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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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The great benefit which the soul derives from retirement and the virtue of silence is clearly shown by the desire which David implored them of God: "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth"' and by the admonition of Saint James the Apostle, that he must not esteem himself religious who does not bridle the tongue. "If any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his own heart, this man's religion is vain."

Let us therefore esteem silence to be a most important thing.  The mother of silence is retirement, and Saint Philip, who had to pass his life in the midst of Rome, which seemed opposed to retirement, which is generally only to be found in the deserts, was warned by God, by a special revelation, that he should live like a hermit there.  The Saint obeyed, as did also his companions, of whom F. Pietro Consolini said, that the first Fathers of the Congregation were stayers at home, and that F. Cesare Baronius said  to himself, "Stay at home Cesare," that he might not be unlike the holy Master, who was most careful to stay at home, either in the church or in his cell, and never left the house unless constrained to do so on works of charity.

Though, according to Tarugi, a spiritual man should, like Saint Catherine of Siena, form in his heart a cell, in which to retire frequently when in the midst of worldly occupations; and though, if a man cannot retire into himself and there find that peace which the Holy Spirit gives good consciences, he will never derive it from persons or places; still we should delight in retirement as far as becomes our state, since St. Philip, from his youth up, as far as he could, lived in solitude.  His life was esteemed eremitical, and he was always most addicted to retirement.

Let us mortify ourselves sometimes by imitating the Saint who separated himself from intercourse with men and avoided conversations however innocent.

Silence is connected to retirement, and this, so far as it was in accordance with the Institute, was especially loved by Saint Philip during his whole life.  We should love it, like F. Flaminio Ricci, devoting at least some hours of the day to its observance.

Amongst other innumerable good effects which this silence produced in Saint Philip, we are told that it greatly assisted him in the contemplation of divine things.

To produce another example, F. Alessandro Fedeli greatly loved retirement, prayer and contemplation, in which he found his delight and his advantage.  Brother Battista Flores says of him, "The affection which he bore the exercises of the Oratory made him a friend of silence and solitude, a lover of home and of his room and he disliked to go far from his nest; also that Cardinal Antoniano, who was most familiar with the congregation, used to call him the "Silent one." 

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