Thursday, 14 August 2008

Silence Is Golden... least, that's what I suspect the majority of my readers will conclude, once I get back into the swing of things blog-wise!

On a more serious note, I actually want to blog about the place of silence at Mass.

I have only been attending the Extraordinary Form of Mass for a relatively short period. I went to a High Mass at St. Bede's about ten years ago, although I had no real idea what was going on: I was invited by a member of the choir, and so was with them for most of it... and the only thing I recall from the experience was wondering when the Mass was going to begin, and then discovering that we'd reached the Gospel! The choir had been singing continuously, as they do at a Solemn High Mass, and I'd been waiting for them to stop so that the priest could make the sign of the cross...

I also gathered that this "Old" Mass was something frowned upon by the majority of Catholics, and so it was spoken about in very circumspect tones "among friends." It wasn't forbidden, but one didn't really advertise it. As a result, I wasn't too keen: I hadn't been long back within the fold, and I didn't fancy the idea of becoming involved with a clique... and a slightly frowned-upon clique at that!

I eventually ended up as a parishioner at Blackfen, where Fr. Tim Finigan is Parish Priest. One of his parishioners had requested that her Requiem Mass be celebrated in the Extraordinary Form, and, after agreeing to this, Fr. Tim got to grips with the rubrics. He then switched to praying the TLM whenever he had a private Mass (private as in "not the usual Parish Mass.")

I would occasionally be able to attend these private Masses if they were before or after school, and so I experienced Low Mass. I loved the silences, the very careful movements which were laid down in the rubrics, the feeling that this was the Mass celebrated for centuries, and the Mass with which many of the Martyrs would have been familiar.

I joined the Latin Mass Society (alas, lack of organisation meant that my subscription soon lapsed, and I kept forgetting to renew it!) and bought myself a St. Andrew's Missal... and that's when I got very angry. I suddenly realised how very poor the translations of many of the prayers of the Mass were, and how much ICEL had dumbed down the Novus Ordo. I had bought into the legend that, pre-Vatican II, everyone had failed to understand the Latin, and had just sat in silence and ignorance while the priest and server "got on with it." Here, in my hands, I had proof that this was far from the case.

My St. Andrew's Missal was beautiful. The prayers were side-by-side in Latin and English, and so I could follow the Mass word-for-word if I wished. But there was so much more: the major feasts had short essays, descriptions of various stationed churches in Rome, and doctrinal, historical and liturgical notes... pages and pages of the stuff. A veritable catechism in itself! The Novus Ordo Missal was pretty small beer by comparison...

I found myself being drawn in by the TLM, and I gradually discovered the beauty of silence. It took a while before I realised that I didn't need to follow every word of the Mass as it was spoken - that, instead, I could read the readings and prayers beforehand as preparation, and then, during the Mass, just reflect on what I had read. Or pray the rosary. Or just watch the actions at the altar. Or just bring myself and my worries to God and sit there while the priest, in persona Christi, interceded for the rest of us, and offered the supreme Sacrifice.

The silent Canon is awesome. Whichever method of praying the Mass I adopted, each time I found myself holding my breath during the Consecration, almost as if I might disturb the descent of Jesus to the altar... and I'd heave a huge sigh after the second genuflection. And it seems that I'm not the only one to react this way... demonstrated by comments made on Fr. Tim's blog, first by Fr. Seán Coyle:

"It was the communal coughing that was a release of the tension among people who knew they were present at something truly awesome."

and then by David:

"I refer to the coughing and shuffling which immediately followed the elevations. Nothing could have better highlighted the riveting attention, prolonged ever so slightly by the pause before the last bell as the pall was replaced on the chalice."

I still attend the Novus Ordo Mass. I understand that there are some adherents to the TLM who consider the Novus Ordo invalid. This is complete nonsense: if the words of Consecration are spoken with the right intention by a validly ordained priest, then we have the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ made present on the altar. And so I wear my mantilla at Novus Ordo Masses as well as at the TLM.

But, given a free choice in the matter, I prefer to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I have come to appreciate the value of silence, something sorely missing from the Novus Ordo... oh, a priest might include a period of silence, but it's entirely at his whim. There's no telling when it might occur, or how long it will go on for.

And then there are the Novus Ordo Masses (like one I attended recently) where there is no silence allowed at all: where the priest insists on talking to "explain" everything. "Now we are going to tell God how sorry we are..." "Now we are going to bring up the gifts of bread and wine"... and worst of all, immediately after the Consecration of the Host, at the Elevation: "Now we say together, 'My Lord and my God'..."

(Mind you, I should have realised this was on the cards when the priest introduced the Mass by telling everyone present that they needed to focus... "First, focus on me... then, focus on the readers... and then focus on Jesus..." I suppose I should be grateful that Jesus got a mention... At least that type of Mass is a rare experience for me!)

In the TLM, the "silences" are actually periods when the priest is praying... and you get to know how long a period of silence is (basically, it ends when the prayers do!) And, in that silence, you can let God touch your heart.

Silence isn't really golden. It's far, far more precious than that!


James M said...

Great post've said it just exactly like it is. And that's a good point about the breathlessness of the Consecration. Deo gratias.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mac. Completely empathise about waiting for the Priest to make the sign of the cross. I used to have my face so far into my Missal I used to almost miss the Consecration...!

Anonymous said...

p.s. I too hold my breath.

Delia said...

Excellent post!

the hound said...

Really super post! I am coming to love the silence of Low Mass but I do like to be able to follow things as they happen. There is a debate over at Fr. Z. as to what we should be able to hear. I attended Low Mass this morning and for me the priest was spot on. Everything which was to be spoken aloud was clearly audible and precisely pronounced at normal speaking pace, ( not two or three times faster). The servers responses were clear but slightly softer than the priest. The Canon was absolutely silent, ( unlike a High Mass I recently attended where I could hear the Canon above the singing of the Sanctus and even the words of Consecration were audible, not Merton need I say). This morning I forgot my missale but I could follow everything clearly, afterall the Proper for the Assumption is memorable and simple and the readings do not change from year to year.

Mulier Fortis said...

Well, thanks for the encouragement and kind words, folks... Seems I'm not the only one to value silence!

Anonymous said...

Excellent, and thank you for posting this.

Except for the fact that I hadn't (quite) lapsed when I discovered the Old Rite, it mirrors my experience. Initially feeling uncomfortable with it, but then coming to appreciate its value.

Sadly I still don't live in a parish (or even a diocese) where it is available anything like regularly.

Liz said...

The Old Mass is available in our diocese only a few times a year at the present, although our bishop is working to get priests trained so that it will become more routinely available (THANK YOU, Bishop Matano!). I'm still at the point of being both awed by it and confused at it (I always lose my place in the missal and have new sympathy for Leonie Martin who had great difficulty following the office in her convent).

As far as silence is concerned... We had a fine associate at our parish a few years back who got moved after a number of parishoners complained about how long his daily Masses took (he liked some silent prayer time after communion). The parishoners who complained must be in agony now because we have two new priests both of whom appreciate silence at Mass. We no longer have 15 minute daily Masses at our parish at all. Silence is an element both before Mass, at appropriate parts of Mass, and even after Daily Mass. Our bishop is encouraging increased reverence for the Eucharist and slowly things are changing. Thanks Be To God.

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