Something liturgical churches can teach contemporary worshipers: the beauty of silence
In 2012 I went on a business trip that took me around the world. It was a busy, frenetic two-week trip from Portland to London to Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta and then back to Malaysia before flying home across the Pacific. I missed my family and friends and church intensely. But I felt in my all-consuming “busyness” that I had no time to miss them.
I woke Sunday morning in Kuala Lumpur and decided to go for long walk. I started off around the big Lake Gardens pavilions and the KL Bird Park and thought I could perhaps, if I was lucky, find a church service.
I come from a very contemporary church tradition where I’ve played electric bass for years, so I was apprehensive about coming into St. Mary’s Cathedral on Jalan Raja. I’d never been to an Anglican Church and I didn’t know what to expect. Was it like a Catholic mass? Whatever it was like, I was pretty sure there’d be no thumpy California-accented instrument like my Fender Jazz driving the worship.
It’s difficult to describe the service there because it was so different from anything in my experience. Yet it was precisely what I needed. The teaching for the day came from the Collects and the Book of Common Prayer.
Grant, O Lord, we beseech thee, that the course of this world may be so peacefully ordered by thy governance, that the church may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The message was short and precise, delivered in Malay-tinted English by a bespectacled pastor, and focused on the call from Psalm 46:10 to “Be still and know that I am God.” The liturgy was spoken back and forth between the pastor and the congregation in hushed but unhurried tones.
And then there was quietness.
High ceiling fans hummed as they beat the humid air about. An occasional polite cough sounded from the corners. Paper rustled somewhere. But the quietness held, and it was clearly revered.
It was, quite frankly, sublime. It was exactly what I needed in the middle of my hectic 2-week trip. It was focused, intent, deliberate quietness. I could visibly see every person in that little wood and stucco church relax, breathe deeply, and rest in the embrace of an almost palpable Presence.
For the rest of my trip I wondered how we could bring that kind of restful, intent quietness to the worship times in my small home church. To be frank again, I never quite succeeded.
Maybe we’re just “not wired for it” in contemporary US churches. We almost cringe at periods of silence between the end of introductory worship and the pastor’s first words. We fidget when a pause extends. If we feel a gap growing between the last song and an expected prayer we peek about to see what’s going on. Is someone late? Did a cue get missed?
But we so, so need it. Perhaps we need it more than most, to offset our incessant busyness. For, as has been written about silence in liturgy many times, “The quieter you become the more you hear.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal captures this goal beautifully:
‘Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times.’ This means that silence is an integral and important part of every liturgy. It is called ‘sacred’ for in this silence we meet God, the Holy One. We also meet there the holiness to which each of us is called by our baptism.
I have left church services at home too many times thinking that I’d perhaps learned something, but wondering in the back of my mind whether I had “met the Holy One.” He was there. I was there. But did we meet? Without silence, can we meet?
The next time I lead worship I’m going to lean into that “Godly quietness” and see if the congregation can relax into it as well. It will be awkward, and challenging, but if we practice it enough maybe we can get past the sheer strangeness, and all of us will meet who we came to meet.
On that humid day in 2012 I thanked the pastor, told him he had a beautiful little church, and walked back to my hotel. The program for the day—with the call from the Book of Common Prayer urging us to serve joyfully in our quietness highlighted in blue—is tucked into a pencil holder on my desk at home.
I haven’t mastered this call myself, but I haven’t lost the hope that it will change me when I do.