Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh, Apostolic Administrator of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. This homily was preached July 2, 2019, at a Mass to celebrate both the closing of the two-day jubilee conference and the opening Mass for the 50th summer school.
“If music is carefully selected and beautifully offered, it can open up a space of silence which God can fill. For people who find it difficult to escape the noise both exterior and interior, your music can still the racing mind, relieve the daily stress, and invite us gently into a sacred moment where God can speak to our hearts and we can be in deeper communion with God and with one another” – Archbishop Eamon
For the past one hundred years at 11.00am on the eleventh of November, there is ‘two minutes of silence’ to remember those who died in the First World War and to pray in thanksgiving for survivors. Strangely, during the two minutes silence, as all gradually goes still, we begin to hear and notice all sorts of background sounds – the shuffling of feet, coughs, and creaks, a baby crying, birds singing, the hum of traffic in the distance.
I remember some years ago hearing that someone released a CD recording of seventy years of the Remembrance Day ‘two minutes silence’! And then there’s the famous piece “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds”, by the American composer John Cage which was first performed by the pianist David Tudor. He sat down on the piano stool and for 4 minutes 33 seconds didn’t play a single note! The composer said, Ah! But did you not hear the sounds in the auditorium during that time?!
Silence does indeed open us up to the presence of what might otherwise go unnoticed or hidden. It is in the silence in particular that God speaks. In the quiet, we can find him whom our heart seeks.
Pope Francis puts it this way. “The Lord speaks to us in a variety of ways, at work, through others and at every moment. Yet we simply cannot do without the silence of prolonged prayer, which enables us better to perceive God’s language, to interpret the real meaning of the inspirations we believe we have received, to calm our anxieties and to see the whole of our existence afresh in his own light”. (GE171)
The difficulty of course for all of us nowadays is finding any opportunity for deep silence and listening. Even when we do shut out much of the external noise and clamor that tends to fill every second of life nowadays, we often find there is an interior din – our minds and hearts and passions racing, distracted, restless. One wonders if in this “screen culture” with all social media that gate-crashes our every moment, are we are uncomfortable with silence and losing our capacity to sit still, to be at peace? We are sadly, therefore, missing out on so many opportunities to notice the “still small voice” of God, gently whispering in our hearts. Pope Francis in his recent letter to young people (CV115) invites them to find and enter into these moments:
“Try to keep still for a moment and let yourself feel his love. Try to silence all the noise within, and rest for a second in his loving embrace”. Pope Francis realizes, of course, that Jesus himself sought those quiet moments in lonely places where he could be at peace in prayerful contact with the Father.
It might seem strange for me to be talking so much about silence at the golden jubilee of the Irish Church Music Association! Here you are, learning new and beautiful music to enhance our liturgies for the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, and I’m rattling on about silence!
But good musicians, of course, know all about the ‘sound of silence’ and how it can be used to add color and beauty: – the pauses that create expectation, how a note lingering in the heights of a church building can evoke the sacred and draw listeners into contemplation. Was it Mozart who said something about music not being so much in the notes, as in the spaces in between? In many ways, good sacred music creates sacred interior spaces for silence, reflection and of course, prayer and meditation.
Pope Benedict XVI said that we should not be afraid to create silence both within, and outside ourselves, in order to become aware of God’s voice – and also the voice and needs of the person who sits beside us. On the Feast of Corpus Christi in 2012, he emphasized that ‘celebration’ and ‘silent adoration’ are not against each other. He said:
“To be all together in prolonged silence before the Lord present in his Sacrament is one of the most genuine experiences of our being Church, which is accompanied complementarily by the celebration of the Eucharist, by listening to the word of God, by singing and by approaching the table of the Bread of Life together. Communion and contemplation cannot be separated, they go hand in hand. If I am truly to communicate with another person I must know him, I must be able to be in silence close to him, to listen to him and look at him lovingly. True love and true friendship are always nourished by the reciprocity of looks, of intense, eloquent silences full of respect and veneration, so that the encounter may be lived profoundly and personally rather than superficially”.
The Second Vatican Council decree on the liturgy recognized the importance of observing “a reverent silence” at what it called “the proper times” in the liturgy (SC30). It went so far as to state that this was to help “promote active participation “. In other words, a congregation might participate in the silence as much as in the prayers, readings and spoken responses of the Mass.
The 1967 instruction on church music, Musicam Sacram (17), developed this important idea:
“At the proper times, all should observe a reverent silence’. Through it the faithful are not only considered as extraneous or dumb spectators at the liturgical service, but are associated more intimately in the mystery that is being celebrated, thanks to that interior disposition which derives from the word of God that they have heard, from the songs and prayers that have been uttered, and from spiritual union with the priest in the parts that he says or sings himself”.
Can I recommend you in this regard to reflect on a document prepared in 2016 by the Liturgy Committee of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, entitled The Place of Silence.
Dear brothers and sisters in the Irish Church Music Association. You exercise such an important ministry in your parishes and dioceses by bringing your gifts to ensure that sacred music of beauty and quality continues to be composed, taught, learned, shared and performed in Ireland to the praise of God. You know that the music we choose, the quality of our singing and our playing must be ‘prayerful’ and befitting of worship, capable of lifting people up” from much of what is banal and shallow around us so that we can touch the mystery of the presence of God. You know that when music of beauty is chosen, which is inspired by our faith, and is offered to God from the very best of our efforts, God can work through it to inspire the souls of others, nourish their faith, and bring them closer to him.
I respectfully ask you to consider also during this year’s summer school how you, through your music, might help to capture and tastefully invoke silence in the liturgy. Of course, this demands a certain amount of humility from all of us – including the celebrant, and the Church musician – to resist the temptation to fill every quiet moment with words or music or even instrumental accompaniment. In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, we might accept ‘there is a time to sing and play, and a time to refrain from singing and playing’!
Silence is not empty. If music is carefully selected and beautifully offered, it can open up a space of silence which God can fill. For people who find it difficult to escape the noise both exterior and interior, your music can still the racing mind, relieve the daily stress, and invite us gently into a sacred moment where God can speak to our hearts and we can be in deeper communion with God and with one another.
I conclude with the “simple path” famously offered by Saint Teresa of Calcutta:
“The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace”.
Congratulations on your 50th anniversary. Thank you for all you are doing. Every blessing for your summer school.