As fellow Catholics slowly start to be allowed to return to Mass in Ireland, it is important to take stock of where the faithful have found themselves over the past year, and where they will find themselves going forward. To do so, one must look back as in doing so, the path going forward is illuminated.
One event stands out in resonance, on the 28th of March last year, the Holy Father sat in a deserted St Peter’s Square and recited the “Urbi et Orbi” blessing to the world. The picture of the successor to St Peter alone in a deserted square was without question visually stunning. The square in which he was sat, is traditionally the opposite picture to that which the viewer was presented with, namely a packed square filled with the faithful. The uniqueness of the picture ought to resonate with those who in that moment saw themselves in the Vicar of Christ. The choice of words in his homily enabled the faithful to share in his prayer, saying to those watching, the following:
“We find ourselves afraid and lost,” going on to say that a thick darkness fills “everything filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by”
The reason as to why the faithful saw themselves in the Holy Father is that they saw the image of a follower of Christ praying alone. Not only did he pray alone, but he prayed in an environment devoid of sound, as he alone resided in the square. As such, it had been the first time a viewer had seen the leader of the Catholic Church praying alone. The shared communion of a prayer with the faithful has been robbed from the image. The usual cacophony of noise that joins an open-air blessing or in the more localized service of a Sunday mass was not present in this setting. Instead, post his blessing we were met with silence.
The previous days, weeks, and months have seen churches closed, and restrictions in place when churches have been opened intermittently. The consequence of these restrictions is that the Christian has now had to learn to pray alone, and in the silence.
Why should we find this problematic? The oft quoted thoughts of Pascal sum up our predicament, ‘”All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,”. We may find this true in our own lives. In prayer, one hears one’s own internal voice and can sometimes feel embarrassed as often our daily speech is articulated in the presence of others. As such we catch the after effect of our own cadence as our speech’s intended recipient is another. When such a reciprocal experience is deprived, we hear our own voice in echo and become aware of ourselves. As Aristotle remarked, ‘man is a political and social animal’, in doing so revealing a truth that has surely resonated when mutual communion has been deprived. It is also why we may struggle with personal prayer as we can hear the intentions of our heart more clearly. We hear ourselves communing with the divine which is surely of greater value and importance than our normal daily speech.
So how do we pray? One can find numerous pieces on the subject online and in the relevant bookstores. It speaks to Augustine’s truism that ‘our hearts are restless until they rest in you’. The restlessness can be understood in private pray as the social aspects of mass and communal prayer in this instance have been removed, we lose the priest’s responses and guidance. Our fellow parishioners are absent, music is removed, and we are in silence. Like children, we are lost. It need not be so. We must remain to silence as his eminence Cardinal Sarah notes in The Power of Silence:
“Silence is not an absence. On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences. In modern society, silence has come into disrepute; this is the symptom of a serious, worrisome illness. The real questions of life are posed in silence. Our blood flows through our veins without making any noise, and we can hear our heartbeats only in silence”
If we follow Augustine, then we ought not feel the suffering when in silence but immerse ourselves in the communion with God. It is no surprise that mindfulness, effectively prayer without the God label has became fashionable. Continuing, The Power of Silence notes:
“God’s being has always been present in us in an absolute silence. And a human being’s own silence allows him to enter into a relationship with the Word that is at the bottom of his heart. Thus, in the desert, we do not speak. We listen in silence; man enters into a silence that is God.”
The truth of this is echoed in Christ’s refusal of the devil’s temptations. Where does this occur? When Christ is alone and in silence in the desert’s wildness.
How does the modern viewpoint see the desire of Irish Catholics and indeed Catholics worldwide to have Mass freely available absent of restrictions? Maybe odd, a harkening to an outdated vision for a country in the 21st century. Both are possible summations. Certainly not echoing the truth of French philosopher, de Maistre ‘Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists’. Accordingly, if emerging forward out of a pandemic, the faithful must find a new truth, then let it be the following, “Without silence, God disappears in the noise. And this noise becomes all the more obsessive because God is absent. Unless the world rediscovers silence, it is lost. The earth then rushes into nothingness.”