Now the Silence

Date: August 4, 2023

The great British composer Herbert Howells was once asked if he had any hobbies. “Yes,” he replied, “Silence.”

Silence is a rarity in our lives. Walk into any venue and one likely will hear music playing in the background (usually too loudly, but that’s another topic for another day). Barring that, there’s likely the sound of people talking, moving about, or even the din of an HVAC system running.

We are fortunate with Immanuel Chapel to worship in a space that has such a resonant acoustic. Play or sing a note, and the sound lingers long after we have stopped producing it. One of my favorite moments in chapel occurs when we finish a hymn. For a brief second or two, the voices continue to echo around us after we have stopped singing – affording us a short opportunity to hear what God has been hearing.

In music, moments of silence, or rests, are usually an integral part of the structure of a piece. Depending on the acoustic in which the music is being played, the rests might be slightly extended or shortened. Without rests (moments of silence), music is not very interesting. I feel the same could perhaps be said about our liturgies.

The Book of Common Prayer calls for a period of silence at the Fraction. I fear we have a tendency to rush this moment. I once attended a Eucharist at Sewanee for which Marion Hatchett was the organist. At this particular moment, the pause was so long, I was convinced that he had forgotten that he was to play the Agnus Dei (I had no idea who Dr. Hatchett was at the time). But, he was setting aside an intentional period of silence. I confess that this amount of silence would definitely take some getting used to. More recently, a Celebrant at one of our VTS services requested that I jump right in after the Fraction because they felt that a moment of silence was “awkward” and it made them “uncomfortable.” Our constant saturation with sound has become the norm, for better or worse.

However, perhaps we need more silence in our lives and in our liturgies especially. Allowing for some silence after the readings, sermon, etc. can remind us that in God’s time, there’s no need to rush. And, it might be in those moments of silence rather than in the sounds made prior/after that someone in our midst can most closely hear what God is saying to them.

I look forward to the return of chapel in the Fall. Our summer break has been like a rest in a piece of music. The return of notes being played and words being sung are more appreciated after their brief absence. And, I’m going to do my part to allow those opportunities for silence in our collective worship to take root. But, I promise I won’t make you late for class.

Now the silence
Now the peace
Now the Father’s arms in welcome
     (from Hymn 333, words of Carl Schalk)

Jason Abel
Assisting Chapel Musician

Back to all