March 19, 2012

Creating and Communicating Silence

I have a good friend who occasionally likes to stare at me silently, just to see what I’ll say. The silence makes me slightly uncomfortable, so I’ll say something and then I’ll keep speaking, trying to talk through whatever is causing her to give me that amused look without saying a word. I also meet with a priest who will often sit and wait for me to speak. His silence is not a challenge or a joke, but an invitation for me to say whatever is on my mind. 

Silence is complicated, and it is an important part of relationships and communal life. Not simply the absence of sound, silence can be an invitation, a challenge, a retreat, something to fear, a place that we ought to spend some time. While an unexpected or aggressive silence can be useful on occasion to push congregants out of their comfort zones, church leaders most often have to strive to create a welcoming silence. This requires, somewhat ironically, communication. 

Within worship, periods of quiet can be times to reflect and pray, a chance to clear our minds or articulate the questions and fears in our hearts. But new members and children may not automatically absorb the purpose of silence in liturgy (I have at times, even after a lifetime of church going, wondered if a silence was intentional or whether someone had a missed a cue). The prayer book often calls for silence, and we do well to make use of the explanations in the rubrics. If you are printing the entire service in your bulletin, make sure to note silences in the liturgy so that everyone can understand and participate. 

In meetings and community gatherings, silence can be an invitation to those less vocal and aggressive speakers to voice their opinions and concerns. Some of us, myself included, don’t like to interrupt, but group dynamics often favor those who interrupt and interject. Giving a little extra time in the meeting can be an invitation for new voices. Allow time, and make sure everyone understands why. 

We are instructed about God’s relationship to silence in 1 Kings. Elijah, emerging from a cave in the wilderness, is waiting for God to speak. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” God was in the silence. 

Liturgists, facilitators, bible study leaders, and any others who guide the community when they are together, should occasionally consider the place and purpose of silence. Ask yourself if there is time for the less vocal community members to speak during community gatherings? Is it clear what the purpose of the silence is? Are we making a space to hear the voice of God, from wherever it may come?