But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.
See what love the Father has lavished on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
—1 John 3:1
Like many women, I carry a bag more akin to Mary Poppins’ carpetbag than to a typical purse. Part of this is a function of being a hobo. After all, the odds that I’ll be near my medicine cabinet when I need an allergy pill are exactly zero; I have no medicine cabinet, no bathroom, no home at all. So I keep everything in my purse.
There amid the lotion and painkillers and passport and pens and hair ties and Band-Aids and umbrella and lip balm and sunscreen and headphones lie a few things that serve my soul more than my body: my rosary, my Bible, and my earplugs.
That’s right: earplugs are actually more important to my spiritual life than my journal or any holy cards. Because while I take great care to spend time every day in silence in the house of God, this longing of mine to be still before him is anything but universal. In fact, there are many, many churches where the culture is such that the sanctuary is just a place to chat before and after Mass. Hence, earplugs. As the congregation files out and I take my seat, ready to spend some quiet time with God, I no longer resent everybody who turns to his neighbor to share this week’s goings-on. Some churches remain silent; for others, I have my earplugs.
I don’t blame people—or at least, I try not to. I know that many people have never even considered that the church ought to be a place of silence, often because they’ve never heard such a thing from the pulpit. And when it’s cold outside and there’s no narthex, I really do understand that fellowship is naturally going to take place in the church proper. But still I wish that we Catholics treated every sanctuary as a sacred place, a place reserved for silence and mystery and reverence and prayer.
I wish this for my own sake, of course, but I’ve got earplugs. I’m thinking more of those people—Catholic and non-Catholic—who’ve never been told that this room is any different. I’m thinking of a friend who was raised Protestant but began attending Mass on occasion with his girlfriend. The very first time he walked into a Catholic church, he was stunned by the silence. In his church, the sanctuary was essentially a fellowship hall until the service began, but here there was a sacred stillness. People who had been boisterous outside fell silent, genuflecting when they entered and falling on their knees before they took their seats.
That silence spoke volumes to him: this space was not just another room. There was something different here, something worthy of worship. That silence invited him to begin a journey that would end with his reception into the Catholic Church—all because people in God’s holy temple keep silence before him.
This isn’t the a fearful silence of a slave before his master, it’s the stunned silence of an adopted child basking in his new Father’s love. It’s a soul washed clean standing before her Lord, gasping, “See what love!” The silence demanded by God’s sanctuary is one of gratitude, of intimacy mingled with awe.
Far more often than not, I don’t feel this. I’m not struck by his presence, overwhelmed with gratitude, consumed by filial love. I frequently don’t have much to say to him. And yet I choose to live my belief that the presence of God deserves my attention, if only for the sake of those around me. I choose to be different in his presence.
So I invite you, friends, to take your conversations outside. If someone starts chatting with you, encourage her (in a whisper) to join you in the narthex. Before Mass begins, kneel and pray in silence as a witness to the power of a silent sanctuary. Perhaps the people around you will be struck by your reverence and recognize more fully the God who is present to us in the tabernacle. You may find that your example draws other people to silent prayer, too.
Until then, may I recommend earplugs?