Silence's Scintillating Divine Speech
Silence in worship aids our recollection, meditation, and our praise. Since silence is so rare in our noisy culture, worship can help us recover silence as sacred.
Comfort with silence is toilsome and elusive for many. After all, we have become so accustomed to sounds; every minute seems to be filled with its pervasiveness. We contend with traffic and machinery, empty chatter and uproarious laughter, with TV, radio and stereos, doorbells and telephones, dryer and microwave and oven bells, factory whistles and the stamp of a time clock, and the always-so-jarring sound of an alarm clock. We live in a never ceasing pandemonium of sounds which crowd our attention and constantly distract us.
Oh, yes, we could build ourselves a sound-proof cocoon and escape from all this sound. Nevertheless, even then we would not necessarily enjoy the calm of life-filled silence. For in addition to audible sounds, we also must consider what might be termed "personal silence." Personal silence is the practice of profoundly stilling our bodies and focusing our minds. This kind of stillness can take place in the middle of New York's Grand Central Station or downtown in Our Town. It takes but a fleeting moment of our time. Personal silence is the disciplined luxury of single-mindedness and single-heartedness. It is attentiveness to self and other and-yes, most importantly-attentiveness to Other who reveals the divine Self to us so intimately and compassionately. Personal silence can calm our nerves or help us focus our attention. But most importantly, it enables us to become aware of God's abiding and gracious presence to us.
Why silence during worship?
Worship rightly and always unfolds with the sounds of song and praise prayer, instruments and intercessory prayer, communal body movement and thanksgiving prayer, greeting and dismissal and blessing prayer. Less often does worship include longer, intense moments of utter silence in which we experience the advent of the Almighty. These moments of silence have at least three purposes.
First, worship silence aids recollection, which helps to draw us into the communal prayer in such a way that we let go of our everyday distractions and surrender ourselves to the larger worship event. Worship silence as recollection helps us to be present to the other worshiping congregants around us so that, together, we can be present to God. Recollection draws us to discard whatever keeps us from "re-collecting" ourselves for the single purpose for which we gather: to give God praise and thanks. Recollection enables us simply to settle down, to stop the sounds, and to remember why we gather.
Second, worship silence aids meditation, which fosters our absorption of God's word and saving deeds on our behalf. Surely, to hear God well and even begin to comprehend the depths of what God speaks to us urges us to pause and ponder. God's word is both dynamic and mysterious, prophetic and messianic, emptying and fulfilling. A few brief moments of silence are hardly enough to catch the richness of what is proclaimed from the Scriptures! Meditation enables us to still our bodies in such a way that we become attentive to God's overtures of scintillating divine speech, spoken to us personally in the depths of our hearts. In this divine quiet does God speak to us exciting, enlightening, energizing new and saving life. In the divine quiet do we catch God's speaking.
Third, silence brings forth the most authentic, full-throated praise. Any encounter with the Divine kindles in us an overwhelming and overflowing desire to shout out from our filled hearts. From the silence of the intersection of life experience and divine encounter flows an irresistible need to speak-nay, shout-out our response to such love and intimacy, care and compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Isn't it telling that even praise is a gift God gives to us? Even in the praise as we speak, sing, or shout to God, the Divine is quietly whispering to each of us in the depths of our hearts.
Silence is hardly something which will come easily or automatically at worship. We must teach ourselves to value silence and find the riches it offers.
The best way to achieve silence during worship is to practice silence as part of our everyday lives. Many parents teach their children discipline through "time out" periods-when they are squirrelly or defiant or doing something they shouldn't, they have a time out period in which they can think about their behavior and make other choices. The same is true and necessary for us older children, youths, and young and older adults. When we feel tense and testy, we need to take "time out"-just a few minutes to gather ourselves, to become quiet inside, to calm down and refocus. When this is a natural habit of our daily lives, then when silence is introduced at specific times during worship we are perfectly comfortable with it and know how to use this precious time to focus ourselves on God in a different way from how we are present to God during the rest of the service.
During the silence we can speak to God the very personal prayers which unburden our hearts and free our minds. Also during the silence we can be attentive to God in a different way and hear the divine speech which encourages and strengthens us. Sometimes during the silence we are simply still, basking in divine presence and receiving nurture from it. Whatever might take place during worship silence, as this becomes more and more a regular part of the service, we gradually become aware how indispensable silence is for worship truly to accomplish its purpose-encounter with our good God who saves us and blesses us with unimaginable new life.
Silence's scintillating divine speech
What dignity we have: the Divine One speaks to us! Most profoundly has God spoken to us in the Word made flesh. In Jesus Christ the divine is present among us and within us. Through the incarnation the Divine dwells among us in a wholly new and unprecedented way. In becoming like us in all things save sin, Jesus Christ, by assuming humanity, raises us up to share in divinity. In the silence and darkness of night was Jesus born unto us. In the silence and light of a new dawn are we reborn to share in his saving mystery. Only in this silence do we-nay, can we-hear the word spoken to us and encounter the Word present to us in enlightening and life-giving divine speech.