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Members of the Secular Oratory gathered with Fr. David for a discussion on 'Holy Stillness.' The group read and reflected upon a brief selection from 'Meditations Before Mass' by Msgr. Romano Guardini

It is curious to think in our day that one of the most beautiful aspects of the Latin Rite Liturgy is the presence of silence.  I say curious because it is so little found today or fostered.  To do so seems to violate the "freedom" of distraction that individuals fight to maintain.  A confrontation with silence is too frightening a thing in a culture that thrives on perpetual diversion.  Any attempt to speak of the value of silence is met with either polite disregard or suspicion. Recently, I came across an article describing concern for maintaining a prayerful setting for worship as a reflection of narcissism; claiming that external distractions pull people out of focus on self and internal distractions that masquerade as prayer; allowing them to shift their prayers on to the needs of those around them.  The absurdity of such an argument is unnecessary to address. Rather, I would like to reconsider a classic writing on liturgy - Romano Guardini's Meditations Before Mass.  He begins by emphasizing what is sorely needed and painfully absent in our day: Stillness.

 

WHEN Holy Mass is properly celebrated there are moments in which the voices of both priest and faithful become silent. The priest continues to officiate as the rubrics indicate, speaking very softly or refraining from vocal prayer; the congregation follows in watchful, prayerful participation. What do these intervals of quiet signify? What must we do with them? What does stillness really imply?

It implies above all that speech end and silence prevail, that no other sounds of movements, of turning pages, of coughing and throat-clearing be audible. There is no need to exaggerate. Men live, and living things move; a forced outward conformity is no better than restlessness. Nevertheless, stillness is still, and it comes only if seriously desired. If we value it, it brings us joy; if not, discomfort. People are often heard to say: “But I can’t help coughing” or “I can’t kneel quietly”; yet once stirred by a concert or lecture they forget all about coughing and fidgeting. That stillness proper to the most beautiful things in existence dominates, a quiet area of attentiveness in which the beautiful and truly important reign. We must earnestly desire stillness and be willing to give something for it; then it will be ours. Once we have experienced it, we will be astounded that we were able to live without it.

What Guardini captures here is essential: silence does not happen spontaneously.  It has to be desired as a good, fostered and we must be willing to make certain sacrifices to attain it.  Few in our day have tasted true stillness and the beautiful fruit it produces in the soul and the liturgy.

Moreover, stillness must not be superficial, as it is when there is neither speaking nor squirming; our thoughts, our feelings, our hearts must also find repose. Then genuine stillness permeates us, spreading ever deeper through the seemingly plumbless world within.

Once we try to achieve such profound stillness, we realize that it cannot be accomplished all at once. The mere desire for it is not enough; we must practice it. The minutes before Holy Mass are best; but in order to have them for genuine preparation we must arrive early. They are not a time for gazing or day-dreaming or for unnecessary thumbing of pages, but for inwardly collecting and calming ourselves. It would be still better to begin on our way to church. After all, we are going to a sacred celebration. Why not let the way there be an exercise in composure, a kind of overture to what is to come? I would even suggest that preparation for holy stillness really begins the day before. Liturgically, Saturday evening already belongs to the Sunday. If for instance, after suitable reading we were to collect ourselves for a brief period of composure, its effects the next day would be evident.

Again, astutely, Guardini notes that preparation for such holy stillness begins not with the start of the liturgy but at the beginning of the Sabbath the evening before.  The desire for stillness must be such that it leads us to begin the movement to still the mind and heart and regain the kind of composure that will become fully evident the following day.  Saturday evening is often a time of heightened distraction rather than the begin of a fast from those things that fragment the mind and heart and lead to dissipation.

Thus far we have discussed stillness negatively: no speech, no sound. But it is much more than the absence of these, a mere gap, as it were, between words and sounds: stillness itself is something positive. Of course we must be able to appreciate it as such. There is sometimes a pause in the midst of a lecture or a service or some public function. Almost invariably someone promptly coughs or clears his throat. He is experiencing stillness as a breach in the unwinding road of speech and sound, which he attempts to fill with something, anything. For him the stillness was only a lacuna, a void which gave him a sense of disorder and discomfort. Actually, it is something rich and brimming.

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being “all there,” receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it.

Stillness is not a void but rather a receptivity; the tranquillity of soul that prepares one to hear God as He speaks the Word He desires us to receive.  In truth we should seek to live in a state of perpetual receptivity and alertness - a mindfulness of God that comes only through prayer and asceticism.  We must seek to purify our desires and order our passions in order that nothing should distract us from the presence of God.

Attentiveness that is the clue to the stillness in question, the stillness before God. What then is a church? It is, to be sure, a building having walls, pillars, space. But these express only part of the word “church,” its shell. When we say that Holy Mass is celebrated “in church,” we are including something more, the congregation. “Congregation,” not merely people. Churchgoers arriving, sitting, or kneeling in pews are not necessarily a congregation; they can be simply a roomful of more or less pious individuals. Congregation is formed only when those individuals are present not only corporally but also spiritually, when they have contacted one another in prayer and step together into the spiritual “space” around them; strictly speaking, when they have first widened and heightened that space by prayer. Then true congregation comes into being, which, along with the building that is its architectural expression, forms the vital church in which the sacred act is accomplished. All this takes place only in stillness; out of stillness grows the real sanctuary. It is important to understand this. Church buildings may be lost or destroyed; then everything depends on whether or not the faithful are capable of forming congregations that erect indestructible “churches” wherever they happen to find themselves, no matter how poor or dreary their quarters. We must learn and practice the art of constructing spiritual cathedrals.

By fostering stillness, we our constructing the real sanctuary where God is worshipped in spirit and truth.  The Congregation is formed not only physically but more importantly spiritually and altar of sacrifice must be humble and contrite hearts.

We cannot take stillness too seriously. Not for nothing do these reflections on the liturgy open with it. If someone were to ask me what the liturgical life begins with, I should answer: with learning stillness. Without it, everything remains superficial, vain. Our understanding of stillness is nothing strange or aesthetic. Were we to approach stillness on the level of aesthetics of mere withdrawal into the ego we should spoil everything. What we are striving for is something very grave, very important, and unfortunately sorely neglected; the prerequisite of the liturgical holy act.

 

Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

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Fear has big eyes. It sees everything as a threat and so controls our thoughts and destroys our hopes. In this sense it becomes an idol. We invest it with meaning above everything else - including the Love that God has for us and what He gives us. It directs our thoughts, makes our decisions and drives our actions. It may slow us down but it is not a holy stillness or silence that allows for an encounter with God and an experience of His grace. Rather, it paralyzes us; prevents us from reaching out to the One who seeks for us at every moment. Instead of being lifted up by Love we remain earthbound; unable to break free of the moorings of our fears. Our vision becomes warped and we are prevented from seeing His Eucharistic Face. We are everything to Him and yet we minimize the King of the Universe.
 

Any importance given to person and things reduces God's presence and activity within the soul," writes St. John of the Cross. God wants to protect me from being so deeply wrapped up in people and things that I push Him out. Through preoccupation with what He has created, I can effectively cover Him up.

 
My life will always be quite topsy-turvy if I have more regard for people and things than for our Eucharistic Lord. I can get so wrapped up in my possessions that they begin to take me over to my detriment. I get so drawn away from God that I scarcely relate to the Eucharistic One.
 
I can get so absorbed in my work, it can be like a drug. Workaholics suffer by pushing God out. Results become my spur. In being so attached to them, I marginalize the Eucharist. I don't hand over my concern about the results to Him. That is odd since it is He who determines the outcome.
 
St. John of the Cross tells us that the more we identify ourselves with things, the more we become subservient to them. I get so wrapped up in my surroundings, I drive God into the outskirts. So we all suffer when the living Eucharistic God actually disappears from my daily life as if He doesn't exist at all.
 
Fear has big eyes, according to the proverb. What I fear can grow enormously, engulfing me so that both the world and our Eucharistic Redeemer cease to matter in these moments. Yet He is in the Eucharist for me and the world. Fear alone exists and that becomes like an idol for me. My attitude to an idol can either be that of adoring love or fearful rejection.
 
The more I marginalize God, the more I suffer from fear and haste. It is not just that I need to slow down. Slowing down can still be haste if I am continually earthbound. Real lack of haste is silence within me. It involves searching for fulfillment in Eucharistic Love. If I am just thirsting for exclusively earthly love, acting very slowing goes on impeding God's grace. Allowing my life to be centered on the One who daily comes onto our altars is the only way to save men from the deprivation of anxiety, sadness, and feverish activity.
 
I may declare I best find God in nature, yet it is by no means certain I am looking for God in this pastime. It is true that trees are God's gift, yet I can get into a trap if I focus more on them than on God. They blur my vision, drowning me in the forest by diverting my focus away from the pursuit of amazing Eucharistic Love. I need to avoid making love of nature my final goal. The great and beautiful forest can conceal my Eucharistic, hidden God who is always longing and searching for me.
 
Where am I going? Should I not change direction? After all, if I receive the grace to believe in the Creator not just of trees and animals but also of galaxies rushing into infinity, then I may get engrossed in His love. It may happen that as I look at the star-filled sky, I will simply pray. I may not be asking for anything but I will be adoring God. Humbly looking in faith includes adoration. Maybe I will be led on beyond the lit-up sky to see my own smallness in contrast to the greatness of the Only One. Maybe I will not just stay in this thought but go on to embrace the inner core of it. Maybe I will hold onto God's greatness in His very personal, supportive power and love. After all, these great things are not just there for me to look at with powerful telescopes. The wonders of the universe are an invitation to draw close to Him in adoring amazement. Everything created should impel me toward incomprehensible Eucharistic Love.
 
My prayer of adoration should always more or less lead me to God's amazing reality. It is He who is adored in the Eucharist; it is He who is worshiped by choirs of angels. God is always so amazing. However, we need discerning eyes of faith with worshiping hearts inspired by His superabundant miracles. These point to His never-ending love for me. He wants to give me unending opportunities. He wants me to respond at least to some of this truth; He wants me to worship the Eucharist maybe in the words, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power..." (Apoc. 4:11).  He superabundantly reveals His glory to inspire me to some adoration of the real Master of the Universe.  On the Eucharistic altar He always reigns supreme.
 
I still minimize the King of the Universe. In my everyday life I undervalue the Eucharistic One. Yet my participation in the Mass is a vital part of my life. I frequently ask how it is that I don't make the Infinite One more important, especially on account of His miraculously incomprehensible Eucharistic love. Why don't I change in a radical way? I am everything to Him; I am the one who is unique to Him; He just wants me to share in His eternal glory.
 
Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer
Amazing Nearness
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