Listening to the radio one day, I heard my friend (who was the DJ at the local station) announce the next song, and then, rather than hearing the song begin, I heard silence; only a faint hum from the speakers. I waited about a full minute, and then quickly called her on the phone. "Did you forget to start the song?" After about a minute more of silence from the radio, she came on and said "So sorry about that couple minutes of dead air; we had a technical glitch here. We're back on track now, and here is the song you were expecting to hear."
Notice her terminology, "dead air". That is the way we think of it: "dead". Silence is not always appreciated today. I can think back a number of years when elevators, doctor's office waiting rooms, and a few other establishments were about the only places that you would hear piped in music (and that stuff was enough to cause waves of nausea). Much of the rest of the world was generally left peaceful (by comparison). Today, it is a different story. Now we have multiple video screens in the grocery store aisles, music over the loud speakers, and a flood of noise that is overwhelming. It is as though store owners think that we are unable to purchase their products unless we have a million noisy distractions to keep us from realizing we do not need most of the stuff they are forcing on us.
Silence is a forgotten beauty. Yes, most people still appreciate the silence of a quiet walk in the woods, or quietly watching a sunset, but that is a rarity rather a common event. Whether it is those who cannot go far without their ipod, those who are always watching or listening to something on their "smart" phone, or those who leave their radio on constantly in the car and the TV on constantly at home, we have been immersed in constant sounds.
This "noise inundation" is so much the case that when people come to the Mass they expect the same kind of thing. If the purification of the vessels after communion takes a minute or two, most people get fidgety if they do not have some music playing or the cantor singing something to them. This is not because it is "wrong" to have that moment be quiet. Rather, it is due, in most part, to the fact that we are so used to having "background noise" that silence almost seems like a bad thing; like "dead air". What are those moments of silence in the Mass supposed to be for? It may shock some people, but it is for personal prayer, meditation, and adoration. Those who refuse to engage during the Mass if there is a moment of silence are showing that they are not truly engaged in "active participation" in the first place (a vital requirement of the Second Vatican Council!).
This point is difficult to get across to modern day Catholics for two main reasons: first, we have become numb to the overwhelming flood of noise and entertainment that is constantly thrown at us; second, our spiritual disciplines have largely become flaccid. Put these two factors together and we find that people cannot "see the forest because of the trees"; or to put it another way, "they cannot recognize silence because their is so much noise". Let us look, therefore at a few extra sources to help us see the truth, goodness, and beauty of silence.
In the Catechism we are told that, "Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life." Interesting, is it not? We are not actually being told about the Mass, rather we are being told about the entire day of Sunday. It is supposed to be a day when we have some "silence", which grows our "Christian interior life". Here we are told that silence, in itself, has a value. It is not merely "dead air", but "living spirituality". That is quite a radical difference from our modern perspective. If Sunday as a whole should have some silence, then who are we to imagine that it is wrong to have some silence in the celebration of Mass itself?
When we are in the Mass, our every act, our every word, our every thought, should be directed toward the worship of God Almighty. That is what the Mass is all about: an interaction between God and man wherein He gives us His love, and we love Him in return. The Catechism further discusses what it means to "adore" God while in His presence. We are told that, "[a]doration is . . . respectful silence in the presence of . . . God." Those words should have great weight on our hearts: "respectful silence". In other words, the Church is telling us that there is such a thing as "DISrespectful silence". What would that look like? Let me fathom a guess: looking at your watch; checking your phone for a new text; heavy sighs; glancing around the Church to see what others are doing. These are forms of disrespectful silence. Respectful silence is, on the other hand, that genuine adoration that is given to Christ because of His amazing love for us, His unworthy servants.
It is not as though the Church made these ideas up, though. The wonderful truth about silence before God was stated many times in various ways in Scripture (both in the Old and New Testaments). One of the authors of the Psalms tells us of his devotion to God in terms of silent waiting (something very difficult for people who are used to instant foods and super fast download speeds). He says, "[f]or God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation (Psalm 62:1)." Silent waiting; an amazing concept when we live in a society that abhors "dead air".
In the prophet Zephaniah we find, not just an example, but an actual command. "Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests (Zep 1:7)." The context of the verse cannot be more clear. When we approach God for the performance of sacrifice (as every Mass is), then we should recognize that there is need for some silence. It is hard for me to imagine that a brief five-second pause between the homily and the creed is sufficient to cover this (especially since the General Instruction for the Roman Missal says that this is merely for the purpose of reflecting upon the words of the homily!).
The prophet Habakkuk gives us another reference to the importance of silence in the context of worship. Although he does not use the word "presence" in this verse, the point cannot be missed. "But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him (Hab 2:20)." His temple from the Old Testament has been done away with, and will never return. His temple, now in the New Covenant, is every Church where the body of Christ is reserved in the tabernacle. When God is "in" the temple, there is a need for silence. This is not saying that we should never speak or sing when in Church. There are numerous references in Scripture that tell us of the need and importance of voices praising God. Yet, right along with that truth is the truth that silence has a place; it is a place where we cannot allow ourselves to be the center of attention, and we can allow God to speak to our individual souls.
This is not, however, only something that is to be practiced while here on Earth. Even Heaven itself recognizes the importance of silence. In the book of Revelation, there are numerous references that point to the actions of worship in Heaven (in fact, much of the book of Revelation is a description of what is going on in Heaven while there are trials here on Earth). There are millions of angels singing, there are people bowing prostrate before the Lord, there are creatures making testimony about God's greatness (all quite noisy events), and, there is one reference that specifically says that all in Heaven were silent for a time. "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour (Rev 8:1)." Half an hour; ponder that for a moment! Have you ever been completely silent for 30 minutes except when sleeping? Certainly there are a number of ways to do this, but the best would be in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (no prayers, no readings, just silence before God).
This brings me to my final point. At my Ordinariate community of St. George, in Republic, Missouri, we have times during the Mass where there is merely silence; part of the offertory, during communion, and during the purification of the vessels, there are times of extended silence. These are times when we intentionally do not have music playing, or a psalm being chanted. This is not because we are a small parish and do not have the means to develop a full choir or schola, it is because silence has value and beauty in itself. This is needed even more today than it was in days past when it was more common; precisely because of the noisiness of society (physically and spiritually). In God's house there is never "dead air"; there is "living silence", offered up for our spiritual benefit, and for God's glory.