Silence, Please

 St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Litchfield, Connecticut

St. Michael's Episcopal Church

Litchfield, Connecticut

Recently I attended an evening service - a  compline - at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Litchfield, Connecticut. A compline is the final church service of the day, in the Christian tradition of canonical hours.

It was dark and rainy that night, so I left home earlier than usual, planning to meet my friend.  When I arrived, I entered the church through narthex (foyer), framed by two sets of wooden doors with cast iron latches.  People coming in behind me spoke quietly, or not at all.

Inside the sanctuary, stone pillars marched up the side aisles, offset by a vaulted ceiling. Along the pews stood candles on tall candlesticks, leading my eye to the front of the church, where a large, round stained glass window drew me in.  The Gothic design of the window filled the space with its symmetrical intricacies.  I sat down on a cushioned bench along the rear wall and waited for my friend, happy to have a moment to absorb the beauty and hush of this place.

No one spoke.  The silence filled me with a spacious calm, pulling me backwards in time, to centuries past, to a recognition of the importance of silence.  To sit down and be still, taking in the peace of the church, was a blessing in and of itself.  The quiet, like a silent wave, seeped into my body.

My friend arrived and we found  a place to sit in the nave (body of the church).  She directed me to a compact book, The Common Book of Prayer (1547), which was King Edward VI of England's attempt to unify the Anglicans during the break from Rome known as the English Reformation.  We marked the compline section with an index finger, then watched as the choir, led by Music Director Marguerite Mullee, proceeded in from a door at the side of the altar.  The singers, a group of women completing a six-week chanting workshop led by Mullee, were dressed in black, accented by scarves of their choosing. They lined up in two rows facing each other, perpendicular to the congregation.  The priest followed, his upper body in a forward motion leading the rest of his body, as if in permanent supplication.

The service was short, less than a half hour, and those in attendance listened, and responded at the appropriate times, as indicated by the liturgy.  The choir sang unaccompanied; a capella means literally "in the chapel".  Their voices rose in the space, filling it with a sound that seemed ancient.

The compline is the "good night" service, an opportunity for the faithful to feel safe before they head off in the dark to their beds.  When it  was over, I remained seated while others immediately began to move, and to me even more disturbing, to chat.  It broke the spell woven by this brief entry into reverence and inwardness. I wanted to sink into the vibration of the silence, drawing it into my body and mind, allowing it to work its soothing renewal.  Although others moved out of the pews, I continued to sit with my friend.

The sanctuary was nearly empty when a man and a woman emerged from the side door carrying long-handled candle snuffers with large bell-shaped ends.  They walked up the center aisle together, coordinating their arrival at each candle. As they lifted their snuffers, their movements matched, so the flames were extinguished simultaneously. They glanced at each other before moving again.  As they passed us, I gave a slight nod to acknowledge their ritual.  I don't know if they noticed.

When they were done, I said a quick goodbye to my friend, then left, turning once on the way out to take in the glorious church.  As I walked across the damp lawn, the couple in front of me was chatting.  I kept my silence all the way home, not even turning on the radio.  I felt sad, and cheated of the opportunity to experience silence in a place that was designed for it.

Our society has never been comfortable with silence, and even less so now, when it is so easy and tempting to fill our minds and ears  with chatter, busyness, and distraction.  We avoid being with ourselves, avoid going deeper, avoid knowing ourselves and, if inclined, knowing God, or whatever you care to refer to the mysterious force that animates life.

I learned later that in many monasteries it is the custom to begin the "Great Silence" after compline, during which the whole community observes silence throughout the night until the morning service the next day. What a relief that would be.

Then a friend shared this quote:

"In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: "When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?"                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way

I love this description of silence as a "sweet territory", as a place, a space to inhabit, when I give myself the opportunity to stop skating across the surface of my life.

So my question to you, dear reader, is where and when do you find the "sweet territory of silence", and how does it serve you?