“Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation.” –Rumi
For a few weeks now, I’ve had the perspective of not being front and center at the celebration of Eucharist (not that I ever am). I haven’t had to be the presider, nor the preacher for that matter. It seems that after fifteen years, though, you lose some perspective when you’re expected to be the orchestrator, as to what goes on, down off the steps that ascend into the sanctuary of the church, where the community gathers in prayer.
The one striking reality that hit me this past weekend was just how “busy” Mass is on Sunday morning. After spending more than a week in predominately silence by that point, I was so struck by just how much we have learned to fill in all the space and gaps in the liturgy. There’s very little sense, nor openness, to silence, even an uncomfortable silence if that’s what’s necessary. In the words of a friend, church has very much become a microcosm of the larger world, and in these weeks I believe more and more that truth lies in that statement. I felt, while I had the time, that it was the perfect opportunity and invitation to try to capture what all the hullabaloo is about with people abandoning religion, and in particular, Sunday morning.
There are certainly many reasons that people can give as to why they abandon Sunday, especially if it is simply “more of the same” like the other six days of the week. It becomes one more thing I have to do. However, we’ve managed to fill the uncomfortable silence with music and words, none of which are bad, in and of themselves, but as I’ve sat and listened, painfully at times, I couldn’t help but wonder whether all of it is really necessary, and again, that comes from a guy who has spent fifteen years standing atop the sanctuary steps, trying to preach his heart out.
As Rumi states, silence is the language of God. Yet, it’s the one thing we never seem to have time for or the one thing we fear the most. I’ve always found one of the most profound moments in any liturgy is the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. It’s one of the few moments in the entire liturgical year that we are pushed into a point of uncomfortableness. In that one moment, we can no longer avoid the inevitable. We are pushed to see mirrored back at us, the Cross that stands before us, in union with something very deep within us. It is that one moment of silence when we stand before someone larger than ourselves, mindful of our deeper yearnings and longings that manage to become swallowed up and smothered when we fill our lives with noise.
With the absence of silence, comes great noise and confusion. The microcosm that we are manages to lure us into making what is considered the “source and summit” yet another place for politics, for superficial thought, for wanting to “feel good”, all at the price of allowing space and silence for the true mystery that unfolds to penetrate our hearts. If it truly is a microcosm, and I do believe it is in many ways, how then do we differentiate and for that matter, why bother? Is that not the question your kids and grandkids ask at this very moment?
If the best we can do is “more of the same”, in our own little microcosm, filled with politics and chit chat and feeling good, then we’ve managed to find the best way to take the mystery out of what it is we celebrate, and for that matter, of who we are. We’ve filled in what Parker Palmer calls, “the tragic gap”. The only place where we can allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, where a dialogue between God and us, and the divine within, really happens. The only place where reconciliation happens not only with ourselves, but with God and others.
I am by no means saying we should “turn back the clock”, but at the same time, I understand why people believe that because they have a sense of what is missing, even if it is often shrouded in tradition. The sense of mystery has been aborted from all means of life, especially the one place it should always exist, in religion. I’d say the same for theological education as well. Religion has forfeited its greatest gift for answers, certainty, for always knowing, for doing it right, for duty and obligation, all while often failing to bring in the fact that anyone that enters into relationship with God knows that there is so much that remains unknown. As a matter of fact, as soon as you think you know, you best be ready to be once again dropped off a cliff into the great unknown. It’s called faith. Faith is what allows you to take that first step, all while falling into silence. A calculated risk to say the least, faith and reason intertwined.
Thomas Merton, great mystic, recognized that we are religious by nature, at our deepest core is an insatiable need to be in union, to bond, with the mystery of God. He, though, was often most critical of religion because of the many masks it wore, hiding the true essence of who we are. He certainly showed through his life that it can only come through silence and allowing ourselves to sit in the uncomfortable “tragic gap” of what is and what can be, to often just catch glimpse of this mystery. That is the heart of the liturgy and celebration of Eucharist. May I ask, is that your experience of liturgy? Our little microcosms go searching for ways that make the liturgy appealing and attractive, which is often reduced to needing bodies to fill the seats. If we truly want to allow ourselves to “fall into” this mystery of liturgy, Eucharist, God, our lives, then it mustn’t be about trying to give others what they want. Rather, about giving others what we ourselves know deep down, in that most basic of religions, a great sense of mystery that can only be found in silence.
Sure, it may make us uncomfortable at first and there’s no way to measure success by numbers, but over time something begins to happen. All the illusions begin to fall away and we begin to see the Eucharist, God, ourselves, others, for who we really are, as one with each other. Everything we thought that defined us vanishes for it was never really the real in the first place. There’s a reason why God’s favorite language is silence and very good reasons why many want nothing to do with God and religion in the 21st Century, leaving us with “more of the same”. Are we courageous enough to ease the pain of the “tragic gap” by filling it will less noise, on Sunday and in our lives? If we really want to be bold, recognize that the steps up into the sanctuary should truly lead down, for that is the only path of ascent. None of which makes sense without silence.