“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) In prayer, stillness and silence can be disciplines that lead us deeper into the mystery of God’s presence in ways that word alone cannot. Communal silence is one of the prayer languages of the liturgy. Shared silence can have a profound effect on our community prayer. Often when entering individual silent prayer, we struggle to maintain our focus and concentration. Yet, in shared communal silence, we have the structure and discipline of community to help calm the raging storm within us!
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) offers recommendations as to the appropriate moments of shared silence at Mass:
> GIRM 45 calls for the “praiseworthy practice” of silence even before the celebration begins.
> GIRM 51 speaks of when the priest calls upon the assembly to take part in the penitential act, and follows that call with a brief pause of silence.
> GIRM 54 indicates that silence follows the invitation to prayer (“Let us pray”) of the Opening Collect. This silent pause is also often applied to the two other presider prayers that begin with this same invitation: Prayer Over the Gifts and Prayer After Communion.
Here is a helpful thought: The presider can ask that the altar server bring the Roman Missal to him at the chair immediately following the Glory to God, prior to his offering the “let us pray” invitation. In this way, the silence that follows that invitation is not thought of as simply a functional moment, waiting for the book. The shared silence becomes integral to the community’s prayer.
> GIRM 56 recommends silence before the Liturgy of the Word begins, after the First and Second Readings and after the homily so that “the Word of God may be grasped by the heart.”
> GIRM 66 restates that a brief period of silence is appropriate after the homily.
> GIRM 71 refers to the Universal Prayer. It says, “The people, for their part, stand and give expression to their prayer either by an invocation said in common after each intention or by praying in silence.” Both an invocation and silence seem most appropriate. By incorporating a silent pause after each intention, before the reader invites (“We pray to the Lord”) the invocation, establishes a slow and deliberate pace, giving the assembly the opportunity to respond (“Lord, hear our prayer”) with a spirit of understanding and affirmation.
> GIRM 88: “When the distribution of Communion is over, if appropriate, the priest and faithful pray quietly for some time.”
During this season of Lent, when we seek to discipline our spiritual practices, perhaps incorporating more moments of silence and reflection in our daily lives will help to strengthen our experience of the communal silence at Mass. Our God is present to us in every moment of every day. Resting in stillness and silence can raise that awareness within us. But being silent and alone with God is different from being silent and together with God.
We need to always remember that our participation at Mass is so much more than our private, personal devotional prayer. Our participation is public and communal, an act of a people gathered as one voice, one body in Christ. We are more than a group of individuals who just happen to be praying in the same building. Our identity as one people becomes a concrete sign to the world around us of the continuing presence of Christ on earth, in and through the life of the people of God. This full and conscious participation in the one body is our responsibility as those baptized in Christ.
Our baptism means more than just having an individual relationship with God. It is also about our public participation as church. Every form of prayer can strengthen that larger understanding. Stillness and silence, both as individuals and as church, can also strengthen our shared baptismal commitment, and continually clarify our catholic conviction that all may be one.
Shared silence at Mass can help to remind us of the hope to which we have been called, a hope that is our responsibility, a hope that Christ calls us to share with others. May our silence in individual and communal prayer this Lent carry us to a new place before God. May our oneness in that silence remind us of the oneness we share with all people and with all of creation.