On Silence and Sundays

The Lead points us today to an article in the Guardian by Mark Vernon about a lecture series conducted by Diarmaid MacCulloch. I’m certainly going to have to listen to it (via this link here) but, having not yet done so, I want to make two comments on the reporting of this event; first a comment, then a critique.

Vernon reports MacCulloch as speaking against the avoidance of silence in Christianity in general which is (apparently) part of a critique of the institutional church’s suppression of the interior life. Evagrius Pontus seems to be lifted up as the ignored martyr, pilloried for interiority and the stand is killed off… This seems a gross over-generalization and I expect that it’s coming from Vernon rather than MacCulloch. Yes, historically the church has taken issue with some of its most forward-thinking teachers of mysticism and ascetical theology: Origen, Evagrius, his spiritual heir John Cassian, and a number of later folks wither received suspicion or rejection from later folks when their speculative or ascetical theology fell a-foul of the prevailing dogmatic theology. However, the practices and teaching of Origen, Evagrius, Cassian, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers did find fertile ground in the monastic movement and—as both Dom Leclercq and DeLubac pointed out—a return to Origen and the other sources by spiritual movements has always heralded a period of spiritual flowering and rebirth.

The other side of this is to point out that Vernon (and possibly MacCulloch) seem to be speaking of Western Christianity which has decidedly taken the kataphatic path of spirituality, that which focuses upon what can be positively said about God that therefore privileges linguistic and dogmatic expression—talk. The East has broadly chosen the apophatic path of spirituality that focuses upon the via negativa and what cannot be said about God but only experienced.

Bottom line: the church in the West and the Anglican churches specifically have done a poor job speaking about and promoting the interior life. We need to do a better job of this!

Now for the critique which also picks up on the previous point… What really jumped out at me in the Lead’s excerpting and coverage of this article is this paragraph:

The legacy of this tradition is that, today, if you go to a mass or morning worship, there will be barely a moment’s silence. Quakers aside, it is as if there is a de facto ban on silence in public worship. When people gather together, they should rehearse approved truths. The inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.

Now—what’s the assumption here? That the Sunday morning public worship is the expression of everything that’s important, worthwhile, and taught by a particular tradition. And it’s dead wrong.

Sunday mass is an important part of your complete spiritual life—no question about it. But to either say or imply that it should be the totality of your spiritual life is a big mistake and is not something that the Church has taught. Nevertheless, some of the major shifts in 20th century American religion are grounded in this assumption. Let’s face it—the widespread revisions to the Mass lectionary in both the Roman Catholic post-Vatican II effort and its protestantization in the Revised Common Lectionary feed directly in to this fallacy. The idea expressed in these reconfigurations is that more and more Scripture has to be poured into the Sunday morning service, more and more weight has to be laced upon that time slot because that’s when our culture chooses to “do” religion.

On one hand, we’ve got to be real: the majority of people in our churches do now and always will see religion as a phenomenon relegated to Sunday morning. That’s unfortunate, but is the way things go. Some religion for some people is better than none…

On the other hand, we have done a very poor job of communicating of communicating the Church’s historic teachings about the spiritual life and where and how silence is found within them. We are not doing a good job of communicating that all Christian formation, Christian liturgy, and Christian experience is not intended to be crammed into an hour to two-hour block occupying Sunday morning. We are not presenting a clear, on-focus message about either Christian maturity or Christian proficiency. And, to be frank, this is one of the huge problems that I have with both Holy Women, Holy Men and the Communion Without Baptism movements. HWHM is a celebration of diversity for diversity’s sake; CWOB is a celebration of the extraordinary channels of God’s grace. What we’re lacking, though is any sense that there is a norm—that there are clear classic disciplines for cultivating the relationship with God, and that there are consistent and ordinary means through which God gives grace to the covenant community.  By highlighting diverse routes and a multiplicity of ways, we increasingly lose (and obscure) the sense that the Church offers any firm guidance for those who seek a deeper relationship with God. Just because some have chosen and found their own way does not mean that the Church does not offer a particular well-trod path.

At this point, of course, I can’t help but loop back to the original topic. One of the major mistakes that moderns make when they encounter the work of the great Christian mystics is misunderstanding their context. Speaking particularly about the medieval mystics, they cannot and should not be considered apart from the liturgical life that grounded their mystical freedom. Too often people try to set up a stark dichotomy between the teachings of the mystics and the paths of the institutional church. But the freedom of the mystics is intimately bound to their practice of the Church’s liturgy particular in the Mass and Office (or Mass and prymer for some…). To set the Mass in stark opposition to contemplative practice is just wrong—it’s not just misunderstanding the Mass, it’s misunderstanding the contemplative life as well.

16 thoughts on “On Silence and Sundays

  1. mcdoc

    I think that there has been a near annihilation of the inner life by we moderns. I noted and continue to recoil, with horror at the advent of the SUV passenger compartment TV monitor, along with the proliferation of gadgets and videoplay interfaces, etc.

    I posit that most moderns have by and large lost the ability to abide, mediate or even tolerate prolonged moments of silence (and thus thinking their very own thoughts), or to experience the landscape of an inner life without ennui or even frank anxiety or panic, much less to luxuriate in contemplation.

    I think the going forward would have to be slow but steady, with ample encouragement and coaching, much like systematic desensitization to treat phobias.

  2. Joe Rawls

    An excellent post. MacCulloch’s talks are actually the Gifford Lectures, so at least some people in high theological places are taking silence seriously. My own somewhat problematic parish at least respects silence by scheduling periods for meditation as well as having a weekday eucharist where there is 20 minutes of silence following the Gospel.

  3. Jonathan

    Amen. Now, do you have any ideas on how we can effectively advocate for this?

  4. Kevin LaGree

    Bishop Kallistos Ware offers a slightly different perspective on the East’s approach to the kataphatic and apophatic, suggesting that both have equal importance in the Eastern tradition: “Within the tradition of Eastern Christendom, then, there exist two ways of praying, the one iconic and the other non-iconic. There is, first, on both the corporate and private level, the way of ‘cataphatic’ prayer, making full use of the imagination, of poetry and music, of symbols and ritual gestures; and in this way of praying the holy icons have essential place. Secondly, there is the way of ‘apophatic’ or hesychastic prayer, transcending images and discursive thought ¬– a way commended by Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius and Maximus, and expressed also in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. These two ways are not alternatives, still less are they mutually exclusive, but each deepens and completes the other.” Bishop Kallistos Ware, “The Spirituality of the Icon”, The Study of Spirituality (New York and Oxford: OUP, 1986), p. 198

  5. Derek Olsen

    I’m constantly amazed at the people who can’t seem to function without an ipod or phone to distract them lest they have to spend a moment with themselves!

  6. Derek Olsen

    Awareness that we actually have a tradition of interiority is the first step. Then we need to move to practicing and teaching it publicly in our parishes. I do believe that one of the difficulties is in how to present it. There are esoteric (hidden/concealed) traditions for a reason; sometimes a certain degree of practice and understanding is needed to even begin to understand what they are communicating and when dilettantes encounter them they misunderstand both the practice and the teaching. (Which goes back to the problem about trying to read the mystics apart from their—and our own—grounding in the Mass and Office…)

    Probably the best starting place is something like what Joe described: periods of silent seated meditation. I find this practice for the spiritual life analogous to push-ups in the physical life—a fundamental training technique that then can be taken in a number of different directions once you’ve achieved a basic level of fitness.

  7. Derek Olsen

    I think that +Ware is offering a helpful corrective that doesn’t negate the basic point. Yes, the Eastern Church has both—just as the Western Church is not exclusively kataphatic. We have our apophatic moments as well. However, the East has maintained a different balance than we have, one which communicates the apophatic to a greater degree than ours.

  8. C. Wingate

    There is definitely an allergy to silence among many moderns. It’s irritating how many priests these days, especially, seem to need to chatter through any possible dead space in the liturgy.

    I would also note, contrariwise, that the 1979 BCP has numerous instructions for silences within the liturgies. In olden days (i.e., the 1980s) these were largely observed where I went, but then, in those days a ninety minute choral eucharist was usual.

    As to liturgical silence I would not commend the eastern churches as models. They can be silent, but not in church; I personally find the relentless and never ending TALKING (and to be most authentic, it has to be rattled off like an auctioneer) distracting and irritating.

  9. Kevin LaGree

    I thought your statement fair and nuanced, though Bishop Kallistos does affirm the place for both forms of prayer in the Eastern tradition rather than choosing one over the other. I have a bias toward his position. The West does have apophatic practices as well as you note. The modern centering prayer movement, which originated in Cistercian Roman Catholic monasteries based on THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING, is expressly apophatic. Cynthia Bourgeault’s CENTERING PRAYER AND INNER AWAKENING makes energetic claims for centering prayer being a part of apophatic spirituality and for apophatic prayer being superior to kataphatic prayer. She did not convince me of the latter, however, though she presents her case irenically and compellingly.

  10. SeanL

    AMEN! Thank you for this. I wish I had written it.

    I have a couple of stories to share about the tendency to lump everything into whatever vessel is most convenient.
    1. A friend told me of having been invited to dinner with a family. The food was placed on the table, hot and delicious; then the praying started. It went on for twenty minutes. My friend was delighted. “How fervent they are!” I though “yuck!” First, it is almost blasphemous against the wife and mother who had cooked the meal, and rude to the hungry children. Second, if they were really so devoted to prayer, why did they have to squeeze it all into one slot? Surely the prayers for Uncle Iner’s lumbago could be done at some other time? Surely praying together as a family warrants its own special time? So they care enough about prayer to squeeze it all in, but not enough to make time for it.
    2. A funeral. Actually, several funeral masses, in which eulogies and songs and whatever else are all squeezed into the Mass. Please, I want to say, let the Mass be the Mass; let the wake be the wake. They are both worth doing; they each deserve their own time and integrity. (This reminds me of the most horrible, for someone near and dear to me. I left after the “sermon,” before they consecrated the birthday cake and grape juice.) Please God, when I die, let there be a Requiem Mass which is a Mass and nothing more; let there be a wake which is a wake and nothing less.

  11. Jonathan

    A partial dissent on funerals: proper wakes aren’t a universal phenomenon, so, for those who don’t plan on having a wake it makes sense to include the eulogy and remembrances in the mass as long as plenty of time is set aside for the service. The songs, however, ought to be fit in the slots available and not extend things to much.

  12. James Morgan

    I’m reminded of ‘The Way of the Pilgrim’, which describes one man’s practice of the Jesus Prayer. This book, and the devotion it describes, has become very popular in the West. However, one of the things that anonymous pilgrim does is to visit monasteries during his travels. And undoubtably he would have attended the lengthy services in those monasteries and gone to confession and communion (although he doesn’t talk much about that). So the expressed ‘apophatic’ prayer is matched by the unstated ‘kataphatic’ prayer.

  13. rick allen

    J’ai souvent dit, que tout le malheur des hommes vient de ne savoir pas se tenir en repos dans une chambre…. L’homme qui n’aime que soi ne hait rien tant que d’être seul avec soi. Il ne recherche rien que pour soi, et ne fuit rien tant que soi ; parce que quand il se voit, il ne se voit pas tel qu’il se désire, et qu’il trouve en soi-même un amas de misères inévitables, et un vide de bien réels et solides qu’il est incapable de remplir.

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