Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Friendly silence

Elizabeth Scalia has written an interesting and thought-provoking post about our need for more silence at Mass:
I think what my brother and I are missing is the sense of reverent anticipation that used to precede Sunday mass when, in the spare minutes before the processional, people used to kneel and collect themselves; they gathered their thoughts, remembered an intention, let go of what was frivolous and finally sighed a big, cleansing, quieting breath in preparation for the great prayer of the mass. If people spoke at all, they whispered; they were reverently aware of Christ present in the tabernacle and considerate of their neighbors at prayer.

Perhaps it is different where you worship, but in my parish—and I would count mine as one of the “quieter” and “more reverent” in our area—that sort of preparation is nearly impossible. The choir and musicians are noisily setting up, talking and laughing. The people in the pews—of all ages—are “being community” with such a boisterous disregard for time or place that a priest recently halted his robing to stride out from the sacristy and call, “excuse me! This is not a movie theater; it’s not Grand Central Station. Have a little consideration, please. There might actually be a couple of people here who are, you know . . . praying.”

Before beginning his homily, Father apologized for the intemperate tone, but his point was valid. We used to have a sense of “sacred spaces,” wherein one behaved differently than everywhere else. The lobby or narthex of a church was for chatting; once you entered the nave, you quieted down. You spritzed yourself with holy water, bowed to the altar and then shut the pie-hole to get ready for mass. The closer you sat to the sanctuary (and the tabernacle) the less you tried to speak at all, but if you did, it was in a hushed voice.

Is our lack of decorum connected to the words we use? It is true that we are more reverent before an altar, where something is sacrificed, than we are before a “table” where dinner is served, if we’re lucky enough to still eat as a family. We are inclined to whisper in a church, but not in a “gathering space,” but I don’t think this is a mere question of words and naming. I suspect our rambunctious behavior at church is of a piece with the coarsening, and self-centeredness of our society as a whole. There are no places, anymore, and no occasions, where we are invited—and expected—to behave differently than we do the rest of the time, and we’ve brought our “casual Friday” attitude into church, too.
She goes on to make an interesting comparison to the silence she witnessed at a friend's yoga class; read the whole post here.

Sadly, some of the commenters at Elizabeth's piece have brushed past her thoughtful remarks to engage in the old battle about noisy children at Mass. We've had that one here plenty of times, so I'd like to focus on what Elizabeth is actually talking about. :)

I've been at Mass in many different churches over the course of my life, and I think that my favorite ones are the ones that seem to have an atmosphere of what, for lack of a better word, I will call "friendly silence." What do I mean by that?

When you enter the church, there may be a bit of noise in the vestibule, but it's not chaotic or extreme (at least, as coming from the adults). Once you enter the main church, though, things are more hushed--but there isn't a total dead silence, either. People don't feel the need to tiptoe to avoid having their shoes make any sound; the creaking of a kneeler or even of an aging pew doesn't sound like a gunshot; there are small rustlings of people settling, pages in a missal turning, purses being set down, and other ordinary sounds.

As the church fills, these ambient noises may grow a bit louder, but there's no loud talking or laughing going on; occasionally when someone enters, a swirl of louder noise from those still in the vestibule may wash over the interior, but it's not prolonged. A baby's happy babbling or a child's inexpert attempts to whisper may be heard, but produce smiles, not grim or angry frowns, on the faces of nearby adults. Someone may begin to lead a rosary out loud, and there may be a few more rustles as rosaries are pulled from pockets and purses; after the rosary finishes, the organist may begin to play some music, or the choir may sing briefly for the last few minutes before Mass begins.

It's pretty obvious that this friendly silence is different from the "gathering space" banter, loud conversations, and chaos that pervades many churches prior to Sunday Mass. But it's also different from the kind of unfriendly silence I've occasionally encountered, and which I find just as off-putting, in its own way, as the gathering space gab-fest.

How is the unfriendly silence different? I think it's different in that it's not quite human. In a church where unfriendly silence is the rule, people find themselves tiptoeing into Mass so that the sound of one's Sunday shoes hitting the floor will not cause a wave of dirty looks from the already-gathered worshipers; the unfortunate squeak made by a kneeler or an elderly pew will cause heads to snap in the offender's direction and glares of ire to be sent forth by those so rudely pulled away from their contemplation of Heaven; and Heaven help you if your purse rustles or, the good Lord forbid, clanks when you set it on the floor! There is no permissible rustling at all; if the pages in one's missal stick together one had better just give up, rather than create the slightest noise trying to correct the problem, and if the rosary is led you'd better already have your rosary in hand when you enter the church, or else just use your fingers to count the prayers. A baby with the hiccups will be driven, along with his tearful mother, out of the church building by the angry stares flung their way; there will be no music until the Processional (and possibly not even then, because everyone knows that hymns and singing were an evil invention of Modernists); and if that tragedy of all tragedies, the kneeler slipping from one's hand to bump audibly on the floor when one attempts to set it down at the Canon, happens to one, one might wish to get a list of the parishioners from the parish secretary after Mass so one can write a personal letter of apology to every person in the parish, whether they happened to be at that particular Mass or not.

Like I said above, I prefer the "friendly silence" atmosphere, where people aren't shunned for, say, an errant cough or a dreaded cell-phone mistake (but where no one would dream of purposefully coughing to the point of distraction or actually answering a cell phone either). There are church atmospheres that are too casual, too chatty, too distracting, too centered on the congregation and on making them all feel special every single second of the Mass--but there are also church atmospheres that make the thought of Purgatory seem warm and inviting by comparison. The trick is to avoid either extreme.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've been to several Churches (and Kingdom Halls) with varying levels of friendly and unfriendly silences and noise levels.

I find the atmosphere of a place outdoors better. Respecting nature doesn't require a certain level of noise or lack there of. Even the little ones fair better outside.

If I do get dirty looks in a church or something I just ask them politely to stop glaring at me. I will make a bit of noise if I like and it really isn't my fault my bag clanks some.

Peaceful Observing.

Alisha De Freitas said...

I like your term "friendly silence". Okay, I know you're not talking about noisy kids, BUT... Last month, my family went to our local RC church with my m-I-l who was staying with us. During mass, Zoe started "talking". Not actually, because she's only 7 months but doing her baby blabber. She wasn't loud, but audible. She does this when she hears singing she likes and the choir sounded nice. Anyway, we were given THE scariest look by a few people. We were sitting in the back as it was. K wound up picking her up and standing in the vestibule for the rest of mass. It was VERY uncomfortable. Angry silence!

Red Cardigan said...

Gosh, Alisha, I'm sorry! A lady sat right near our choir with her baby granddaughter who was adorable and "sang" along with us! We joked to her grandma that we were ready to sign her up (her mom used to sing at our church). :)

A baby was fussing this past Sunday, and the visiting mission priest said to the dad, when he got up to take her out, "Oh, you don't have to leave! We need that sound!" (Dad took her out anyway--I think she needed to be changed, perhaps.) I hate it when people are glared at for normal baby noise and chatter.

scotch meg said...

My usual beef is not with people who want friendly silence - I want it, too. But I also want (and need) community with people from my parish, and (living in MA) there is no possibility of talking outside for about half the year. My parish church is of the good, old-fashioned Irish-American design where there is NO PLACE other than the church itself to talk. The vestibule is too small (and too cold!), so it's either talk in the church after Mass (quietly, yes, and as respectfully as possible) or... just skip the community building part.

Patrick Cant Hear Himself Pray said...

No surprise to some: celebrating the ministry of the word and the ministry of the eucharist is important to me. If your cell phone/pacemaker/dog/computer game/child/grandmother/fax machine interferes with that, I will let you know. I will begin with a polite and pleading glance. And then .....

Red Cardigan said...

Scotch Meg, that is a real problem. One parish I attended here in TX had a similar problem--nowhere to talk but outside, and too hot (no, really) for much of the year. Compared to the parish I'm in now, with the attached parish hall that's perfect for after-Mass socializing, there was no community at the other.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

"There are no places, anymore, and no occasions..."

So true, and so sad. All the stores are open on Christmas, for our convenience of course, which means a lot of the staff have to work... all our holidays are on Mondays except... well, I'm waiting for congress to pass the "Monday of July" bill about when we celebrate our independence.

I think she mentioned sitting down for dinner as a family... and yes, I have been inside a few big OLD cathedrals, and appreciated the echoing silence and soaring architecture... also some newer ones actually.

No matter what your canon, there is something missing there. There should be times when all the normal hustle and bustle ceases. for a purpose.

I agree on the kids too. A noisy child MAY be an opportunity to offer the harried mother some help, but otherwise, what did Jesus say about little children? (I did start bringing soft squishy toys to church after observing some mothers sitting near me who had brought little toy cars for their boys to play with, which were getting vigorously slammed against the folding chairs).

Patrick said...

Scotch Meg,
Can your parish host a coffee hour immediately after Mass? That's usually a great place and time for fellowship.

scotch meg said...

Patrick,
They do ... sometimes ... in the church basement, which is accessible only by stairs, poorly lit, and tends to be cold as well. The pastor is trying to raise funds for an elevator, which may help. Then again, maybe not. Coffee would have to be an every week, every Mass thing for it to do much good. Which is a lot to ask when there are five Masses (including the Sunday vigil), and when the basement doubles as the rehearsal/warm up space for the choir and instrumentalists.

Tony said...

Erin, what silliness. I have never been in a church that shunned you for an errant squeak of a shoe, a rustle of a coat, or the zip of a rosary case being opened.

What I have a problem with is what Elizabeth has a problem with. The appearance that these people have no idea where they are.

When I walk into church, I try and minimize the noise I cause. I walk softly, lower the kneeler gently, open the book quietly, if I have to speak, I whisper. I am in the real presence of the living God, and those around me might be trying to pray.

My pastor said the Protestants have it right. Worship at 10:00, fellowship in the meeting hall at 11:30. :P

Anonymous said...

Our church is full of children durring Mass. There is no separate room with a glass wall for parents with a screaming kid.

We are indeed fruitful and all know this.
Hey, Kids are Loud.
If you are hard of hearing and want to hear everything the priest says, then come early and sit up front. If I want quiet I will go to a contracepting protestant church. You can not have your cake and eat it to.

The best silence time I have had at Church was from 3:00 to 4:00 am durring 40 Hour Eucharist Adoration
I was pleasantly surprised to find 10 other people at that quiet hour of the morning. It was the best time I have ever spent with the lord.

Mango