‘Silence is golden’, we say. And we can agree that silence can have more eloquence than any words, serving (as Francois De La Rochefoucauld said) ‘sometimes to approve, sometimes to condemn; there is a mocking silence; there is a respectful silence.’
But what is the role and value of silence in Christian prayer and worship?
In the Middle Ages, silent prayers were added to the liturgy, and these were taken up by the Tractarians, and in the Roman Ordo. The Alternative Service Book of 1980 introduced times of silence into the orders of service.
Some Christian communities keep silence after the reading of Scripture, and such times are seen as ‘waiting on the Lord’ in prayer. Silence has, of course, an important role in Quaker worship.
Outside of formal church services, many people appreciate the quiet stillness they experience in chapels, churches and cathedrals. Some seek the disciplined silences of retreats.
Some would view silent prayer as a deeper form of communion with God than vocal prayer, ‘until we reach the stage when meditation and contemplation take over and the spiritual life is “hidden with Christ in God”.’ (N.W. Goodacre, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, art. ‘Silence’)
Silence in prayer and worship may be regarded as befitting our role as finite creatures, as we seek to approach an ineffable God. It may also be seen as a protest against ‘poor talkative little Christianity’ (especially in its Protestant expressions) and the noise and business of the modern world.
But what says the Scripture about silence in prayer and worship? Surprisingly little, it seems.
There are, of course, commands to ‘be still’ before God. The best-known of these is found in Psalm 46:10 – ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. This expression is sometimes taken to a sort of fatherly pat on the head (‘There, there, everything will be alright’). Alternatively, it is understood to recommend silence before God. Neither of these understandings fits the text very well, however. The injunction ‘is not in the first place comfort for the harassed but a rebuke to a restless and turbulent world: “Quiet!” – in fact, “Leave off!”‘ (Kidner, who adds that is resembles the command to the raging sea). So also in Hab 2:20 and Zec 2:13.
In some translations, Psalm 62:1 is about waiting for God in ‘silence’ (NEB, ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV). In context, the attitude is one of calm and unworried trust, rather than silent contemplation. No doubt there is much here to instruct and encourage the one who prays, but it is pushing it too far to turn an attitude into a liturgy.
It is certainly true that Scripture warns us against wordiness in prayer. We are not, says our Lord, to prattle on like pagans, who ‘think they will be heard because of their many words’. Jesus tells his hearers: ‘Your Father knows what you need before you ask him’. But our Saviour then goes on to teach a prayer which is precisely a prayer of words, and not a prayer of silence (Matthew 6:5-13).
Then again, the apostle Paul refers to the ‘resounding gong’ and the ‘clanging cymbal’, but again it is not in order to advocate silence but in order to ensure that whatever words we use are spoken in love.
In Rev 8:1, we read that there was ‘silence in heaven for about half an hour’. This has been understood as suggesting ‘reverence in the presence of God’ (N.W. Goodacre). That may be so, but it is very far from constituting a prescription for silent prayer.
None of this is intended to denigrate to value of silence in the spiritual life. But it does suggest that we ought not to elevate it to the level of a universal virtue.