On Silence in the Liturgy

Photo Credit: OC-Travel
Recently while on pilgrimage with Fr. William Barker, FSSP (of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei), I experienced the overwhelming privilege of attending his private Low Mass in the tiny Slipper Chapel of the Catholic Basilica at Walsingham.

This hidden place of pilgrimage is one of the English-speaking world's best kept Catholic secrets.  It is a lovely shrine and a venerable pilgrim destination.  The chapel, dating back to 1340, is so small it can only accommodate a tiny group.  A fitting backdrop, I thought, for the "Quiet Mass," the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite.

For my daily meditation I took the silence of the Roman Canon.  I have always said one of the strongest selling points of the EF Mass is the silence it fosters, as the priest whispers in hushed tones the Canon of the Mass.

In a world of static noise, this silence is a welcome reprieve and a break for the brain.  Liturgical silence is not empty, it is full of answers.  It is worth noting that recent research proves that silence is much more important to our brains than we ever could have imagined.  For this reason I feel its role needs to be acknowledged and re-purposed in the liturgy.

The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied and documented.  In my opinion, noise can harm task performance, especially prayer, and it can even be the cause of decreased motivation for mental prayer.

While silence replenishes our cognitive resources, noise can have a pronounced physical effect on people, resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones.  This does not bode well for prayer. 

The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, concentration, memory and problem solving.  Of course this includes the ability to pray.

When a silent environment is fostered with lower levels of sensory input the brain is able to recover some of its cognitive abilities, letting down its sensory guard and restoring some of what has been lost through excess of noise.

While noise may cause stress, silence releases tension in the brain and body, due to changes in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.  Silence is attractive.  It calms the soul and body.  In the act of prayer the brain is resting while perpetually internalizing and evaluating information.

Silence allows the brain's conscious work space to rest and process information and emotions.  During periods of silence in the liturgical texts, the brain has the freedom it craves, allowing it to discover its place in the internal and external world.

Silence helps the brain think about profound things in an imaginative way.  As the American Renaissance writer Herman Melville once wrote, "All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.
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