Breaking the Silence
I have an interesting relationship with silence. I like the idea of silence very much. I am easily persuaded that our culture is terminally noisy and distracted and that the church’s worship should offer a respite and an antidote to this dis-ease. I am convinced that ten minutes of silent prayer and meditation would be a far better way to greet my days than the wordy, techy ways that I default to. But I am well and truly lousy at silence. It makes me uncomfortable, restless, bored, annoyed, and a whole host of other unflattering adjectives. I like silence very much and am convinced of its necessity for spiritual, emotional, even physical health. Except when I have to be silent.
During our First Advent worship service yesterday, we had a short period of silence before our call to worship. I resolved to do my best to make this a meaningful time, to “prepare my heart,” to “centre myself,” or some other spiritual sounding thing. I closed my eyes and tried to think Advent-ish thoughts about waiting and expectation. I tried to focus on Jesus, God’s unexpected response to the hopes and fears of all the years. I tried to dwell in the sadness and penitence of the season, and of my own ugly contribution to a world where God’s will is so rarely done, on earth as in heaven. And then, predictably, depressingly, embarrassingly, after 5-6 seconds had elapsed, I was shuffling and shifting, looking at my watch, mentally rehearsing all the elements that were still to come in our service, wondering if I should cut a few more paragraphs out of my sermon on the fly, wondering if the service was going to run long, and then inwardly berating myself for being so uncomfortable with silence…
I like silence. I just hate being silent.
It probably wasn’t even a minute before our silence was broken yesterday. What an interesting way to put it… Our silence was broken. What do we mean by this? That something good and whole was strained and shattered? That something strong and healthy was fractured and weakened? To break something is to damage something, to make it less than it once was. Is this what we are doing when we break silence? Sometimes this is certainly the case. We are so impatient with silence, and we trample all over it in our confusion and our haste. We break something that could have been good and restorative and life-giving.
But despite our general discomfort with silence and our eagerness to cram it full of words to avoid facing the deepest and often most fearful parts of ourselves, I think there is something good about breaking silence, too. As Christians, ours is a narrative in which silence is broken by speech, and—of all things!—a world comes into being. The Spirit of God hovers over the formless void… and then, words, creation, creatures, colour, possibility. The silence is broken, and then… Life.
In the gospels, to a people waiting to hear from God after long centuries of God’s apparent absence, Jesus breaks the silence with speech. Your faith has made you well… Go and sin no more… The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing… Go, make disciples of all nations… The silence is broken, and then… Life.
During worship yesterday, our silence was broken in beautiful ways.
- A liturgy read in a delightful African accent
- Music, simple and profound
- A four-part intergenerational dramatic Scripture reading
- A beautiful prayer read by a member of our local L’Arche community
- The sounds of children dropping books, rustling papers
- The words of Christ, echoed down throughout the ages… This is my body… this is my blood… For you
The breaking necessarily goes both ways, perhaps. Our restless noise needs to be broken—exposed, disrupted, injured, splinted and reshaped—by silence. But silence is for breaking, too, because that’s how life enters the story.
Two breakings, then. One to restore and reclaim, the other to create, to call into being. Two breakings, but both for the sake of life. And both in response to the God who uses silence and speech, absence and presence, to call and to claim us for himself.