There are two important silences whenever a piece of music is offered, whether in church or the concert hall. The first silence precedes the music; it can be as short as a heartbeat, or as long as the conductor decides. This silence is for "anticipation and preparation", as everyone gets ready for the music to come. The music then grows from the silence. When the music has ended, there is another important silence, the "receiving" silence. In this short pause, the audience can sometimes be heard to inhale as they receive the music and its meaning, and choose what to do next. Clap? Hold still and quiet, savoring the moment? The receiving silence calls upon the listeners to make a decision.
As musicians, we know a lot about silence, yet we are not always comfortable with it. Do we fear silence? Are we afraid of what we will find there? In 1 Kings 19, Elijah goes to stand on Mount Horeb to witness the Lord passing by. You know the story: the Lord was not in the wind; the Lord was not in the earthquake; the Lord was not in the fire. But after the fire came a sound of sheer silence – and the Lord spoke to Elijah in that silence. Before any words, before any sounds, God is present.
In today’s world of traffic and construction noise, shopping mall music and television, silence is very noticeable. We have grown so accustomed to sounds that we may have forgotten: silence is communication, too. Sometimes, the silence makes us feel we need to make a choice – what do we do next? This can be especially true in our worship services.
We are not the first to feel the weight of silence in worship. Catholic monks, who served as the choir during worship services in the 13th century, noticed that the congregation had trouble paying attention during the silence as the lectionary was brought to the place where it was to be read. Apparently, it was quite a long walk! The monks added an extra piece of music to the service at this point, known as a conductus, to keep the worshippers awake.
In our worship today, we still use music to cover actions: as people come in to be seated, as offering is collected and brought forward, as the table is prepared for communion, as worshippers commune. There are many words spoken – for instruction and ritual. But where do we use silence? Every Sunday, we have a few members who arrive early to enjoy the silence of our worship space. We have some silence at the time for confession and some very short silences in our prayers. There is a longer silence as the musicians go to the communion table.
Maybe we need more silence. Just like music, worship is an offering that benefits from pauses that allow those who are gathered to “come up for air”. We need a little more silence to “anticipate and prepare”, to open our hearts and minds for worship – not just the music, but the spoken words, too. A few more “receiving” silences, that get us ready to accept the gift of God’s grace and prepare to make decisions because of that grace, would also be welcome. We need a chance to meet God in the silence, and hear his voice.