On Silence and Song


The only way we can be saved from succumbing to the inflation of words is if we have the courage to face silence and in it learn to listen afresh to the Word. Otherwise we shall be overwhelmed by “mere words” at the very point where we should be encountering the Word, the Logos, the Word of love, crucified and risen, who brings us life and joy.[1]

If you watched Pope Francis celebrate Midday Prayer today you might have thought there was something wrong with your feed. At one point I thought my connection was buffering…
But no, there were actually periods of silence. At a certain point it seemed like the silence went on for one or two minutes!

Why? Where does all this silence come from?

As surprising as it might be to some, sacred silence is “part of the celebration” and is indeed demanded by the nature of the “dialogue between God and his people taking place through the Holy Spirit” (SC 30; GIL 28).

Silence is observed in different ways according to the nature of the part of the liturgy being celebrated (GIRM 45): before the liturgy it can be used by the faithful to “dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner;” during the liturgy silence is used for personal recollection (Penitential Act and after the invitations to pray); after the Scripture readings and the Homily it is used to meditate on what has been heard, and “after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him” (GIRM 45).

It should be noted that this silence is certainly not passive, for it is one of the means by which “the people make” God’s “divine word their own” (GIRM 55), grasping it with “the heart and” preparing “a response [to God] through prayer” (GIRM 56). Indeed, knowing how to use periods of silence is essential for active participation, but it does not always come naturally. For this reason Musicam Sacram states that, for example, the “faithful should also be taught to unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God” (MS 15).

The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours is a constant alternation of Song and Silence. This heavenly pattern is the very opposite of the “Miserific Vision” given in the Screwtape Letters:

Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it.[2]


[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (trans. Graham Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 73.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (HarperOne, 2001), 119–120.

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