It’s a noisy world out there. I live a few yards from a major thoroughfare and half a block from a busy commuter railway! Our church staff is lively, collegial, and talkative—a wonderful thing most days! And there are always new tasks to accomplish and challenges to meet. Amidst these bustling and noisy thoughts, I’d like to write a few words about silence. Busy-ness and activity are good things, but when we get wrapped up in life it is easy to forget about God. To really hear the voice of God, we must be open to it and we must listen for it. In the book of Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Elijah waits for God on a mountaintop. We read that heavy winds, earthquakes, and fires all buffet that mountain (did Elijah live in California?), but in none of these terrifying phenomena does Elijah find God. Finally there is the sound of sheer silence, and in that silence is God’s voice finally heard. I can relate to that, as I have often felt most close to God alone in the silence of nature.
The Taizé Community in France also understands the power of silence. As you may know, at the heart of every liturgy in Taizé is a period of silence lasting at least ten minutes. The community says, “When we try to express communion with God in words, we rapidly reach the end of our capacities, which is why silence is so essential in discovering the heart of prayer. Remaining in silence in God’s presence, open to the Spirit, is already prayer.” Silence is essential to music as well. Music plays best against a backdrop of silence. Also, as one of my organ teachers once pointed out, it’s not just the notes themselves, but rather it’s the notes along with the silences between the notes—the rests and articulations—that make music.
Our Sunday liturgies offer many opportunities to experience silence as a community. Some people may arrive early and enjoy sitting for several minutes with their own thoughts and prayers. You may wish to try waiting several seconds at the end of each reading before starting the music that follows. People may at first think you’re having trouble finding the right page in the hymnal, but will soon welcome the chance to reflect on what has just been read! A similar silence could take place at the end of the sermon. Many congregations observe a period of silence before or after the distribution of Holy Communion. Silence takes effort for most of us; our active society has trained us out of the habit. Insert some intentional silence into your liturgies, and invite your assembly to really use these moments. Try to find out how your communication with God changes. You may be pleasantly surprised!