04 September 2014

Periods of Shared Stillness Before Mass

I love my parish. It is vital (it is both alive and essential to my own life) and liturgically one of the best I know. Generally I appreciate the catching up that goes on before Mass --- especially prior to daily Mass in our lovely chapel. People genuinely love and care for one another here and the community that is fostered and cemented during these periods before daily Mass is important. I realize and support that. But one day last week I made a decision I have not made before. I chose to get up and return home instead of staying for Mass. Sometimes the noise level gets too high for me. Sometimes I just need there to be greater quiet before Mass, not because I don't have it at home (I certainly do!), but because the noise level arising from competing conversations in our little chapel is sometimes simply too much. This day was one of those days.

On the walk home I thought about what had prompted my decision and I thought a lot about the need to build community and to catch up before Mass. I took an inventory of what was happening inside me to ascertain whether my decision to simply leave was due to my own "hang up" or something more. Was I just irritable today for some reason? For instance, was I in pain on some level or other, was I subconsciously worried about something which made my need for greater quiet more acute, or was I actually responding to some movement of the Spirit which could contribute to my own prayer life and to the communal life in my parish --- especially with regard to the daily Mass community? Was it a combination of these things and, if so, in what way? After all, I have been attending Mass here, sitting in the same chair surrounded by a core of the same people for almost 8 years and the noise level does sometimes climb in ways which are difficult to take --- or justify. Sometimes I contribute to that and participate fully in the conversations, sometimes I ask for a greater level of quiet, sometimes I read to distract myself from the noise, and so forth. I think the reasons for today's decision are complex --- more complex than would be helpful to outline here. 

But despite that complexity one issue which predominated in my analysis no matter my momentary mood or personal needs is that of the importance of occasional shared stillness in creating real and profound community. This is something communities of loving persons need and need to be able to support one another in -- especially when that shared stillness is chosen consciously and grounded in God. 

Sue Monk Kidd and the Need for Stillness

Sue Monk Kidd tells the story of being together with her children when they hear a loud thud. She looks up from folding laundry in time to see blue feathers sliding down the window. A bird had flown into it and was injured. Kidd and her children walk outside to see what can be done. The bird's wing is injured but not broken; the bird is frightened and in pain and needs to be still in a safe place. Kidd sits down next to it, strokes the wing very gently with her little finger and then lets the bird just rest. The children, seeing that there is nothing "to do" and hearing that the bird needs to be still return to their TV. Kidd sits quietly in stillness herself and senses the amazing healing power this has. Time passes. The children come to ask if the bird "is done being still" and Kidd says no. They return to their TV again and Sue continues to sit in stillness with the bird. Twenty, thirty, fifty minutes go by. At some point, she says, "The bird was done being still, cocked its head, and flew away." After this experience Kidd was more aware of both the power of stillness and her own need to share it with others. She had waited with the bird and both had been healed in the process. Now she asks friends sometimes to simply come and be with her, to be still with her, and she does the same for and with them. It is an important part of truly loving one another! She concludes with the following comment, "I have regrets in life, but waiting with that wounded bird is not one of them. I learned her stillness and her flight. She taught me prayer." (cf., When the Heart Waits, Spiritual Direction for Life's Sacred Questions, Harper, San Francisco, pp 143-144)

Anyone who has spent time in a monastery or hermitage or on silent retreat has likely sat in silence with others. The silence at these times is like a living thing. There always seems to be a point where one feels the invitation to let the silence deepen and take over. It can be scary; one feels on the edge of something immense and dynamic.  It is like everyone has taken a readying breath at the same time and realizes that something new is on the verge of occurring. I have felt this moment in parishes occasionally and one of two things will happen then, either people will embrace it and allow it to embrace them, or they will fidget, laugh, cough, whisper to the person near them, greet the next person who comes in, etc. Others will then either remain in silence or join in --- usually the latter because it is an uphill battle to remain in silence with noise all around. If they do the latter, then the moment is broken and an incredible means for forming community will have been lost entirely. But if people return to the silence, allow it to deepen, if they get in touch with the Mystery they have begun to encounter and the related communal reality which is forming there, if they commit to the deep connection coming to be as stillness links them in ways conversation cannot, they will experience something awesome and profoundly healing and unifying.

We Have Lost (or Missed out on) Something Important!

I think we have generally lost a sense of the need for real and communal silence, for shared stillness. (I am not directly addressing any lack of reverence in parishes for the reserved Eucharist in this post, however real it may be. Neither am I talking about simple lack of thoughtfulness for the needs of others -- though this may also sometimes be part of the dynamics involved.) There is a very great difference between the stillness and silence I have just described and the enforced silence that used to occur before Mass as everyone sat in their little island of quiet and avoided everyone else. There is a great deal of difference between the silent but profound engagement with God and one another I have just described and simply waiting silently as a group of relatively isolated persons locked in our own "solitude" for Mass to start! When the school children attend Mass with us once a week during the school year we expect them to be silent before Mass, but why? Is this just the proper way to wait for something else (the adults, rightly I think, often seem not to believe this is the case) or are we asking them to participate in something already present, already happening, something special occurring  with us in God which they may never have really experienced before or elsewhere? Are we inviting them to enter WITH US into a realm of amazing intimacy where words fail us and silence transcends all differences (including those of age!) or is this just a means of quieting them down until the priest enters and the "real" event (Mass) begins?

I am sure it is clear I believe we are asking them to join us in something which is, potentially at least, incredibly powerful, intimate, and transcendent. Of course, this kind of silence has to be something members of the parish have shared, an experience they know,  expect, commit to and at least occasionally consciously enter into more intensively together. It must be a way in which they build community in addition to the more common "catching up" that occurs before and after Mass. But how often do parishes or groups within parishes actually experience the period before Mass in this way? Periods of shared silence are simply not encouraged. I am afraid most folks have not experienced or even imagined this even when they pray silently by themselves regularly. Even more problematical is the fact that silence itself is frightening to people and seems unnatural in today's world. I am convinced that if parishes encouraged regular periods of shared stillness prior to daily Mass it could change a great deal --- including increasing a sense of reverence for the reserved Eucharist, for one another and the Holiness which resides within each of us, as well as our sensitivity to the needs of those among us for greater stillness and silent support).

A Proposal For Parishes:

This leads me to make a proposal for parishes to try perhaps once a week prior to daily Mass. I want to suggest that they try implementing a period of shared silence or stillness for a period of 15-20-30 minutes; the purpose is for all those present to enter a state of quiet prayer and to do so in a way which supports one another in this. Those who cannot or do not wish to join in this could be reminded as they enter the chapel that it is a "silent day" and asked to enter as quietly as possible. In our noise-saturated world learning to do this, taking one's place while being careful and attentive to the needs of others for silence would itself be an important practice. At the same time the communal commitment to maintaining the silence required for contemplative prayer can ease the group past any small disruptions so these do not become outright distractions which shatter the silence and shared stillness. A few minutes prior to the beginning of Mass a small prayer bowl or chime could be sounded to signal not only the beginning but the end of this period and give folks a chance to gently transition back, greet one another briefly and quietly, and prepare for the entrance antiphon. In some parishes the priest could do this for the assembly as he enters the sacristy to vest for instance.

When I left prior to Mass the other day I especially needed there to be greater quiet. There were several reasons that made this more urgent that particular day. (All is well; I was and am fine!) However, I know that I am not alone in needing this occasionally and that many days some try to pray quietly with noise all around. Some persist, some give up, and some cease to attend frequently at all. My sense that day was and remains that we have lost (or never developed) a sensitivity to the importance of shared silence in building community and that consequently, we fail to keep the noise level down at all.

Mistakenly, we think that building community requires speech, that silence isolates us from one another, that it is unnatural and even destructive. We fail to see it as significantly community-building when chosen consciously by the group and as central to our lives of shared faith and prayer.  In other words we have lost (or never had) something important and need to make an effort to bring it back or to inculcate it if it was never there at all. Sue Monk Kidd reminds us of the natural and transcendent healing power of shared stillness; it is certainly one of the things we should practice for those times when we can give another nothing else --- and more, when no words will be sufficient. If we cannot do so in a small chapel where the community is relatively intimate and we see, celebrate, and pray for one another regularly then where can it happen?