Sunday, February 21, 2016

Music and silence: how I hate them both!

So exclaimed Screwtape, the devil imagined by C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters. Music and silence have a lot in common, and it is something which enrages the devil.

Matthew Schellhorn, pianist and the LMS Director of Music for London, is this week exploring the relationship between the two on the Catholic Herald website. Here's a taster.

January 2016 saw an appeal from Cardinal Sarah for a “high-quality liturgical renewal” involving silence as a fundamental component. We need to respect silence in the sacred liturgy as “a Christian ascetical value”, a “necessary condition for deep, contemplative prayer”. Sarah asks: “If our ‘interior cell phone’ is always busy because we are ‘having a conversation’ with other creatures, how can the Creator reach us, how can he ‘call us’?”
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Should you require it, you can even buy a mobile app that allows you to listen to exactly four and a half minutes of silence on the go. (You really cannot make it up.) That is 2016 for you, but what is really revealing, however, is that Cage felt that his piece would be “incomprehensible in the Western context” when he “wrote” it in 1952. Because, funnily enough, four and a half minutes or so is about the time of absolute silence we experience during the Canon of the Mass in the Usus Antiquior, the traditional Latin Mass. In other words, this length of silence proposed by Cage to classical music audiences in the mid-twentieth century was of a length commonly experienced daily by millions in the Western world at that time.

But, sadly, it may be that silence in the Mass was not understood well enough for us to register its sheer normality and naturalness. TheCatholic Encyclopedia of 1908 gives us the “mystic reasons” for the profound four-and-a-half-minute silence in the traditional Mass. The silent prayers are “thus shown to be purely sacerdotal, belonging only to the priest, the silence increases our reverence at the most sacred moment of the Mass, removes the Consecration from ordinary vulgar use, and is a symbol of our Lord’s silent prayer in the Garden and silence during his Passion”. Moreover, “the Ordinary to the Sanctus, with its lessons, represents Christ’s public life and teaching; the Canon is a type of the Passion and death – hence it is said in silence. Christ taught plainly, but did not open his mouth when he was accused and suffered.”


See also the FIUV Position Paper on Silence in the Mass, which quotes Pope St John Paul II (Spiritus et Sponsa (2003), 

One aspect that we must foster in our communities with greater commitment is the experience of silence. We need silence ‘if we are to accept in our hearts the full resonance of the voice of the Holy Spirit and to unite our personal prayer more closely to the Word of God and the public voice of the Church.’ In a society that lives at an increasingly frenetic pace, often deafened by noise and confused by the ephemeral, it is vital to rediscover the value of silence. The spread, also outside Christian worship, of practices of meditation that give priority to recollection is not accidental. Why not start with pedagogical daring a specific education in silence within the coordinates of personal Christian experience? Let us keep before our eyes the example of Jesus, who ‘rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed’ (Mk 1: 35). The Liturgy, with its different moments and symbols, cannot ignore silence. 

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