Meister Eckart typically said that ‘there is nothing so much like God as silence.’ Mother Teresa, who insisted on the centrality of two hours of silent prayer for the life of her apostolic sisters, typically said that ‘silence is God speaking to us.’ Each of these sayings illustrates a way of understanding the meaning of silence.
Why is God so like silence? Eckart doesn't say God likes silence or likes silent worshippers but that God is like silence. St Benedict has two words we translate as silence: quies and silentium. Quies is quiet, physical silence, an absence of noise – not banging doors, not scraping chairs, not coughing or unwrapping sweet papers. It is the quies we expect good parents to train their children in, a physical self-restraint and modesty that respects the presence of other people. Quies makes the world habitable and civil. It is often grossly lacking in urban modern culture where music invades elevators and there is rarely a moment or place where we are not in range of manmade noise. There are now expensive headphones that people wear, not to listen to music but to block out noise. Silentium, however, is not an absence of noise but a state of mind and an attitude of consciousness turned towards others or to God. It is attention. When someone comes to see a priest or counselor to share a problem or grief, the priest knows that what he must above all give is his attention. There may not be a solution to the problem and most of our hopefully helpful words glide off the back of grief as failed platitudes. To listen deeply, to give oneself in the act of attention is in fact not to judge, or fix or condemn but to love. Seen this way there is indeed nothing so much like God as silence because God is love.
Liturgy - like all ways of prayer - is essentially about attention. At the Eucharist we train our attention towards God through the gift of self that Jesus made historically and makes continuously through the Spirit both in our hearts and on the altar. Although our attention may wander, looking at new faces in the congregation or browsing the bulletin, the attention of Jesus directed to us never wavers and does not even condemn or dislike us for our distractedness. Though we are unfaithful, he remains faithful because he cannot betray himself. This, at least to the believer, is the inexpressible mystery of the Eucharist and the ultimately irresistible and sweet attraction of the real presence.
Silence is work, the work of loving attention and its fruit is a heart filled with thanksgiving. This connects Meister Eckart's idea of silence with Mother Teresa's. Silence which is like God as nothing else is also God speaking to us. When we pay attention to God we soon realize that God is paying attention to us. Indeed it is God's attention to us that allows us to pay attention to God. It is God who strikes the first spark of good will in us, according to Cassian who debated with Augustine about free will. But then we have to play our part. As St John says, This is what love really is: not that we have loved God but that he loved us. We love because he loved us first. When we celebrate the Eucharist we are in fact taking the first step to being caught up in the divine life. In the silence of the Eucharist we taste and enter the silence of the Father from whom the Word eternally springs. In Rubliev's icon of the Trinity the three persons are gathered around the Eucharist.
This is the mystical dimension of the Eucharist that for many Sunday worshippers is the main spiritual food for their week and daily work. Every effort should, therefore, be made to ensure that this rare and precious moment is enjoyed to the fullest degree. The way in which the Eucharist is celebrated is all-important in allowing time and creating the space for its inner mystery to be manifested.
St Ignatius of Antioch said that if we cannot understand the silence of Christ we will not be able to understand his words either. We can only understand his silence by being silent ourselves. In doing so together we experience the mystery of silence building community.
To conclude, I would like to recall a significant phrase of Pope John Paul. Having emphasized the importance of silence in the Eucharist he explains that it is not a self-contained artificial silence. We need to progress from the experience of liturgical silence to the “spirituality of silence” – to life’s contemplative dimension. St Francis once urged his followers to preach the gospel on all occasions and to everyone they met. When absolutely necessary, he added, use words. He meant, I think, not just silence but the silent or implicit witness of one’s life.
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