Noise and Discipleship, Part 3: Sounds of Silence in Worship
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Wonder? or Wandering?
Destination? or Segué.
Home? or Strange land?
Essential? Or best avoided?
Something in all of us knows it is essential, even if we may not be quite sure what to do with it.
Or how to make room for it in worship.
The Sounds of Silence
Absolute silence is something none of us experiences while alive. The universe is alive with vibrations, down to the smallest of subatomic particles, and our bodies are receptors for these vibrations. Even if our "hearing" is impaired or damaged, we may still sense and make sense of the vibrations as if we were hearing, sight or touch or other vibrational "senses" not yet named interpreting those vibrations to us by other means.
When moments of silence come in worship, whether planned or spontaneous, there are always other sounds and vibrations as well. Chairs or pews creak. Pipes may bang in the winter. Air ducts may whoosh. Traffic may rumble. Sirens may cry in a distance, or babies or small children in our midst. If we are outside for worship, the sounds of birds, insects, wind through trees or fields and other animals we may have blocked out may become more prominent. Clothing may rustle a bit. Coughs and sneezes may occur, or throats may be cleared. We may become more aware of the sounds of breathing-- our own and our neighbors. We may even hear our own heartbeats. And many of us may experience some sort of background sound, whether ringing or something like a mild electric hum in our ears. Indeed there comes a point as we quiet ourselves that all these other sounds we simply had not noticed may seem almost overwhelming!
So when we reflect on silence in worship, it is not absolute silence of which we speak, but always that quieting, that stilling of mind and body, accompanied by a reduction if not a cessation in sound and other sensory stimulation.
Sabbath as Silence
And on the seventh day God was putting the final touches on the labor God performed,
and was resting on the seventh day from all the labor which [God] performed.
And God was blessing the seventh day and making it holy,
because in it God was resting from all the work which God had performed.
(Genesis 2:2-3, translation mine).
I am reading and translating these lines in Genesis 2 as poetry rather than prose. The meter and internal rhymes and even near-puns in the Hebrew suggest this, though they do not require it.
Lined out this way, though, the parallelism of verse 2 strongly suggests, as least, that God's completion or finishing touch was not additional work, but actually the resting or the ceasing itself.
As Genesis 1 describes the work of God in creating, it was primarily a work of speaking. God spoke, and it was. Light, darkness, day, night, sun, moon, stars, and on earth, waters above and below, land and seas, and all that lives and moves upon them, including us. God spoke and so they were made. Occasionally God would also separate things (the waters above and below the firmament in verse 7) put things in particular places (such as the lights in verse 17), but primarily God spoke, things popped into existence, and then God called them good and maybe blessed them. So while some of the work of God pictured here may have occasionally also been the work of "God's hands," it was mostly and primarily a matter of God's voice-- the Sound, the Speech of the Almighty.
And so when, as the light turned to dusk after the sixth day, God began to rest from the labor God had performed, the primary form that resting took must have been the ceasing of such sound and speech, a holy silence.
Such holy silence completes and ever renews creation.
Our invitation to enter into Sabbath, then, is an invitation to enter holy silence. To cease not only from our normal work, but from our normal sounds. To rest with holy joy as God's silence makes all things whole.
Worship: Words upon Chaos, Words from Holy Silence
Why then do neither the people of the Torah nor the people of the Risen One gather and remain in silence when we worship?
Perhaps because getting to The Silence, getting to The Mystery, is indeed our common goal in worship, but it takes us all time to get there as a people, even as it take time for each of us to still our own minds and bodies individually. We have to remember who we are again-- an act the Entrance can help us do. We have to praise God rightly and hear the Word read and proclaimed to put us into our right minds, to retune our bodies and souls to the Holy. All this takes sound, noise-- words upon the chaos of our lives, a labor-- a work of the people-- that recapitulates God's labor in creation.
And time, too, for small silences along the way-- not as segués to something else, but as opportunities, after speaking or singing or praying or hearing the word to let the creative labor at least begin to finish its work in us.
All of that, and all of the Great Thanksgiving, concluding with the Great Amen (which we may sing three times to make the point!), all of that may be what it takes to take in what, in the great arc of at least the Western Christian tradition, has been perhaps the profoundest silence of all: the silence after the breaking of the bread.
Whether the sound before it is the snap of a wafer, or the tearing of the fibers of a loaf, it takes the breath away. In time, perhaps only a second. In our hearts, eternity. A full silence. A fulfilled silence. Death, life; universe, nothingness; end, beginning; light, darkness; violence, Love.
As from Sabbath to Sabbath God's creation proceeds, rests and proceeds, so from that Silence to that Silence, our life in the new creation springs.
Silence in Worship Where You Are
So how does silence happen or not happen in worship where you are?
Are there times for quiet and stillness?
Does it spring from wonder, or lead there? Or does it seem instead to invite minds to wander?
Is it the place you're trying to go-- the journey's end that renews the journey to come?
Or is it a happenstance pause because the next action needs more time to get started?
Is silence becoming a home for the people with whom you worship?
Or does it remain a strange and maybe forbidding land?
If we all know we need silence from time to time, do worshipers where you are get the message that it's really best avoided?
How do you help worshipers hear and join the "words upon the chaos?" How is their speech transformed into true words in worship and beyond from the depths of holy silence?
Share your thoughts, your questions, and your struggles in the comments below-- words upon your own chaos.
Perhaps in the sharing, you may find yourself and others more closely drawn to the Silence that made and renews all things.