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Place of Silence in Prayer

P. MacLeod (CL 17/9/00) highlights the relativities between “silence” and “conversation” at Sunday Mass.

In an age when the reduction of Mass timetables means that congregations can be made up of one year-olds through to 101 year-olds he is right to ask the place of “silence” in our prayer lives.

The natural starting point of an analysis is not the changes deriving from Vatican II in the 1960s, as important as they have been. The council’s preference for the vernacular, the movement of the altar forward towards the congregation and the engagement of the congregation with the priest has merely confirmed and added to the view that reverence for the presence of God is compatible with movement and personal interaction within the church building.

There was a fundamental change that predated the Council and is evident in the architecture of our churches from at least the early 1950s and maybe even earlier. Even allowing for the change in architecture to be explained by economics and our temperate climate it could not have occurred without a shift at the level of theology of prayer. That shift has continued until today the spiritual concept of an “interior life” has been redefined so radically that it almost no longer exists. The shift has accounted for a decline in other devotions also, ie the Rosary being the most obvious. What caused the shift is ambiguous but that it has occurred is undoubted.

Churches built in the 1950s allow for a dramatic increase in natural ventilation but what also is allowed is light.

Being a Brisbane boy I compare the churches of the late 19th century and early 20th century such as St Patrick’s, Fortitude Valley; St Mary’s, South Brisbane; St Brigid’s, Red Hill and many others with churches such as Holy Rosary, Windsor; St Finbarr’s, Ashgrove; John the Baptist, Enoggera; St Thomas’, Camp Hill etc that date from the early 1950s.

No longer is there a dark, mysterious, even gloomy, atmosphere or character about their interiors. Gone are the leadlighted narrow windows. Doorways abound through which air and light flood the sanctuary. The older designs reflect a northern hemisphere climate where warmth was a priority but they also reflect a desire to establish churches as places of quiet reverence, reflection, meditation. The leadlights achieved this through art worked into the glass patterns but they also created aids to meditation through filtering light into the alpha spectrum.

The closeted and mysterious precincts of these churches were considered essential elements for a prayer life that sought the presence of God in the innermost caverns of our hearts. So common was this view that being “prayerful” became synonymous with being withdrawn, downcast, self deprecating and silent! And being prayerful meant being on the journey of the interior life. Perhaps the theology came from a monastic influence. Certainly that was a spirituality practised in our seminaries until council times and encouraged well after it as well.

St Stephen’s Cathedral had all the features of the older style churches until the major renovations of the late 1980s. The architect’s brief reflects a major restatement of the theology of prayer by the archbishop of the time. The removal of the choir loft allowed light to stream through the western wall. The eastern wall has been constructed with a major glass installation framing the new Blessed Sacrament chapel. Light from outside literally overpowers you when present before the tabernacle. The effect is that meditation in the chapel is directed past the tabernacle. It is the glass wall beyond that demands awareness of and engagement with the outside environment. The unmistakeable message of the interior cathedral is that God is to be found in an engagement with the world through liturgy.

Therefore P. MacLeod is right to question the place of “silence” in prayer. I suggest the answer lay in providing Blessed Sacrament chapels that accommodate an emphasis on the interior life as traditionally understood. These chapels should be places of reflection, meditation and emphasise the search for God within our own hearts and dispositions.

This is not incompatible with a devotion that recognises the communal aspect of the Blessed Sacrament, often described as the “Mass held in meditation”. In return it would be easier to accept that we cannot escape the world nor Sunday gatherings complete with noise and movement.

VINCENT HODGE Paddington, Qld

Written by: Staff writers
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