Silence and the Sacred in Mass

One of the most moving moments in my life came while visiting Yad Vashem; the holocaust museum in Israel. As I considered that overwhelming encounter today, what struck me was the memory of the profound silence of the experience – what it was like to be among crowds of people from all different backgrounds, religions, ages, and maturity – all in silence.

People were not talking or bantering about as they ventured through the horrific memories. The silence was as pure and perfect as is humanly possible. Why such perfect silence? There are many reasons. Awe is one. Deep sadness another. The place is sacred to all who visit, and thus the instinct to silence is universal.

The silence of Yad Vashem reveals another important truth – an authentic recognition of the sacred draws the heart to awe and to silence. The greater the experience or understanding of the sacred, the more instinctive the draw to silence and reverence. The overwhelming clarity of Yad Vashem pierces the heart and mind of every participant and speaks the words, “You are in a sacred place. Absorb what you see. Pray. Give your heart and mind to this experience so that you might gain wisdom.”

Tragically, some hearts are so diseased that they can miss the sacred reality before them no matter how profound. This was painfully illustrated by a group of young people who used one of the Yad Vashem displays as a stage for a light-hearted photo shoot. The appropriate outrage expressed words like “sacrilege” and “blasphemous” and reflected the deepest possible offense at the violation of this sacred place.

Unfortunately, the idea of the sacred has almost completely faded in our society. One of the most tragic places this has happened is in our parishes. This is common even among those who would normally be considered the most devout among us – those who attend daily mass or regular adoration. This violation of the sacred or lack of reverence in any worship space is always reflected in one irreverent behavior, the tendency to disrupt the silence of worship with whispers and social interaction.

Why does this happen? There are external and internal reasons for this tragedy. Externally, the more clearly sacred the physical environment is, the more people act in concert with what the architecture and accouterments signify or communicate to the soul. So, architecture and art can play a powerful role in encouraging or discouraging appropriate reverence. Unfortunately, our time has revealed some of the most wretched and even sacrilegious architecture in Church history. This has dealt a crushing blow to the sacred nature of our worship spaces and our instincts to recognize them as sacred and set apart for the most important activity of our lives – the worship of God.

Internally we experience the violation of the sacred when we fail to align our actions with our beliefs. Do we really believe the Lord is present among us in the sanctuary? If so, do our actions clearly reflect that belief? Are we quick to speak about things that have nothing to do with worship, ready to interrupt someone in prayer as if they were not actually speaking to God Himself, or slow to keep silent to avoid any possible disruption of the worship of God?

Do we rob the attention of others from God? This is a grave injustice! This sin is particularly amplified by the fact that, as a norm, we spend relatively little time in life actually paying attention to the One to Whom we owe everything. How is it that we could then profane this time with trivial matters that are easily dealt with in the fellowship hall or other spaces dedicated to social interaction?

Another internal reality is that our belief or faith is often lacking or waning. If we don’t truly believe that God is present our participation in worship will be easily disrupted and we will tend to be very cavalier about disrupting others. Is our participation in our Catholicism just something that makes us feel good? Does our “faith” merely reflect some kind of nebulous notion of God that fails to impact who we are or how we act, especially in a sacred space dedicated solely to the worship of God? Our outward actions can reflect deep spiritual sickness that requires repentance and reparation through reconciliation, study, and a significant change in our actions.

As participants in the charism of Apostoli Viae, what can we do about this situation? First, we should prayerfully examen our consciences to determine the state of our belief and its congruity with our actions. Second, we should purpose to remedy whatever hinders our own embrace of the sacred internally, and then do the same in the way we engage externally. As we do this we should also take care to avoid a common distraction of the devil that seeks to engage us in judging others rather than giving our energy to joyfully bearing witness to the reality and purpose of our worship space through our own expression of reverence.

Practically speaking, all of us can pursue some or all of the following practices proposed as a norm for Apostoli Viae members:

  • Arrive early and prepare for Mass in silent prayer. The prayer of St. Ambrose in the Apostoli Viae prayer book is a beautiful devotion for this time of preparation.
  • Refrain from any conversion before, during, or directly after Mass and while in the nave.
  • Arrive early and prepare our hearts through kneeling in prayer and silence.
  • Receive the Eucharist on the tongue.
  • Receive the Eucharist kneeling (unless impossible due to physical limitations).
  • Spend time in prayer of thanksgiving after Mass. If possible, directly after receiving communion, pray the Litany of the Most Blessed Sacrament in reparation for sins of irreverence against our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Prepare and mentally rehearse respectful and gentle responses to those who might interrupt you or who are used to your availability in the nave by offering to speak to them in a moment after you finish praying (offer to meet them in the narthex or outside).

Above all, and most importantly, draw your heart and mind ever more deeply to the sublime mystery of Christ present in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Give him the praise, honor, and reverence due to Him. He loves you and longs to meet you there and impart all the graces you are prepared to receive and more. He also desires that you bear witness to this sublime reality to the world.

Unum est Necessarium – Dan

22 thoughts on “Silence and the Sacred in Mass”

  1. I had a similar experience when I visited Auschwitz. We, as a society, have loss a sense of the sacred. At Mass everyone seems to need better music, better homilies, almost to be entertained! I am not opposed to Sacred music, and a good homily but seems to me if we really believe in the real presence then just being in His presence would be enough.

    1. You are exactly right. The externals are important and we should pursue them as God gives us the means and influence, however, our interior disposition is the real issue – unbelief. May we, through our own devotion and charism, serve the Lord well in mitigating this wherever we can.

  2. Thank you so much for this new posting about silence and reverence during Mass. It is very beautifully written and expresses something that really needs to be addressed. This morning I read the post on Spiritual Direction.com about Custody of the Senses and wrote a comment addressing these same ideas, but I deleted it and did not post it. I felt those suggestions in that posting were very important, but then sadly I considered that they would be acceptable only for personal prayer time. I know the social norm now is when in a
    “community” setting like Mass, the focus is supposed to be on “loving your neighbor”. This is not part of my past experience in the Church. We go there to pray to and be with God. And yes, we love our neighbor, but this time during Mass is for God alone.
    People go to Mass and chat as if they were waiting for a movie to start or they read the bulletin before Mass. I have observed this and thought that this really aligns with the statistics about the percentage of Catholics who do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, in the Tabernacle. St. Pope John Paul II recognized that this warning of belief was occurring and increased his comments about the importance of Adoration. If one prays on their knees silently and looking at the Tabernacle or the altar, some still are not recognizing this a signal of reverence and silence.
    Jesus said that His Father’s house should be a house of Prayer. How far things have drifted away from that. Thank God that these issues are being addressed here. I would hope the Bishops would also reinstate these reminders so that we could all be on the same page. It is the saddest and most distressing thing to not be able to pray in silence, most especially after Holy Communion. Thank you so much for this piece. It reaffirms what know is right and long for every day.

      1. Lord Jesus Christ,
        I approach your banquet table in fear and trembling,
        for I am a sinner,
        and dare not rely on my own worth,
        but only on your goodness and mercy.
        I am defiled by many sins in body and soul,
        and by my unguarded thoughts and words.
        Gracious God of majesty and awe,
        I seek your protection,
        I look for your healing.
        Poor troubled sinner that I am,
        I appeal to you, the fountain of all mercy.
        I cannot bear your judgment,
        but I trust in your salvation.
        Lord, I show my wounds to you and uncover my shame before you.
        I know my sins are many and great,
        and they fill me with fear,
        but I hope in your mercies,
        for they cannot be numbered.
        Lord Jesus Christ, eternal king, God and man,
        crucified for mankind,
        look upon me with mercy and hear my prayer,
        for I trust in you.
        Have mercy on me,
        full of sorrow and sin,
        for the depth of your compassion never ends.
        Praise to you, saving sacrfice,
        offered on the wood of the cross for me and for all mankind.
        Praise to the noble and precious blood,
        flowing from the wounds of the my crucified Lord Jesus Christ and washing away the sins of the whole world.
        Remember, Lord your creature,
        whom you have redeemed with your blood;
        I repent my sins,
        and I long to put right what I have done. Merciful Father, take away all my offenses and sins;
        purify me in body and soul,
        and make me worthy to taste the holy of holies.
        May your body and blood,
        which I intend to receive, although I am unworthy,
        be for me the remission of my sins,
        the washing away of my guilt,
        the end of my evil thoughts,
        and the rebirth of my better instincts.
        May it incite me to do the works pleasing to you and profitable to my health in body and soul,
        and be a firm defense against the wiles of my enemies. Amen.

    1. Patricia, I understand your feelings completely! I struggle with these issues all the time. I am sure when I share how distracting it is to deal with these issues in church, some think, “I am miss goody two shoes” as my Gram would often say when she said someone thought they had the exclusive right to tell people how they should think or act.. I make a very concerned effort to be humble about my comments, but often to no avail, usually falls on “deaf ears”, I’m afraid.

  3. Oh my, where do I start? This post is exactly how I feel. I commit sin because of my total annoyance with the total disregard for reverence of those in the sanctuary, before, during and after mass, often even by our priest. I have been struggling with this for a long time. Pray about it often Dan. It is just a one big “happy, talking laughing, sharing, etc., etc. going on.” It seems to be visible in almost every Catholic church you visit these days. I politely have more than once , shared with some that there conversation was so distracting it was affecting my prayer time with Our Lord. I was polite, not arrogant, just humbly asking them to please lower their voices if they had to have conversation with their neighbor. I actually do not find the time before mass to be one of reverence at all by over 90% in attendance. Granted, we are in one of the new type sanctuaries, chairs, no kneelers, our Lord over to the side, not on the altar, people walking back and forth in front of the tabernacle continually. I try very hard to keep my eyes closed, asking The Holy Spirit to take my anxiety and annoyance away so I may offer prayer to get myself in the true presence of Our Lord.. It is very hard, I have asked for direction and pretty much been told, it is more my problem than anything.. Most do not even think there is a problem with openly visiting , carrying on in laughter, etc. Pray for me please, this is a huge struggle for me. I attend daily mass at least 5 days a week and often have brought this up in general humble discussion, but no one seems to think it is an issue, even our pastor, who comes off the altar and goes around , shaking hands, and then goes to the tabernacle to get the hosts for communion. In any case, I loved this post, thank you!

    1. Hope – I am sorry for your suffering. Most of all I am sorry for how the Lord is treated in these circumstances. Please offer up your suffering in reparation for offenses against Him. Your prayer will yield fruit. Maybe you can bring this up on our Sojourner meeting regarding how to bring about change in a healthy way.

      1. Thank you for your reply Dan. I do try very hard to pray for those that are offending our lord, offering it up for offences against Our Lord does help it a little, but there are times it brings me to tears. I do pray for them to realize how they are offending our lord. I will be most receptive to any ideas about how to proceed. Appreciate any help, instruction on this issue from our members. thank you again..

        1. I would love to see Dan’s posting as an insert in every bulletin. There are companies that provide bulletin inserts. Maybe this post could be submitted to them for publication in a future issue. It is very well written, to the point, and not offesive in any way. Perhaps we could all post it on Catholic Social Media (with permission) and it could also be posted on Spiritual Direction and other Catholic blogging sites.
          In thinking about this posting, it see,s to me that these issues line up with what is happening in society in general: we are replacing God with man. There is a whole litany of offences which we are aware of – forget what gender you were born with, you decide what gender you want to be – etc. Jesus said to give God what is God’s ……we need to give our full attention to God that hour once a week at the very minimum. That doesn’t mean we have to be sullen, nasty, or judgemental, but set the example by not doing those things ourselves. I truly think a lot of it stems from lack of belief (and the resultant piety which would occur) in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

  4. Reading this reflection elicits feelings of both joy and sadness. Sadness because my at previous parish, in CA, there was literally never silence, as Scripture speaks of, including during or before the Liturgy. From daily Mass to the Sunday Mass, there was what I call – a “circus environment;” and I was nearly always brought to frustration and anger during the Eucharistic prayers and offerings. When you have the priest coming down off the altar hugging everyone, altar servers running across the altar to embrace parents, during the sign of peace, how can a sense of Reverence not be broken, and a clear distraction from what our Lord is about to do for us. Then, there are those who commonly greet others as they are walking back to their pews, having just received our Lord into their bodies. (I have to say here that I was once one of these people, prior to the Avila Institute, and did not have a clue as to the fact that I was receiving the Real Presence of our Lord.)

    I spoke of Joy. Yes, last year when I first entered the Cathedral of St. Paul, and the beautiful silence, as well as the Gregorian chant, at appropriate times during the Liturgy, I was brought to tears of joy, and a knowledge that I was home. However, we have a pastor, Fr. Jerabek, who seems to have a mission, as he should, to teach his flock about such things as reverence before the Lord, and especially in our church. His homily this week spoke eloquently to the need for silence and reverence; so much so, that I sent it to my friend in CA, who stepped into my shoes of being active at that parish and a daily Mass attendee there as well.

    As I told her, we need to be in constant prayer for the pastors and bishops who are not teaching the meaning or value of reverential silence in our churches.

    Thank you, Dan, for, from the beginning of my time at Avila, helping me to understand our Awesome God, and the worship and praise He deserves, and which I did not even remotely realize a few short years ago.

  5. I agree with all of this. My pet peeve is the “Communion Song” we all are urged to sing as soon as we receive Our Lord and sit in the pew. I love music, but I love silence more, and music that enhances the silence.
    I’ve been on some silent retreats and I loved them. A whole weekend with no talking, even during meals, and each person respecting the other’s silence. It is amazing how Sacred life is without the distractions of chitter chatter and ears attuned to God with no interruptions!

  6. Thank you Dan. I am in the middle of reading the “Power of Silence…Against the Dictatorship of Noise” by Cardinal Robert Sarah and it has impacted me to a greater degree regarding the importance of silence which is necessary to hear the voice of God and to know oneself and the world in greater depth in the truest sense. It’s made me more aware of the importance of silence in our world today. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore this important subject in more detail.

      1. Yes, I read your document. As I have been reading this book, I noticed he mentions TM and because of your past postings on spiritualdirection.com know that he is not a reliable source for Catholics (except maybe his earlier writings). I will continue reading and glean the good from this book. Thank you for your clarification. I appreciate you!

        1. No need to apologize Jeanette. I do think the book is worth reading as long as folks don’t run down the Merton path as a result. I have been wanting to write something about this for a while and your note allowed me to do so. Thank you for your example of a heart after God.

  7. In 255. of True Devotion to Mary St. Louis de Montfort talks about how devotion to the Magnificat is one of the exterior practices of True Devotion to Mary. He states that Gerson claims that the Magnificat was the prayer that the Blessed Virgin Herself used as a thanksgiving after receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion. I think that this is a really good practice to follow when we come back to our pews after receiving, especially for those who have made a Total Consecration. At the very least the Magnificat is a wonderful prayer to memorize.

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