Entering the Silence of True Prayer

“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

St. Paul writes today about a radical transformation of the human person. God allowed his Son to “become sin” for us – taking on the greatest effect of sin, that is, death – so that we might be transformed into the righteousness of God. This is the cause of our rejoicing today on this Laetare Sunday. Every year on this fourth Sunday in Lent, Holy Mother Church allows us to relax our Lenten discipline, especially in the celebration of the Holy Mass. The organ is allowed to be played once again, the color of the vestments is lightened from violet to rose, and the liturgical texts speak of our heavenly homeland, Jerusalem. This is not about having a break from Lent, though. After all, with the fasting regulations imposed on us having been reduced to such a bare minimum, it would be ridiculous to suppose that we need a break. (Fasting – eating only one meal per day – used to be obligatory on every weekday during Lent, not just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.)

Rather, this Laetare Sunday is about something inherent in Lent itself – that we must live this time of mortification – this time of putting to death the desires of our flesh – full of Christian hope and joy in what is to come. This is why the entrance antiphon for Mass exhorts us: “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” (Jerusalem here meaning the heavenly Jerusalem, the Church in glory.) It is through this spirit of joyful hope that the transformation of hearts promised by St. Paul can take place.

How, though, can such a great transformation happen? Christ became sin for us by suffering the ignominy of the Cross, so how are we to become the righteousness of God? This is where our theme for this Lent comes into play. It is precisely through prayer that God works this transformation of our hearts to become His righteousness. So far we have seen three different aspects of prayer: In exploring prayer in the Mass, we learned that prayer is about entering Christ’s relationship with the Father. In prayer during times of suffering, we learned that prayer is about God changing our hearts to be more like His. In prayer with the Sacred Scriptures, we learned how an encounter with Christ present in the Word of God brings about this life-transforming entrance into the inner life of the Trinity (that is, the relationship between the first person of the Trinity, the Father, with the second person of the Trinity, the Son, which is so powerful that it consists in a third person, the Spirit).

This brings us to the final chapter of this series in which we will explore the deepest form of prayer: the power of silence in prayer. During this sermon I will lay out what is silence in prayer and why it is so important. On Tuesday evening during the Lenten Series, we will dive deeper into how to enter silence in prayer, so if you want part two you, once again, you will have to come back on Tuesday evening.

What is silence? We usually think of silence as a lack of noise. This is a negative definition of silence – defining it by what it is not. If silence were merely a lack of something, though, it would not be critical for prayer. Rather, silence is something positive – something thoroughly active rather than just passive. It is not just the lack of noise, but a positive, potent activity. We can understand this by considering silence as listening. If, while speaking to another person, there are times when you are not talking, this does not suffice for listening. (That, rather, would be hearing, which is a necessary but insufficient condition for real listening, any woman with a husband who is hard of hearing can tell you!) Listening, we know, is an active process – it is not merely being in the presence of another person who is talking without talking oneself. Active listening is an important skill for communication that must be cultivated and honed with practice. So likewise is silence in prayer. Silence is not merely negative — a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech — but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.

A great example of this can be found in Gregorian chant. Modern music has a definite rhythm, or meter, that pushes the piece along. Pauses in the music allow for the singer to take a breath, but they do not have a positive function. Silence in modern music is simply a lack of sound. Not so in Gregorian chant. Here, the silence is an integral part of the music that allows it to resonate through the church (especially when sung in a church with traditional stone construction that allows the chant to echo through the space). This is why the Second Vatican Council said that, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy: therefore, … it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum concilium 116). (By the way, this same document from Vatican II also asks that the faithful, “know how to sing at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the profession of faith and the Lord’s Prayer” (SC 41) – I guess we will have to keep working on that!)

Let’s recall what we said two weeks ago about prayer being like the time that a son spends with his father. What is important is not so much what they are doing, but the time spent with someone he loves that makes his heart more like the father’s. In a relationship, it is not necessary always to be saying things to one another or asking for things. Really, the better we come to know and love one another, the less need there is to express our mutual attitude verbally.
In this regard, there are two kinds of friendships. With the first kind, if you haven’t spoken in some time, you catch each other up on what is happening in your lives, maybe you exchange some news about mutual friends, but once you have reached the end of this “catching up,” the conversation comes to a natural conclusion. In the second kind of friendship, this process of “catching up” is merely the prelude to a deeper conversation about what is going on in your heart, about the meaning of life, or your hopes and dreams for the future. This first kind of friendship can be pleasant and enriching, but it is not life-transforming.

One time I went to visit a friend I had not seen in several years. The first day and a half that we were together we talked nearly non-stop, filling each other in on all of the different things that had happened in our lives and how we were changing (me as a seminarian, he as a Ph.D. student living truly independently for the first time). We got to a point, then, when I realized that the conversation was starting to fall off. It is like we didn’t have anything to say anymore. I had a moment of panic – what were we going to do for the next two days if we didn’t have anything more to say? I realized that we had never actually spent this much time together before. For my last year in college we would hang out four or five times per week, but at the end of the night each would ultimately go his separate way, and maybe we would see each other at some point the next day – usually without much planning. What were we going to do now that we had committed to spending so much time together?

Two things happened. First, what seemed to be a pause where nothing was happening, gave me the courage to dive in deeper, to raise issues that hadn’t been raised before, to challenge my friend and to be challenged by him. Second, when I had finally exhausted my seemingly limitless gift of gab, I found that what mattered most was the presence of this person whom I loved, and a deeper sort of exchange that was going on underneath the surface. As I get older, I find now the friendships where this deeper, silent exchange of friendship have taken place are the easiest ones to renew, because there is a deep well of inter-personal sharing beyond the power of words that has taken place and can be drawn upon when we reunite. This is why we all instinctively know that nothing can replace in-person friendship. Yes, contact can be maintained and relationships can be developed over the phone, via video chat, by a letter etc. but even then the friends or lovers long for the time when they can be together, when they can experience that profound bond that can only come when the power of words has been exhausted and a communication beyond the power of words has begun.

The Eastern Christian mystic tradition has a lot to say about the power of silence. One of its great exponents is Gregory of Sinai, who lived in the 14th Century. At one point in his writings, Gregory is trying to come up with a good definition of prayer. He tries lots of different definitions, but then in seeming exasperation writes, “Why speak at length? Prayer is God, who works all things in all men.” Prayer is God — it is not something that I initiate but something in which I share; it is not primarily something that I do but something that God is doing in me. Prayer is when, to borrow a phrase from St. Paul, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20). Deep prayer, then, the prayer that can only happen in silence, is critical to the Christian life because it is how it comes to pass that we can share St. Paul’s words once our transformation into God’s righteousness is complete.

In the Eastern liturgy, when it is time to enter the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the deacon approaches the priest and whispers, “It is time for the Lord to act!” The Liturgy of the Word is past, and it is time for the Lord to act through the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. For millennia, in both East and West, the predominant feature of this part of the Mass was silence. The priest recited the prayers of consecration in a low, inaudible voice not to exclude the participation of the faithful but to emphasize that he it was the Lord’s turn to act. The Lord acts in silence. (This change to the Roman Rite of having the Canon be recited in a loud voice, by the way, was never mentioned in the Second Vatican Council but only came about afterwards.)

This would be a great prayer for all of us to enter into silence in prayer – “It is time for the Lord to act!” Just as, following the deacon’s invitation, the priest turns to the altar to offer the Immaculate Victim to the Father in silent adoration, so too all prayer culminates in a resting with the beloved beyond the power of speech. Silence is the way by which we can recognize that it is the Lord’s turn to act in our prayer, that we can give Him the space to accomplish what He wishes to accomplish during the time that we give Him in prayer.

It is probably time for me to heed Gregory of Sinai’s wise words then, “Why speak at length? Prayer is God, who works all things in all men.” In the prayer of silence – not just an absence of noise but an active attitude of attentive listening – we give the Lord space to act. On Tuesday evening we will continue exploring how we can enter this potent silence in prayer and how doing so will transform our lives. I hope to see you there.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday in Lent, Laetare, A.D. MMXIX

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