December 6, 2023
Here’s a generalization that I’ve observed to be accurate: we are a distracted people, and we don’t know what to do with ourselves if we don’t have a phone in our hands or a laptop on our knees. (In fact, depending on the age group, between 45 percent and 78 percent of us have our mobile phones in hand while watching TV. Yes, the percentage is the inverse of the age.)
To be fair, we do know what to do: we talk. Anything to avoid silence. Anything to avoid reflection. Anything to avoid self-examination. The cost: our minds never fully come to rest.
I remember when we used to enter the church in silence. If people spoke, they did so in hushed tones. Our attention was drawn to the Altar, and the time before the Eucharist began was used to prepare ourselves to meet Jesus in the forms of bread and wine.
Anecdotally, that seems to be a quaint relic of the past, save for a precious few churches where quiet is the practice, not the exception.
At first, I thought that this was about gathering again after COVID. People, including myself, were genuinely thrilled to be together again. Of course, people wanted to talk. But now that we’re almost two years past that time, I think something else is at play. I notice some people on their devices during Mass. I observe people filling every pause – after the sermon, after receiving Holy Communion – by chatting with each other or by scrolling.
Our use of devices during the pandemic shot through the roof. We became addicted to having something to stimulate us. The simultaneous use of multiple devices also increased. I’m amazed at how many of my friends “watch” TV while at the same time scrolling through their social media feeds.
What does any of this have to do with our spiritual lives?
Given our addiction to stimulation, I think we’ve become terrified of the quiet. Of being with our thoughts. Of communing with God and the Saints. In my coaching work, I’ve spoken with people about this when I ask them to try sitting in silence, eyes closed, for two minutes. For most, it feels like a herculean task.
How is the church responding?
From my vantage point, we’re not. We seem to be encouraging people to connect and to share from the moment they arrive, which I love. But those conversations often continue as people enter the nave. I wonder what would be possible if we consciously created zones that helped people to transition from a supremely distracting world to a space of introspection and silence?
What would be possible if we encouraged conversation in outside spaces, like a parking lot, porch, or patio, then moved to quiet greetings in the narthex, and finally silence when congregants entered the nave?
What if we consciously and intentionally and transparently shared the reasons for doing so with our congregations? I’ve heard more people than I can count tell me they think their minds are turning to mush because of the constant stimulation from email, texts, social media, and TV.
My guess is that the vast majority of people would welcome this seemingly “forced” downtime, which would allow their minds to come to rest. I strongly believe that this approach would enrich worship, enrich our communal spiritual lives, and enrich our lives individually.
It can only happen with leadership from the clergy, the vestry, and those serving at the Altar. Most of us are craving silence. We simply need guidance on how to get to it.