estate wasn’t possible. I just sat, either in my room, or in the guest’s living room. Frankly, my inability to quiet my soul probably led me to make the wrong decision, which was to begin the process of ordination, one I’d eventually give up.
This leads me to more recent experiences of the lack of silence. At the various protestant services I’ve attended over the years is this most obvious. There’s almost never a moment of quiet. Are we passing communion trays? Let’s play some music and sing. Are we making announcements? Let’s have music play in the background. At some churches, the only time there’s no music playing is during the sermon, but even then there’s not actual silence. This was aggravating enough. But I’ve noticed a similar problem in Catholic churches.
In the Catholic services I have attended there are often times without music or much speaking, particularly when receiving the Eucharist. Although even then, those administering the Eucharist must speak as must those receiving. But still, there’s certainly more down time in a Catholic service. They’re not as afraid of a little silence, right? Except, and again this is only at the services I have attended so I cannot say this is descriptive of services everywhere, it seems to me they are. The most clear example is during the prayers. We fly through the various prayers for the Pope, our bishop, the world, etc. and arrive at a chance to quietly, privately, silently, pray for our own intentions. Yet, I’ve barely had time to articulate those intentions in my own head before we’ve moved on to the next thing. Now it’s true that there is often more time for quiet reflection during a Catholic service, but that’s most often when nothing is going on (e.g. before Mass) or when the time has a predetermined length (e.g. When everyone is in line to receive communion; we know that time will end when the last person has received the host). This opportunity to pray for our own intentions is the one set time of silence that has no official duration. And I’m afraid that we fly right by it, rather than allow the congregation to sit with it, even to be made uncomfortable by it.
I think this has to do with the nature of our culture. We are encouraged to make noise, to be surrounded by sound. Whether it’s devices in our pockets that make us accessible at all times, day or night, and can play music and watch videos; or the ambient nose of cars, trains, planes, and all other manner of motor engines, we surrounded by man-made sound. And we’re encouraged to do this: we move into cities to find work (something humans have been doing for a long time now); advertisers encourage us to buy products that can play music, turn on lights, answer questions, all at the sound of our voice; children’s toys seem to almost ubiquitously come with (or need) batteries in order to function properly. There is little occasion for and no encouragement to experience silence. And even when we try to be a little more silent, we often do things. We’re certainly not encouraged to sit, alone or together, in silence just contemplating.
I wish I had the answer. I wish I could say silence comes easily for me. But I don’t and it doesn’t. Silence is hard. True, non-capitalist, leisure is hard. Contemplation feels impossible. And yet in a world where we’re not even busy doing good things the way Martha was, we are still called as followers of Christ to be, at least on occasion, Mary. We still need to sit at the Lord’s feet, drinking him in. We must, for this is a huge part of what it means to be a Christian. And maybe, just maybe, introducing a little more silence into our church services might help us introduce more silence into our everyday lives. Maybe.