Published February 3, 2010
We're surrounded by noise. At Miami International Airport recently, I counted five sources of noise — TSA announcements, airline announcements, airport announcements, muzak, and the ubiquitous CNN-Airport channel. And that's before we get to squawking children, loud conversations, and passengers who address their cell phones the way Hitler “talked” to the Nuremberg rallies. Stores and restaurants are full of canned music; an NBA or NHL game is an exercise in noise-pain management; there is virtually no public space, outside art museums and courtrooms, where our aural senses are not under assault.
Churches should be different. To enter the body of a Catholic Church should be to experience a change in location: to cross a portal into a different kind of space than the space in which we live our daily lives. Yet as I get around the country I can't help but notice that the contemporary American noise culture has invaded and distorted what used to be understood as space in which we sometimes listened to God speaking in the sounds of silence. Chatter, if low-key, is constant, not simply in the narthex or vestibule (which is fine), but in the body of the church before Mass. Immediately after the recessional hymn is sung, the chatter breaks out again, often louder — despite many a choir's noble efforts to sing a choral postlude. The exchange of peace is another opportunity, rarely spurned, for the chatter to recommence.
And then there are the kids. The idea that crying babies or fussing children should not interfere with the celebration of Mass seems to have been lost on an entire generation of parents — and this, despite the (expensive) efforts of many churches to build cry-rooms. Pastors who point out that fractious children really don't belong in church during services are accused of callousness or (gasp!) insensitivity; parents have been known to leave congregations because the pastor, in the kindest possible way, reminded them that the cry-room was built for a purpose.
So here's a suggestion for Lent, just around the corner: rediscover the sounds of silence in church.
Refrain from chattering with friends when you leave the narthex (I almost said “gathering space”!), and remind yourself that to cross the threshold between the vestibule and the body of the church is to pass one of those permeable borders between the natural and the supernatural that constitute the physical texture of Catholicism's sacramental imagination: that way-of-seeing-things that teaches us that the extraordinary lies just on the far side of the ordinary.
Don't begin chattering with neighbors as soon as the recessional hymn ends; preserve a dignified silence as you leave the church, as a reminder that we're about to return to “the world,” as a gesture of courtesy to fellow-Catholics who wish to offer prayers of thanksgiving after communion, and as an act of respect to the choir singing (or the organist playing) the postlude.
Parents with small children: use the cry-room, if your parish has one; take the squawking kids out of the body of the church when they start caterwauling, if there's no cry-room; or consider leaving small, fractious children at home, with the parents attending different Masses — a sacrifice, I know, but a kindness to others and a way to ensure that you actually get a chance to pray yourself.
Liturgists and organists: there is no need to fill every second of Mass with vocalized prayers, songs, or organ solos. The Roman Rite has always made room for silence; silence after communion is particularly appropriate. It doesn't have to be all noise, all the time.
Recovering a sense of sacred space is as important as rediscovering sacred time in the renewal of the liturgy. All the more reason then, to welcome a splendid new book by Denis R. McNamara of the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary: Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hillenbrand Books). Full of both insight and illustrations, McNamara's new study is a reminder of what sacred space is, and why it ought to nourish an attentive listing to the sounds of silence.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.