By Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt
The loudspeaker system of the Sistine Chapel needed to be turned up in order for the directive to be heard over the babble of the tourists. A wide variety of languages percolated a sense of awe and wonder as the grandeur of Michelangelo’s art in that setting seemed to demand a vocalized response.
The wave of vocal commentary which had broken through the hushed moment of reverential quiet and had started as mere whispers rose in volume until it reached a level of cacophony which had turned the sacred space into an arena overwhelmed by a tsunami of sound.
The concept of silence in a sacred space is an essential part of the spiritual journey of our lives. Rooted in the experience of the Prophet Elijah, who did not hear God in a strong wind, earthquake or fire, but only by being attentive in a deep silence could he hear the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) of God.
My own appreciation of silence stems from growing up in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The founding of the city and its ensuing history has been shaped by the experience of the Society of Friends. The Quakers value the opportunity to gather for Meeting for Worship. The school I attended for many years was run by the Quakers and the weekly schedule included an hour on Wednesdays which was set aside for the entire school community to gather in a nearby Meetinghouse to sit in silence and wait to experience the inspiration of God’s Spirit moving in our midst.
The experience of the Season of Lent provides us with the opportunity to value and appreciate the gift of silence. Individuals use this season as a moment in the year to engage in a Retreat or to spend a portion of the day in prayer. That same desire for stillness, quiet and reverence is also at the heart of many who are drawn to corporate worship.
At the conclusion of a Eucharistic liturgy, in what was a different time and place, a young priest stood in front of a congregation and prior to offering the Blessing at the conclusion of the service offered a brief reflection. “There may be some of you who may have noted that, when I had the opportunity to share the Sacrament today, I did not do so. I could not. All of us have heard the Invitation to Confession as a part of this service, which calls us to be ‘…in love and charity with your neighbours’. (BCP pg. 76) From my perspective from the pulpit and during the rest of the liturgy, I was aware that there were individuals in the congregation today who felt compelled to carry on a conversation throughout the service, during the sermon and during the Eucharistic Prayer. When the time came for me to receive the Sacrament, I could not, because I knew that I was not feeling the love and charity which are expected in that moment.”
It is amazing how, as I share that story with you, my blood pressure begins to rise! I was that priest. I witnessed a lack of reverence for the place, the space and the community of faith gathered for worship, which continues to get under my skin, as I remember it, even to this day.
Whenever there is a gathering of a community of faith there are two essential elements to the moment.
Worship and fellowship build community and each has its place. From my perspective, the silence prior to the Prelude, and full participation in offering the words of worship, through to the conclusion of the Postlude are essential elements in expressing the truth behind the words of the statements;
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies,
to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” (BCP pg. 85 )
“…we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to you, Lord of all…” (BAS pg.199)
The time for connecting up with friends and “chatting” is there both prior to the service, outside the Sanctuary and after the liturgy at the Coffee Hour. The building up of community, sharing in the ministry of hospitality to visitors and newcomers has its place in that setting.
Simply respecting the Sacred Space of Worship may be a significant personal discipline during the Season of Lent. Listen for God’s voice in the silences which are part of worship, let those moments fill you with a sense of awe and wonder as you focus on listening for the still small divine voice calling you to be aware of how much you are loved by God.
Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt has retired from full time parish ministry, but continues to offer priestly ministry in the Diocese of Huron.
(Featured photo: Yoann Boyer, Unsplash)