I remember the general quiet and stillness associated with test taking back when I was in school. Everyone understood the necessity of maintaining silence in order to allow for each student to concentrate and to achieve his or her best possible results. Teachers for their part facilitated this by establishing an atmosphere conducive to learning through limiting noise and movement.
Schools of Prayer
What do you experience when you participate in the Holy Mass each Sunday? Do you enter into the sacred, thereby experiencing the same comparable quiet and stillness that you would expect to have in a classroom at school? Is motion and sound minimized so that concentration and silence can be maximized? Does your parish allow for the necessary environment that is conducive for deep prayer?
In his 2001 Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Inuente Blessed John Paul II called for our Christian communities to become “genuine schools of prayer”. He continued:
Learning this Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer and living it fully, above all in the liturgy, the summit and source of the Church’s life…is the secret of a truly vital Christianity, which has no reason to fear the future, because it returns continually to the sources and finds in them new life. (32)
Our Sunday liturgy should indeed create an environment for “learning”. The motion, noise and atmosphere of the profane must give way to the stillness, quiet and mystery of the sacred.
At times in the past my family and I have experienced a liturgy that fully embraced the concept of the Holy Mass as celebration. By this I mean that the typical noise and commotion that one usually associates with a party environment had been transferred and applied to the sacred space of the Mass. In these instances the imposition of the temporal and visible are so aggressively and relentlessly incorporated within the liturgy that the sacred and invisible becomes nearly impossible to “see”. What you then have, as noted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his memoirs, is a community which is celebrating only itself.
Unfortunately, I have seen this much more prevalent among communities that only offer the Ordinary Form of the Mass. From my experience, the Extraordinary Form strongly establishes and sustains a prayerful environment through such means as the use of Latin, the Ad orientem posture of the priest, the use of chant and frequent kneeling by the faithful.
The Spirit of the Liturgy
Our “schools” (parishes) need to rediscover an environment conducive to prayer so that we the “students” (laity) can deepen in our relationship with the Lord through participation at the Holy Mass.
Five years before he was elevated to the Chair of Peter, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote his seminal work The Spirit of the Liturgy. With regards to silence he wrote:
We are realizing more and more clearly that silence is part of the liturgy. We respond, by singing and praying, to the God who addresses us, but the greater mystery, surpassing all words, summons us to silence. It must, of course, be a silence with content, not just the absence of speech and action. We should expect the liturgy to give us a positive stillness that will restore us.
Such stillness…a time of recollection, giving us an inward peace, allowing us to draw breath and rediscover the one thing necessary, which we have forgotten. That is why silence cannot be simply “made”, organized as if it were one activity among many…
One of man’s deepest needs is making its presence felt, a need that is manifestly not being met in our present form of the liturgy. For silence to be fruitful, as we have already said, it must not be just a pause in the action of the liturgy. No, it must be an integral part of the liturgical event.
The Consequences of a “Failing” School and Things You Can Do
Is there a real danger when our “genuine schools of prayer”, our parishes, are not facilitating the needed silence for the faithful to hear our Lord and respond to Him? Later in Novo Millennio Inuente Blessed John Paul II warns that we are wrong if we believe that “ordinary Christians” can sustain simply with shallow prayer which is unable to fill their whole life. Without a deep prayer life, the late Holy Father states, we will only be “mediocre Chritians” at best, but more likely “Christians at risk” at worst; at risk to lose our very faith when confronted by indifference or even outright hostility from a hyper-secularized culture.
Some things that you can do to help strengthen your school of prayer:
Work with your pastor to instill more silence and stillness within the Mass.
Discuss the posibility of chant being incorporated into the liturgy.
Educate your own immediate family on the need to remain quiet and prayerful while in Church. Instruct your children that our Lord is in the tabernacle before, during and even after Mass and that conversation should be reserved for outside.
Finally, utilize your time before Mass to prayerfully place yourself in the presence of the Lord to better prepare for the Holy Sacrifice. If you have a longer drive to get to Mass (we live about 30 minutes from our parish), then pray your family rosary in the car. If you have a shorter commute, arrive early and spend time in prayer, particularly if your parish offers a rosary before Mass begins.
Incorporating the wisdom and pastoral advice of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI may we seek to create genuine schools of prayer by instilling silence in our churches and restoring the sense of the sacred in the liturgy.