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I regularly, sadly, find myself in situations where people appear to think that liturgy is essentially singing and reciting lovely poetry to one another. My trying to shift towards some balance by stressing action, gesture, environment, structure, etc. in those contexts is usually met with bemused confusion.

Let’s think about silence in liturgy.

Claude Debussy said, “Music is the silence between the notes.”

Where is there silence in your service? Canada’s Book of alternative Services has optional silence before the presider proclaims the collect, and after the sermon. Silence is required prior to the confession, after the Lord’s Prayer, and prior to the Prayer after Communion. The BCP (TEC) adds a required silence after breaking the bread. New Zealand’s Prayer Book has these, and suggests silence after each reading and the Gospel, and periods of silence in the Prayers of the People.

Because people have such a tendency to clutter the liturgy, my regular instruction is to tell new worship leaders that “may use” means “leave it out”. In the case of silence I would tend towards the opposite – “may” means “should”. On the other hand I have experienced worship leaders who clutter the service with little silences, not increasing the depth of worship, but giving the impression that the leader is lost and trying to remember what to do next. Some good, solid, longer silences at appropriate places can deeply enhance worship. Taizé has a silence of about seven minutes in every service. Don’t tell me children and young people cannot cope with silence. I am well aware of highly active children who, in the right context and atmosphere (a monastery, Taizé) can participate in very long silence. It is more about taking worship seriously, about modelling and expectation, than about adult prejudices that children cannot participate in silence.

In my book Celebrating Eucharist I write

Worship is not just words and actions and symbols, it is also silence. In silence we call to mind our sins. Silence may precede the Collect and follow each reading. A time of silent reflection appropriately follows the Sermon. Periods of silence may be kept in the Prayers of the People. The holy table may be prepared in silence, or silence may precede or follow the Great Thanksgiving. The bread is broken in silence. After communion there may be silence. Communities may need to be taught to use silence, and silences may have to be introduced gradually, and lengthened week by week. A worship leader unaccustomed to silence may need to time the silences as at first they will appear much longer than they actually are.

How do you use silence in your life? In your community worship? What works? What doesn’t? Suggestions…??

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19 thoughts on “silence”

  1. When training as a psychiatric nurse, one message I got often from the tutors was not to be afraid of silences – often they preceded people getting something off their chest they had been brooding on.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughts on silence, I appreciate them! As an Itinerant Pastor & Worship Leader, I too appreciate silence (in worship as well as in my personal life). Almost every year (for the past 30 years) I have made a personal annual pilgrimage to a Trappist Monastery in Lafayette, Oregon and it is my delight!! I went there for about four days last September (2009). God speaks to us in the silences as well as the great songs, notes and worship choruses at church. There is a sign (in the dining room at Our Lady of Guadelupe Trappist Monastery that I love (you see it when you enter): “Silence is deep as eternity.” I confess I can’t recall who wrote it (I believe it was a monk), but I love it, because it is true. I follow you on Twitter. May God bless your ministry!

    1. Thanks Ed & Bob. I am an associate of the NZ Trappist Monastery, Kopua, and appreciate very much what you say. There’s more than one person attributed with your quote – does anyone know for sure?

  3. David | Dah•veed

    I think that use of silence should be sufficiently useful. Silence must be settled into. In my experience, in most liturgy using “silence”, it is just a moment of nothing and so short that just as it is becoming something, it is over. It is not of sufficient length to be more than a moment of wondering when the worship leader will end it and move on. Not enough time to settle into thoughts, meditation or mindfulness, but just enough to say that it was there on the leaflet.

  4. “God is silence, and in silence is He sung and glorified by means of that psalmody and praise of which He is worthy.” ~ Abraham of Nathpar (c. 6th century CE)

    I come from an evangelical, ‘seeker-sensitive’ (for lack of better labels, but just to give you a context) background. We are all about getting people hyped up and joyful to worship in God’s presence. If you’re familiar with the model, every detail is meticulously planned out and followed according to our chart. I think there is a lot of good in this model. However (and unfortunately), silence has never been an element in our planning.

    In my personal life, I have cherished silence. I would love to incorporate it into our weekly experiences as a corporate body. You give some excellent ways to begin to incorporate silence and I appreciate it. Thanks so much!

  5. Laura M. Bernard

    I believe that silence is a crucial element for anyone to be in a real, profound relationship with God. Within silence, we can come to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit; we have a conversation with God, and we admit our faults; within silence we can tell God about our fears & needs; we can thank Him for the day’s blessings; we can pray for our country & it’s leaders; also, I don’t think anyone can attain true peace without first “making peace with silence.” Within a worshiping community, I believe that it is helpful to first, as a worship leader to direct the moments of silence by stating, as an example: “Let us now silently give our thanks & love to our Lord for all our blessings; thanking Him silently, for as many as we can think of.” I think that during a service (I’m a Catholic), it would be wise at first to guide the congregation in their thoughts & prayers until they are used to it.

  6. Silence is the perfect time to evaluate ourself, we can think clearly in silence and most of right decision come when we think at silence. I though that everybody need the silence time in their life.

  7. Coincidentally, my congregation just asked for more silence in worship.

    We’re a small English-language mission parish in Romania, and we just held a review of our first 8 months. The small group was divided between native and non-native speakers, from a variety of original church backgrounds, and the oldest person there was 44.

    To my delight, they were quite happy with our worship life, apart from two areas. One was that our liturgy and preaching use a kind of English which is more accessible to native speakers than those who use English as a second (or, more typically, fourth) language. The other was that they needed more silence.

    Our service book, the US Lutheran Book of Worship, calls for deliberate silence in three places: after the penitential rite, the sermon, and the post-communion prayer. (Another, during the penitential rite, is also customary.) My wife, who is the other pastor here, observes them more faithfully than I do. To my own chagrin, I have over the years come to reduce these silences to a pause — a few beats, rather than a time suitable for genuine reflection upon the mysteries.

    Well. That’s going to change.

  8. thePearlwithinU

    I LOVE SILENCE! Because it is then when I hear GOD’s voice speaking to me while my heart burns in His Holy presence.

  9. Thanks so much Bosco for your reply, I very much appreciate it! The other responses were thoughtful as well. I am eternally thankful for the Trappist Monastery that I attend/retreat at every year. The times of ‘silence’ are healing and restorative. I’m pleased to read that you’re an Associate with the Trappists in NZ. I believe, more than ever in this ‘plugged in’ generation we need to detach, disengage and debrief to connect with our God in the beauty of nature. So many times, this is where I am restored. David was right when he wrote “He leads me beside waters of rest, He restores my soul (Ps. 23).” This is another thing that silence (with worship & His Word) does. Thank you, Lord!

  10. I’m Roman Catholic and I particularly love that silence and weight of action was emphasized in the most recent edition of the GIRM, where we leave 10-20 seconds of silence between each of the elements of the Liturgy of the Word.

    As a music minister, I’ve taken it a step further by utilizing more dynamics in music, using less ‘busy’ instrumentation, and by allowing more pertinent parts of the Mass (ie. the cleansing of the communion vessels) to stand on their own, in silence. Basically, silence (when used correctly) can be as profound a statement as a rousing praise chorus.

    I’ve also brought more dynamics and use of silence into a non-denominational contemporary praise band that I lead. Same effect 🙂

  11. Some people are naturally prone to inner silence others need to learn how to still the mind chatter which for some can be a constant stream of random consciousness which kicks in when silence is used in worship. I have been exploring ways of handling this stream and developing approaches to inner silence in workshops outside of worship so that when we use silence in worship people are able to enter into the experience both corporately and individually.

  12. One of the tricks of the journalism trade I learned years ago was using the prolonged silence during an interview. After an uncomfortable time of silence the person interviewed would start talking about what was really on their mind rather than just responding to my (I thought clever) open ended questions. Praying in silence before God is much the same. After getting through the rote prayers and sitting, kneeling or standing in silence for too long we start to tell God what is really on our mind.

    This is the way the Psalmist prayed. He was so comfortable in the presence of God he sometimes could talk of his hatred for his enemies and how he would like to smote them clear into the next county. It is difficult for us to tell God how we really feel. Instead we tell him how we think he wants us to feel.

    Be silent for a while in prayer. Your heart will know when it is time to talk to God and tell your truth.

  13. As a single mom, I have come to understand that silence is truly golden! 🙂 Early in the morning, before the busy-ness of the day, or later in the evening, when the kids are sleeping peacefully, and all the chores are done – there aren’t many things that edify the soul as much as a hot cup of tea taken in silent contemplation.

    This is a part of the ‘balance’ that so many people seek in life – but it is overlooked because it is so simple a thing. Never mind children, I know a lot of ADULTS who have forgotten how to be still! lol

    “The simplest things are often the most true.” ~ Richard Bach ~

    This is especially true of silence! 🙂 Thanks for the reflection, Reverend Peters 🙂 Many Blessings 🙂

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