The Stillness and Silence of Mass

When Holy Mass is properly celebrated there are moments in which the voices of both priest and faithful become si­lent. The priest continues to officiate as the rubrics indi­cate, speaking very softly or refraining from vocal prayer; the congregation follows in watchful, prayerful participa­tion. What do these intervals of quiet signify? What must we do with them? What does stillness really imply?

It implies above all that speech end and silence prevail, that no other sounds — of movements, of turning pages, of coughing and throat-clearing — be audible. There is no need to exaggerate. Men live, and living things move; a forced outward conformity is no better than restlessness. Nevertheless, stillness is still, and it comes only if seriously desired. If we value it, it brings us joy; if not, discomfort. People are often heard to say: “But I can’t help coughing” or “I can’t kneel quietly”; yet once stirred by a concert or lecture they forget all about coughing and fidgeting. That stillness proper to the most beautiful things in existence dominates, a quiet area of attentiveness in which the beautiful and truly important reign. We must earnestly de­sire stillness and be willing to give something for it; then it will be ours. Once we have experienced it, we will be astounded that we were able to live without it.

Moreover, stillness must not be superficial, as it is when there is neither speaking nor squirming; our thoughts, our feelings, our hearts must also find repose. Then genuine stillness permeates us, spreading ever deeper through the seemingly plumbless world within.

Once we try to achieve such profound stillness, we realize that it cannot be accomplished all at once. The mere desire for it is not enough; we must practice it. The minutes before Holy Mass are best; but in order to have them for genuine preparation we must arrive early. They are not a time for gazing or for daydreaming or for un­necessary thumbing of pages, but for inwardly collecting and calming ourselves. It would be still better to begin on our way to church. After all, we are going to a sacred celebration. Why not let the way there be an exercise in composure, a kind of overture to what is to come? I would even suggest that preparation for holy stillness re­ally begins the day before. Liturgically, Saturday evening already belongs to the Sunday. If — for instance, after suitable reading — we were to collect ourselves for a brief period of composure, its effects the next day would be evident.

Thus far we have discussed stillness negatively: no speech, no sound. But it is much more than the absence of these, a mere gap, as it were, between words and sounds: stillness itself is something positive. Of course we must be able to appreciate it as such. There is sometimes a pause in the midst of a lecture or a service or some public function. Almost invariably someone promptly coughs or clears his throat. He is experiencing stillness as a breach in the unwinding road of speech and sound, which he attempts to fill with something, anything. For him the stillness was only a lacuna, a void that gave him a sense of disorder and discomfort. Actually, it is something rich and brimming.

Stillness is the tranquillity of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it.

Attentiveness — that is the clue to the stillness in question, the stillness before God.

What then is a church? It is, to be sure, a building having walls, pillars, space. But these express only part of the word church, its shell. When we say that Holy Mass is celebrated “in church,” we are including some­thing more: the congregation. Congregation, not merely people. Churchgoers arriving, sitting, or kneeling in pews are not necessarily a congregation; they can be simply a roomful of more or less pious individuals. Congregation is formed only when those individuals are present not only corporally but also spiritually, when they have contacted one another in prayer and step together into the spiritual “space” around them; strictly speaking, when they have first widened and heightened that space by prayer. Then true congregation comes into being, which, along with the building that is its architectural expression, forms the vital church in which the sacred act is accomplished.

All this takes place only in stillness; out of stillness grows the real sanctuary. It is important to understand this. Church buildings may be lost or destroyed; then everything de­pends on whether the faithful are capable of forming con­gregations that erect indestructible “churches” wherever they happen to find themselves, no matter how poor or dreary their quarters. We must learn and practice the art of constructing spiritual cathedrals.

We cannot take stillness too seriously. Not for noth­ing do these reflections on the Liturgy open with it. If someone were to ask me what the liturgical life begins with, I should answer: with learning stillness. Without it, everything remains superficial, vain. Our understand­ing of stillness is nothing strange or aesthetic. Were we to approach stillness on the level of aesthetics — of mere withdrawal into the ego — we should spoil everything. What we are striving for is something very grave, very important, and unfortunately sorely neglected: the pre­requisite of the liturgical holy act.

Silence and the Word

We have discussed stillness in the presence of God. Only in such stillness, it was contended, can the congregation fundamental to the sacred ritual come into being. Only in stillness can the room in which Holy Mass is celebrated be exalted into a church. Hence the beginning of divine service is the creation of stillness. Stillness is intimately related to speech and the word.

This article is adapted from Guardini’s Meditations Before Mass.

The word is a thing of mystery, so volatile that it van­ishes almost on the lip, yet so powerful that it decides fates and determines the meaning of existence. A frail structure shaped by fleeting sound, it yet contains the eternal: truth. Words come from within, rising as sounds fashioned by the organs of a man’s body, as expressions of his heart and spirit. He utters them, yet he does not create them, for they already existed independently of him. One word is related to another; together they form the great unity of language, that empire of truth-forms in which a man lives.

The living word arranges itself onion-like in various layers. The outermost is that of simple communication: news or a command. These can be conveyed artificially, as they often are, by the printed word or by some sound-apparatus that reproduces human speech. The syllables thus produced draw their significance from genuine lan­guage, and they answer specific needs well enough. But this superficial, often mechanical, level of words is not yet true speech, which exists only in proportion to the amount of inner conviction carried over from the speaker to that which is spoken. The more clearly his meaning is embodied in intelligible sounds, and the more fully his heart is able to express itself, the more truly does his speech become living word.

The inmost spirit lives by truth, by its recognition of what is and what has value. Man expresses this truth in words. The more fully he recognizes it, the better his speech and the richer his words. But truth can be recog­nized only from silence. The constant talker will never, or at least rarely, grasp truth. Of course even he must ex­perience some truths; otherwise he could not exist. He does notice certain facts, observe certain relations, draw conclusions and make plans. But he does not yet possess genuine truth, which comes into being only when the essence of an object, the significance of a relation, and what is valid and eternal in this world reveal themselves. This requires the spaciousness, freedom, and pure recep­tiveness of that inner “clean-swept room” which silence alone can create. The constant talker knows no such room within himself; hence he cannot know truth. Truth, and consequently the reality of speech, depends upon the speaker’s ability to speak and to be silent in turn.

But what of fervor, which lives on emotion and emo-tion’s evaluation of the costliness and significance of things? Doesn’t fervor flow more abundantly into speech the more immediate the experience behind it? And doesn’t that immediacy remain greatest the less one stops to think? That is true, at least for the moment. But it is also true that the person who talks constantly grows empty, and his emptiness is not only momentary. Feelings that are always promptly poured out in words are soon exhausted. The heart incapable of storing anything, of withdrawing into itself, cannot thrive. Like a field that must constantly produce, it is soon impoverished.

Only the word that emerges from silence is substan­tial and powerful. To be effective it must first find its way into open speech, although this is not necessary for some truths: those inexpressible depths of comprehension of one’s self, of others, and of God. For these the experi­enced but unspoken suffices. For all others, however, the interior word must become exterior. Just as there exists a perverted variety of speech — talk — there exists also a perverted silence — dumbness. Dumbness is just as bad as garrulity. It occurs when silence, sealed in the dungeon of a heart that has no outlet, becomes cramped and oppressive. The word breaks open the stronghold. It carries light into the darkness and frees what has been held captive.

Speech enables a man to account for himself and the world and to overcome both. It indicates his place among others and in history. It liberates. Silence and speech belong together. The one presupposes the other. Together they form a unit in which the vital man exists, and the discovery of that unit’s namelessness is strangely beautiful. We do know this: man’s essence is enclosed in the sphere of silence / speech just as the whole earthly life is enclosed in that of light /darkness, day / night.

Consequently, even for the sake of speech we must practice silence. To a large extent the Liturgy consists of words that we address to and receive from God. They must not degenerate into mere talk, which is the fate of all words, even the profoundest and holiest, when they are spoken improperly. In the words of the Liturgy, the truth of God and of redeemed man is meant to blaze. In them the heart of Christ — in whom the Father’s love lives — and the hearts of His followers must find their full expression. Through the liturgical word our inwardness passes over into the realm of sacred openness which the congregation and its mystery create before God. Even God’s holy mystery — which was entrusted by Christ to His followers when He said, “As often as you shall do these things, in memory of me shall you do them” — is renewed through the medium of human words.

All this, then, must find room in the words of the Liturgy. They must be broad and calm and full of inner knowledge, which they are only when they spring from silence. The importance of silence for the sacred celebration cannot be overstressed — silence which prepares for it as well as that silence which establishes itself again and again during the ceremony. Silence opens the inner fount from which the word rises.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Romano Guardini’s Meditations Before Mass, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Romano Guardini


Romano Guardini (1885–1968) was ordained a priest in 1910. He was a professor at the University of Berlin until the Nazis expelled him in 1939. His sermons, books, popular classes, and his involvement in the post-war German Catholic Youth Movement won him worldwide acclaim. His works combine a keen thirst for God with a profound depth of thought and a delightful perfection of expression.

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  • Florian

    I used to try to get to daily and Sunday Mass early to prepare in prayer and quiet reflection, but there was/is so much loud conversation taking place that I prefer to remain outside until the time for Mass to begin. Often the loud speech and laughter come from the Priest and others in the Sanctuary. After Mass I used to remain but then, too, the loud conversations of people walking around, standing in aisle to chat (even if there is adoration of the Blessed Sacrament) becomes frustrating so I leave…it’s sad for those who come to Noon Mass during their lunch break…they seek a moment of silence before or after Mass before returning to the chaos of the work place but they too leave when there is so much chatter…I wish Priests would start the Mass and before finishing, speak of the need for silence and that conversations should be taken outside…people don’t mean to be so loud…they don’t realize that others are often desperately seeking moments of silence to listen to Our Lord physically present on our altars…someone should enable people to understand…

  • noelfitz

    Interesting article, but I wonder when was it written, was it pre or post Vat II?

    The key phrase for me was “To a large extent the Liturgy consists of words
    that we address to and receive from God”. At mass there are words, silence is not enough, the words need to be said.

    However reading this article I think of

    “Be still, and know that I am God!” (NRSVCE Psalm 46:10).

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Hi Noel,

    To answer your question, this was written before the Council, as most of his work was. It still has a lot to say to use who are in our present Liturgy, or even for folks who worship in a Byzantine/Eastern parish (such as the one I attend).

    And, yes, I thought of that passage while editing this piece. The emphasis on stillness is not always preached or heard but it’s something that I find more and more important as I go about my life.

  • Yankeegator

    So true… There is so much chatting before Mass and after…

  • Theresa Galante

    We too, find it difficult sometimes to pray after Mass because of the many distractions, but there is hope! It is possible to learn how to go within and focus so completely on the Mystery within that one forgets and does not hear anything around oneself. This probably comes from learning how to listen to Jesus during quiet times of prayer at home or in the chapel, etc.. A person who is dedicated to meeting Jesus daily in the quiet of their soul, soon finds that they are creating a spiritual place in the heart where they can always go. It’s hard to explain, but I have to tell those who feel nothing but frustration at being unable to meet Jesus interiorly while there is talking going on around them, that there is hope! Don’t give up! Practice quiet prayer in a quiet place daily or as often as possible and you will create within yourself a place where you can meet Jesus no matter what the outside situation may be like. St. Catherine of Sienna said, “Build yourself a spiritual cell that you can always take with you.” This is essential spirituality. We all have the ability to go within and shut out the outside world. We just have to make the place to go to. We need to carve it out by interior dialogue with the divine mysteries within. We are responsible for creating this space – it won’t just suddenly appear because we desire to go within. It’s an art, a creation, a continual building of an inner room. It is really the most important daily work we should be interested in doing since “the Kingdom of God is within”, How else are we to find the Kingdom of God if we don’t know how to go within our own spirit? And certainly, once we learn how to go within and stay within, what matter is it what goes on around us? When one is in a cozy home dialoguing with a beloved soul, what does it matter if the wind is howling outside? Or if one is at a party with the love of their life, what does it matter if a racket is going on around, if only they can sit and look into the eyes of their beloved? Don’t we naturally tune out everything when our attention is focused solely on a loved one? Well, it is the same with Jesus in our soul. We have to practice focusing on Jesus alone. At first, you will not hear His voice, but be patient. In time, your fixed attention on Him and your refusal to take your eyes of of Him, despite the clamor around, will bring it’s reward. You will soon start seeing Him with your interior vision and you will soon start hearing His Voice and feeling His touch and everything else will disappear.

  • Tantem Ergo

    I am so tired of the chatter pre/post Mass it is constant and everywhere, even at what are considered the more orthodox parishes in our area. I finally got up the nerve this Sunday and quietly crouched down to two older ladies who were yacking prior to Mass, about what Medicare wouldn’t cover, about a new senior exercise class starting. “Would you mind keeping your voices down, my sons are saying their pre Mass prayers”. They piped down, what sweet silence it was…until the Kiddie choir starts belting out a “look at me” hymn. Progress, but we have a LONG way to go.

  • Tantem Ergo

    Amen Dorrie, this isn’t being taught by our shepherds, the priest can make a simple “please observe silence” statement, but face the wrath….

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