Everyone in black. Precise movements. Dignity by both clergy and the people present. All the women in hats (of one sort or another). No one looking at a phone. Everyone dressed ready to meet the monarch. No one entering in a rush. Attentive listening to the sung words. No whispered small-talk and no fidgeting.
Those are my impressions from watching the funeral services for Queen Elizabeth II. It formed, in my mind, a decorous reception of and means toward worship. No doubt, this resonates with the culture of my Midwestern childhood—when folks ‘dressed’ for church and ‘dignified’ worship had a certain look. Those looks can be different in other cultures and generations. But that was, for me, how church was done back there, back then.
However, what really struck me was the silence. The silence in transition moments (from singing to speaking, or vice versa), the silence during some of the movements, the silence in the midst of reverential speaking, singing, and movement. And most of all, the two minutes of silence observed not only in Westminster Abbey, but also by those viewing outside the Abbey—and even in other countries. Reuters News headlined the “deafening sound of silence to honour Queen Elizabeth.”
The power and necessity of silence is not cultural or generational. It is especially biblical. “Be still,” says the Lord God. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 45.11). Only when we are still and silent, then, can we truly begin to know God, to pray, and to consider the Lord’s mercy. Especially in the midst of death. For, truly, what can we say when a person has died. We can only remain still and wait the Lord’s kindness in the midst of tears, His loving embrace, and His comforting word (even if it is a “still small voice” [1 Kng 19.12]).
Perhaps that’s why silence—specifically, a moment of silence—is associated with respect for the dead. It’s not so much about honoring the dead person. This practice lets us “both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3.26).
Silence is an increasing challenge for generation and our culture. We are addicted to distraction. Which explains why we have a hard time being still; and why silence—even during Mass—disturbs us.
Most pointedly, “we’re addicted to disturbance. We love to be disturbed. And if we haven’t been disturbed for the last 20 seconds, we find something to disturb us. Part of the soul pain and frustration, and even aggression, that that experience can release in people is an indication that, fundamentally, we’re constructed for a different mode of interacting with the world” (Bp Erik Varden).
The mode of interacting that we’re constructed for is not constant, non-stop interacting. We’re constructed and designed, by Our Lord God, to listen, think, contemplate, ponder, meditate, pray—all of which requires silence. Not total silence all the time, but at least some times of silence that are deliberate, unplugged, with no music (even church music) or sounds.
The Queen’s funeral gave millions a taste of elongated silence. A silence which we should cultivate, perhaps little by little, so that we might actually begin to hear God. Remember: we get to know God, and rejoice in His uplifting love, when we are still.
– Fr John W. Fenton