Silence can have many different meanings in our lives. We might be silent when we are concentrating, needing to get a task accomplished that requires intense focus. Silence provides the necessary space for attention. Silence can be a helpful way to disengage from negative conflict, for example, in holding our tongue when a colleague speaks negatively of others and we are tempted to join in and gossip, but choose not to do so. Silence can be a way of simply being at ease with another person, for example, the close friend or family member where talk is not always needed because the comfort of the other and their simple physical presence is enough. There are negative sides to silence, too, for example, when silence is used as a means of control in “giving someone the silent treatment”: typically, people who engage in this sort of silence fear conflict and have a strong need to exert control and avoid emotional complexity. Or silence in the face of social injustices, such as racism or xenophobia, when we ought to speak but remain indifferent is a kind of secondary participation in such injustice.
This morning, though, in the midst of a long period of silent prayer, I thought about the relationship between silence and reverence. Silence can also be a way of holding God, ourselves, and others in reverence. The philosopher Paul Woodruff has defined reverence as “the capacity to feel awe, respect, and shame, when these are the right emotions to have.” When we enter church and find silence in the period of time before worship, for example, it allows us to be internally and externally reverential of God and more deeply aware of the grace of God’s presence in the community of believers. We can also hold one another reverently in prayer. As a former director of mine used to say, prayer is relationship. So, when we pray for another and lovingly hold the thought of a person in God’s love and light, we reverence the good of their very being. Words are not always necessary, since in reverence, we respect the mystery and good of another in ways beyond the capacity of words to capture. Instead, we pray and allow the Spirit to intercede for us, as St Paul says, “in sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).