Silence (2) At the Daily Office: beyond spontaneity

On the first Saturday in August this year, a few days after moving to the city, I was able to get to Liverpool’s  Reform synagogue for their Shabbat morning service. A warm welcome was given and surprise that this man in a clerical collar should be so familiar with the Hebrew prayers and melodies. In the same week, I booked for an introductory session at one of the city’s Buddhist centres.

Judaism and Buddhism have been important to me since, as an undergraduate on a World Religions course, we were encouraged to get to know faith communities other than our own. For me, the South Hampshire Reform Jewish Community and the monks at Cittaviveka Buddhist monastery became significant parts of my life.

In my engagement over the years with various Buddhist and Jewish communities, I have been struck by their willingness, enthusiasm, even, to teach the ‘how to‘ of being Buddhist or Jewish. No one assumes you know the music to the prayers, how to negotiate the siddur, the blessings for kiddush or what it is polite to bring to Shabbat dinner. Buddhist centres are set up for teaching; how to meditate, to observe the breath, when to bow, how not to point your feet.

Christians are not nearly so good at explaining the ‘technology of prayer’ or the etiquette of attending church. We tend to assume that everyone knows what to do. Even for established Christians there are often a lack of opportunities to learn methods of prayer and there is a suspicion of methods in general. There is a tendency to value the spontaneous, to expect people to act on feelings without recognising that prayer is a habit that needs to be practised every day.

As I wrote earlier, when pupils at Trinity, Lewisham (where I was Head teacher) who had been to Taize with me, asked for more silence in school we had to employ a Buddhist teacher to introduce this.

Silence is more popular than we might imagine. As I write, the film Silence is on at cinemas. The film Into Great Silence (2005), The TV programmes, the Monastery and The Big Silence img_0714all created substantial interest.

At Trinity we used big Maths sand timers in the classrooms to help classes observe periods of mindfulness. At home I have been using these small – 1 minute and 10 minute timers, when I pray the Office.

Like many people I love visiting monasteries and getting a ‘fix’ of that stillness and peace which pervades monastic communities. Maintaining that stillness is much harder on your own or in the midst of busy lives, but I find these sand-timers really help me not to rush my prayer and to build in that sense of space.

The way I do it is to use the one minute timer after each psalm or canticle and the ten minute timer after the reading or readings. At Taize the silence after the reading is normally 10-12 minutes and I find that it is about the right amount of time to pass through the squirming phase to some prayer. There are psalm prayers in Common Worship Daily Prayer and various other collections which are rather wonderful. However, I find I don’t need more words to help me pray the psalms. Often I will try and find a simple phrase in the psalm or the antiphon that I repeat in the minute’s silence, sometimes this phrase sticks with me for the day, sometimes I write it down.

For some reason sand-timers seem to work without interfering with the prayer. There are meditation timers available but most have the silence ending with a bell or gong sound, watching a clock just seems to distract.

There are many traditional ways of using extended periods of silence – lectio divina, the Jesuit Examen, the Jesus Prayer, the use of arrow words as described in the Cloud of Unknowing – as well as all the techniques of mindfulness and guided meditation. Building in silence to the regular prayer of the Church in a systematic way is also part of our tradition. It is part of what gives monastic liturgy its distinctive quality.

This is what the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours has to say about silence:

Chapter III-XII. Sacred Silence

201. It is a general principle that care should be taken in liturgical services to see that “at the proper times all observe a reverent silence.” [18] An opportunity for silence should therefore be provided in the celebration of the liturgy of the hours.

202. In order to receive in our hearts the full sound of the voice of the Holy Spirit and to unite our personal prayer more closely with the word of God and the public voice of the Church, it is permissible, as occasion offers and prudence suggests, to have an interval of silence. It may come either after the repetition of the antiphon at the end of the psalm, in the traditional way, especially if the psalm-prayer is to be said after the pause (see no. 112), or after the short or longer readings, either before or after the responsory.

Care must be taken to avoid the kind of silence that would disturb the structure of the office or annoy and weary those taking part.

203. In individual recitation there is even greater freedom to pause in meditation on some text that moves the spirit; the office does not on this account lose its public character.

112. Psalm-prayers for each psalm are given in the supplement to The Liturgy of the Hours as an aid to understanding them in a predominantly Christian way. An ancient tradition provides a model for their use: after the psalm a period of silence is observed, then the prayer gives a resume and resolution of the thoughts and aspirations of those praying the psalms.

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