During a Developing Spiritual Communities class I was teaching at Episcopal Divinity School in Burlington, Vermont, my students and I were considering the role of silent prayer in worship when we became distracted by concerns over the noise of children in worship. Somehow we had wandered into choosing between having silence in worship and being welcoming of babies and toddlers. “Oh, I see what the issue is,” I said. “I think we are talking about two different things. I was suggesting a silent prayer in worship, but now we are talking about noise. Silence isn’t quiet.” I was completely surprised by my own words. Then I realized that my understanding of the noisiness of “silent” prayer had come from one of my other roles.
I have two seemingly unrelated jobs. Monday to Thursday I manage a Pastoral Excellence Grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Our interest is in creating vital congregations by providing educational resources that empower all the leaders of congregations—especially those
who are not ordained—to find and carry out their ministry in the parish and in the world.
On Sundays I’m the ordained leader of Worcester Fellowship, an outdoor church that reaches mostly homeless and on-the-edge adults in a park just behind Worcester’s city hall. Mary Jane Eaton, a lay Unitarian Universalist I met in seminary, and I began this work in November of 2006 and we now worship weekly with a congregation of 40 to 45 in the park. Every Sunday we have a moment of silent prayer—and the silence is never quiet.
Worcester Fellowship was created in the image of an outdoor church on Boston Common called common cathedral. The first time I worshiped with that congregation there was a protest against the Chinese government occurring on the same corner. As their pastor, Joan Murray, raised her arms and called the congregation to silent prayer, drummers for the protesters began the beat for their parade. I laughed, and then looked around me and saw that the entire congregation remained at prayer. An ambulance raced down Tremont Street, sirens blaring. I was distracted, but still the congregation prayed. Over the next few weeks my observations of this outdoor worship moved me to explore how I could have prayer when the silence is extremely noisy.
Outdoor worship in Worcester is quieter than that in Boston. Here the ambulances go down a street one block west of us, and traffic is light on our corner on Sundays. But people at the edges of worship talk, and often one of more of them are too drunk to modulate the volume of their voices. People new to worship come up in the middle of the silent prayer and ask the congregation and its leaders for change—or advice, or directions to a meal program, or for details about lunch. And still, silent prayer is listed as a favorite part of our worship service.
This leads me to ask, exactly what do we mean by silent prayer? What does it mean to have silent prayer in community? What does it mean to have silent prayer in a noisy world? And how does all that we have learned in worship out-of-doors impact the question of how to create life-giving, vital, spiritually stimulating worship in a more typical parish? What is the role of silent prayer in developing spiritual communities, indoors and out?
Silent prayer is certainly a time when I, the person praying, am not speaking aloud. Often I say a silent grace when sitting down to a meal in a restaurant. The silence then is simply that others can’t hear my words. In my head, and to God, I’m speaking, the same as if I’d said the words aloud. The chatter of the restaurant continues—and my internal voice isn’t quiet either. I’m doing all the talking.
One of my Worcester Fellowship parishioners speaks eloquently of his silent prayers in the park while he watches the squirrels gather nuts and the birds build nests. While he uses the word “silent,” he tells about the sound of the wind in the trees and the dropping of acorns. Silence in this case is about the fact that there are no human voices interrupting his thoughts; he is away from the busy-ness, anxiety, and noisiness that overwhelm him in the crowded shelter where he spends his nights.
Some of us use silent prayer as a time to try to shut down the overwhelming chatter of our internal thoughts. The point of the prayer then is not so much about talking to God but rather a time of listening. Using an activity like touching a rosary, repeating a word or phrase, or focusing on a candle or our breath, we try to turn off the steady stream of dialogue our mind produces. The silent part of the prayer is that we have silenced ourselves.
Silent prayer in community is not the same as silent prayer alone. In individual prayer we feel an instinct to withdraw from others; some of the purpose of the silence is to separate us from one another, to redirect our focus to God. But during worship we are a community at prayer. The silent prayer is all of us, together, in silence. When we open the silence at Worcester Fellowship we talk about finding space in our hearts for God in the busy-ness of the world. We share the difficulty of quieting our minds when anxiety runs high. We wonder aloud about allowing God to calm our souls as the world calls us to frenetic action. During our silent prayer the world will not be quiet; but we are practicing being quiet ourselves. Our silent prayer will not close out the noise of our neighbors, but it may open our hearts to God’s place in community. Silent prayer is not about closed eyes and darkness; it is about seeing one another with God’s eyes, and with God’s love. Personal silence may be quiet, at least for people who have a place to retreat to, but community silence is really about space—space for God and space for one another.
In our congregations, the baby crying, the children talking, the cough, the rustling papers are all a delightful part of the space we are creating with our neighbors. The sounds inside the building are the sounds of community, of neighbors, of the body of Christ or the people of God. The street noises through the window, the thumping of the radiator, the occasional burst of an outside shout or a siren racing by—these are the connections between our community and the world. We are silent before the world, and by being silent we are making space for God to help us to connect to that world.
As my congregation on the street learns to appreciate silent prayer, and asks for more and more of it, I find that what people without homes long for is guidance for how to be part of a community in prayer. Interestingly, what I find that people with homes long for is guidance for how to be part of a community in prayer! Our society does not honor prayer, and certainly does not appreciate silent prayer. We may have been born with the ability to listen to God, but our culture has not encouraged us to develop that skill. If your parish complains that the silent prayer is too long, or the lay leader suggests cutting it out, or your worship team resists adding silent prayer to the worship order, what your congregation may need is help understanding what they are supposed to do during the silence.
Worship leaders might consider opening the silent prayer with examples of how they handle such prayers; perhaps different strategies can be described over several weeks. In the church bulletin, leaders might offer suggestions for phrases to repeat during silent prayer. In our outdoor worship in Worcester, we try to pick something related to our sermon, which is almost always on the theme of “God loves me.” So the phrases we suggest include God loves me, fill me with peace, I’m forgiven, and let go, let God. We also sometimes suggest looking around the space at the community present and saying a prayer for each person. Other weeks we ask people to focus on what they need most from God right then. Often we advise people to listen to their heartbeat and visuali
ze God filling the space within themselves with love and compassion. Silent prayer is internal prayer, and the silence is inside of us.
It also helps to have guidance on how to react when the silence is broken. What should we do when the sound of an ambulance distracts us? How should we handle the child who speaks out? How do we re-direct the newcomer who interrupts us just as we enter the time of prayer? Simple advice helps us to pray for the person in the ambulance, gives us permission to speak to the child without guilt, allows us to ask the newcomer to hang on through worship and then come talk with us more later on.
Once the community has learned that silence isn’t quiet—that the silence isn’t even supposed to be quiet, that it is expected that it won’t be—sounds will become part of the silent prayer. Then the time of silent prayer is less stressful and therefore more prayerful. We are a community at prayer that is not speaking rather than a community at silence, too stressed to figure out how to pray.
Over time we learn as a community to worship in and with the particular sounds of our space rather than in spite of, or angry with them—because silence isn’t quiet; it’s the voice of the community, and the voice of God.
Questions for Reflection
- Does you congregation practice silence and, if so, in what ways?
- What insights or suggestions might you offer your congregation to help make their silent worship a deeper and more meaningful experience?
- How might you describe the “noise” of silent prayer in a way that helps your congregation understand that it is an integral part of the experience?
- When have you experienced a silence that wasn’t quiet? How might you share that experience with your congregation in a meaningful way?
- Where might there be opportunities to invite the members of your congregation to share similar stories? What do you imagine the outcome of doing so might be?