The Fight Over Silence

I like silence. My love of silence, like my love for the Church, is a fairly relatively development (compared to, say, my love of Harry Potter, which is a different passion yet still passionate). I prefer to go to Mass by myself on Sundays because I like to get to the church early for some quiet prayer and reflection before Mass and to stay after for more of the same. I also usually write in my spiritual journal during that quiet downtime. Lately, I’ve been so strapped for time and rest that I haven’t had as much silence as I used to, and I can tell that it has affected my spiritual life.

A few weeks ago, I read George Weigel’s column “Rediscovering the sounds of silence” in my local Catholic newspaper. I agreed with his overall message that we need to embrace silence more in our parishes. Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, MD, where my friend Lyzii was married two summers ago, has a big sign in the back of the church to encourage the practice of silence. It says, “‘My father’s house is a house of prayer.’ (Matthew 21:13) Please maintain silence while in the church.” It can’t hurt that there is not so much a narthex as a breezeway, so there’s no place to stand around and talk noisily after Mass, but the existence of such a sign is noteworthy. Sacred Heart is also one of the most love-filled, physically beautiful, oldest, and most orthodox parishes I know back home. Those people appreciated silence.

However, I disagree that parents with noisy children should be forced into cry rooms or encouraged to attend separate Masses. I believe that removing children from situations where they act out will never encourage them to learn to behave. It will just teach them that all they need to do to escape enforced quiet is to be noisy. When I make a threat to my students (“Do that again and you’ll get time”), I always follow through. Always. The first time I let something slip or try to be lenient, I lose my credibility entirely. The best way to teach children to behave during Mass is to keep taking them no matter how badly they misbehave, with appropriate consequences for such misbehavior. When they are old enough, they’ll learn that they just have to be good. There is no other option.

Obstinate children, therefore, should be taken to cry rooms or out of the main church. No parent should be forced to start Mass in the cry room. It’s not called the child room; it’s for crying children until they stop crying. The associate pastor at my old parish in Alabama told a story from his previous parish of a family with children over ten years old who came to an evening Mass, went straight to the cry room, and proceeded to eat a fried chicken dinner in that room throughout Mass. Cry rooms are supposed to be a concession to parents who want to respect the congregation’s right to a peaceful Mass but don’t want to miss Mass themselves, not a segregated space for all parents, all the time.

Similarly, children who fuss or coo briefly should not be taken out of the main church immediately. Such interruptions used to bother me until I reordered my emotions. When I hear a momentary noise, I pray, “God bless that child.” I wasn’t taken to church as a baby, but I used to be one, and I might have one (or more!) someday. Children aren’t silent all the time; they haven’t learned that behavior yet. Until they do, we would do better to show compassion toward them than to reject them altogether.

Child noise complaints aside, we would all do well to embrace silence. It’s harder to hear God when there is constant noise crowding him out of your heart.

(written with reflection on a similar reaction post at the blog Fumare)

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