Rediscovering the sounds of silence

We‘re surrounded by noise. At Miami International Airport recently, I counted five sources of noise—TSA announcements, airline announcements, airport announcements, muzak, and the ubiquitous CNN-Airport channel. And that’s before we get to squawking children, loud conversations, and passengers who address their cell phones the way Hitler “talked” to the Nuremberg rallies. Stores and restaurants are full of canned music; an NBA or NHL game is an exercise in noise-pain management; there is virtually no public space, outside art museums and courtrooms, where our aural senses are not under assault.

Churches should be different. To enter the body of a Catholic Church should be to experience a change in location: to cross a portal into a different kind of space than the space in which we live our daily lives.  Yet as I get around the country I can’t help but notice that the contemporary American noise culture has invaded and distorted what used to be understood as space in which we sometimes listened to God speaking in the sounds of silence. Chatter, if low-key, is constant, not simply in the narthex or vestibule (which is fine), but in the body of the church before Mass. Immediately after the recessional hymn is sung, the chatter breaks out again, often louder—despite many a choir’s noble efforts to sing a choral postlude.  The exchange of peace is another opportunity, rarely spurned, for the chatter to recommence.

And then there are the kids. The idea that crying babies or fussing children should not interfere with the celebration of Mass seems to have been lost on an entire generation of parents—and this, despite the (expensive) efforts of many churches to build cry-rooms.  Pastors who point out that fractious children really don’t belong in church during services are accused of callousness or (gasp!) insensitivity; parents have been known to leave congregations because the pastor, in the kindest possible way, reminded them that the cry-room was built for a purpose.

So here’s a suggestion for Lent, just around the corner: rediscover the sounds of silence in church.

Refrain from chattering with friends when you leave the narthex (I almost said “gathering space”!), and remind yourself that to cross the threshold between the vestibule and the body of the church is to pass one of those permeable borders between the natural and the supernatural that constitute the physical texture of Catholicism’s sacramental imagination: that way-of-seeing-things that teaches us that the extraordinary lies just on the far side of the ordinary.

Don’t begin chattering with neighbors as soon as the recessional hymn ends; preserve a dignified silence as you leave the church, as a reminder that we’re about to return to “the world,” as a gesture of courtesy to fellow-Catholics who wish to offer prayers of thanksgiving after communion, and as an act of respect to the choir singing (or the organist playing) the postlude.

Parents with small children: use the cry-room, if your parish has one; take the squawking kids out of the body of the church when they start caterwauling, if there’s no cry-room; or consider leaving small, fractious children at home, with the parents attending different Masses—a sacrifice, I know, but a kindness to others and a way to ensure that you actually get a chance to pray yourself.

Liturgists and organists: there is no need to fill every second of Mass with vocalized prayers, songs, or organ solos. The Roman Rite has always made room for silence; silence after communion is particularly appropriate. It doesn’t have to be all noise, all the time.

Recovering a sense of sacred space is as important as rediscovering sacred time in the renewal of the liturgy. All the more reason then, to welcome a splendid new book by Denis R. McNamara of the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary: “Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hillenbrand Books) Full of both insight and illustrations, McNamara’s new study is a reminder of what sacred space is, and why it ought to nourish an attentive listing to the sounds of silence.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.