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Becoming Silence – Kevin Hackett

We Brothers occasionally host local elementary and middle schools students for tours of our chapel when they are studying the Middle Ages.  The aspect of those visits I enjoy most is watching the hush fall over an otherwise chattering bunch of children as they enter the chapel. No one has to tell them to be quiet—they simply become still as they cross the threshold from the claustrophobic echo chamber of the narthex into vast openness of the slightly darkened chapel. It’s as though the space itself commands a certain kind of respect to which silence is the intuitive response. Which is fitting, because for most of the day, this space is silent. We Brothers use it for our corporate worship, but that accounts for only about 2 ½ to 3 hours on any given day. The rest of the day—and night—this space is silent, reserved for prayer.

After one class had come for a visit a couple of years ago, we received a thank you poster in the mail. Each student had written their words of gratitude for the visit, but one stood out. It read: “Dear Brothers, I really like how quiet your Monastery is. How do you do that? Sincerely, Cecily.” How do you do that indeed!  It was as though this child sensed that the quiet, the sense of stillness, the silence she experienced somehow took effort. Which it does. And which is why we call it a practice.

The practice of silence: practice, meaning something that is done routinely, as in habitually or normatively; or something done repetitively in an effort to improve facility, skill, and familiarity. Both senses pertain here. Silence is a practice that requires intention and discipline because it is most certainly not normative in most of our lives. It requires intention and discipline in practice because most of us have become habituated to a relentless, endless barrage of stimulation and noise (audible, visual, mental).

Thomas Merton, writing in 1946, observed that “we live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit, and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible.”

Now, to set that observation in context, in the years immediately following World War II you should know that fewer that 7,000 televisions were privately owned in the entire United States, and most of those were concentrated in three large East Coast urban centers. A majority of homes had a single radio, but again, unless you were in a large urban area, you probably had dependable access to two, possibly three stations, few of which had programming on the air for more than 12 hours a day. The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look were the major nationally popular magazines of the day. Several major cities had more than one daily newspaper, but rural area sometimes waited as much as a week for a current paper or stack of papers. A majority of homes did not yet have telephones, and those that did were almost always a party line (and if you even know what that is, you are likely to be of a certain age).

In ways he could never have guessed, Merton was playing the prophet. He wrote when there was no world wide web, no Internet, no email, no IMs. No Microsoft, no Windows, no Apple. No FEDEX, no Express Mail, no UPS Overnight. No cable, no satellite, no pay-per-view, no 795 channels for your viewing pleasure. No cell phones, no texting, no Blackberries, no PDAs, no Bluetooth, no Netflix, no DVDs, no VHS, no Betamax. No MP3, no iPods, no CDs, no LPs, no 45s, no 8-tracks, no cassettes. No AM, no FM. No malls, no outlets, no mega-stores, no convenience stores, no superstores, no supermarkets, no supermarket tabloids, no lottery. We could go on for hours, naming the ways we keep ourselves amused and stimulated.

I think it is no wonder that so many crave silence, which is in some sense, I think, a pre-primal legacy, and somehow, our souls remember it, as though it’s written in our spiritual DNA. Before there was time, before anything was spoken into being by words, before any of that, there was silence. There was unrealized potential. There was God. The appeal of this, it seems to me, is that in silence, before there is any speech, including God’s, anything is still possible. Silence may well be the most comforting place we can turn when we are in need of hope and perspective and solace, especially in troubled times, when frankly there isn’t a lot that can be said.

My brother Mark tells me that a more faithful rendering of Psalm 62—rather than “for God alone, my soul waits in silence” would be “before God, I am silence.” Note that it is not “I am silent” with a “t” but “I am silence.” “Before God, I am silence,” and therefore, anything is possible because when God speaks, whatever God says comes into being. When we posture ourselves before God as silence itself, we become the void and receptive medium of God’s ongoing work of creation. It puts is in a position of listening, and listening deeply.

We Brothers are often asked if we take a vow of silence. Strictly speaking we do not—our vows are poverty, celibacy, and obedience. But then, we understand that third vow to be far less about doing what you are told than it is to be about listening deeply to what is being said or asked. We can see of force of this in the etymological root of the word obey, from the Latin, ob, which is “to” and audire, which is “to listen.”

Listening has been central to the monastic tradition from the beginning. The desert fathers and mothers were men and women of few words, which is why when they did speak, it was worth your while to give ear and pay attention. Why else would pilgrims venture into the hostile desert that was their home?  And why else did those who came to see them write those words down so they would not be forgotten? St. Benedict builds on this tradition is his Rule, beginning, “Listen, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”

The fact that Christianity has from the outset been more concerned with proclamation than attentive listening complicates our relationship to silence, I think. There are notable exceptions, of course, but on the whole, when the Word became flesh, language took on a fresh urgency for those who believed Jesus to be the very Word of God in human form, who then bequeathed his words to his followers: tell, teach, proclaim, confess—these replaced  listen, hear, be still. And that legacy is with us still today, affecting how we are in relation to God, to one another, and to silence itself.

In most parish settings, for instance, if there is silence in worship, it usually doesn’t signal awe or mystery or openness; rather, it probably means that someone has forgotten to do something—a reader is not at the lectern, an organist has missed a cue, a singer has forgotten to come in. And people become very uncomfortable! Or consider the language of corporate prayer: how often do we direct God to “hear our prayer,” reversing the order of things entirely! How different would our prayer be if we were to name our concerns and then pray, “Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.”

In Mary Oliver’s poem, “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” she says in the first stanza:

I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray.

Which is to say, removing the words, fancy or otherwise, creates the first necessary condition for silence, which in turn enables prayer without for  language, sign, or deed. Which is not to say that God is not present in language and sign and deed, because clearly God is. But we see in Jesus, God’s speech reduced almost to a whisper, with his avid avoidance of signs for the sake of signs. While a few people understood who Jesus was and what he was doing, the vast majority did not, including most of his closest followers. No one was expecting God to be present in the person of a carpenter from Nazareth. It just wasn’t—what—showy enough.

Which is part of the problem for Elijah. To be fair, he’s just come from a very, very flashy event, with God delivering the fiery goods on his soaked sacrifice in front of Jezebel’s priests of Baal. And high from the rush of smoke and burning fat, he sets about killing them all—which was not exactly what God had in mind, so, he finds himself a fugitive in the desert, running for his life. The Sinai is a pretty brutal landscape, and survival there is no sure thing.  So Elijah is hoping that God will deliver again on that power thing, and for a while, it looks like it might happen, though God is not in the roaring wind, nor in the earthquake that splits open the rock, nor in the raging lava-flow fire that follows. Elijah is understandably confused—and frightened. He has come to expect God to speak and behave in a very particular way, and this is not it. He was expecting a clear sign, an unmistakable message. After all, it had come packaged that way before.

But not this time. This time God’s presence and voice comes cloaked in the sound of sheer silence (no still small voice of calm). Sheer silence where we face all that is light and dark, in ourselves and in the world.

“I really like how quiet your Monastery is. How do you do that?” The answer is simple. We practice. Do we always get it right? No, but we keep practicing. We practice silence here at this Monastery—and endeavor to offer it to others. We practice silence here, as my Br. Curtis often says, not because there isn’t a lot to say (sometimes there is) but because there is so much to be heard. It takes practice to make peace with the wild beasts that we are likely to encounter in the desert of our own hearts. It takes practice to discern the difference between God’s will and our will. It takes practice to recognize and quell the chattering of the disordered loves and attachments that try to command the attention and devotion that rightly belongs to God.

It takes practice to become silence, the open pregnant void, into which God speaks some creative life-giving word. If you have not yet undertaken some spiritual discipline this Lent, there is still time. Why not practice silence? Why not be still and become silence. You’ll probably be amazed by what you hear…

Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, p. 133.

Mary Oliver, “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” Thirst (Boston: Beacon 2006), pp. 26 – 28.

© 2009

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14 thoughts on “Becoming Silence – Kevin Hackett

  1. Then I came home last night after a class for lay chaplain training at Bishop Anderson House –a class session devoted to “active listening”, to listen to this very thoughtful SSJE sermon by Br Kevin on silence. And it resonated with me so strongly, in part because of my strong positive reaction to the first exercise of our class, where we had mimed our thoughts and feelings. I liked putting that experience into a spiritual context. Someone in the class had commented after our teacher’s first presentation, that he had created a space of intense listening, in which it seemed that he and the speaker were alone in the room, even though we all sat in a circle around them. So, I really liked Brother Hackett’s observation that they work really hard at the Monastery at creating a silent, sacred space –that this is part of their practice, and they are still working to get it right. I liked that he observed that the discipline of silence that the monks have is not common in the everyday world. I spend a lot of time as a recluse and in silence, and I’m always amazed at how I can feel so easily over-stimulated and stressed if I spend a good deal of the day with people. And then he quoted Thomas Merton, “we live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit, and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible.” I think it is because in general we live at such a high pitch, that last night people in the class were really drawn to this “active listening”. They want to slow down. They want their thoughts to be heard above the cacophony of the every day noise. They want someone to sit silently and listen –really listen. Brother Hackett stated, “Silence may well be the most comforting place we can turn when we are in need of hope and perspective and solace, especially in troubled times, when frankly there isn’t a lot that can be said.” I think this is powerful, because it makes silence a very full and sacred space. And I liked Brother Hackett’s realization that “…when the Word became flesh, language took on a fresh urgency for those who believed Jesus to be the very Word of God in human form, who then bequeathed his words to his followers: tell, teach, proclaim, confess—these replaced the listen, hear, be still of the Hebrew bible. And that legacy is with us still today, affecting how we are in relation to God, to one another, and to silence itself.” But Brother Hackett advocates for the being still, for the listening, for the being prepared to hear. After spending the evening in class learning this new way of listening, it was really nice to come home, listen to Brother Hackett’s sermon, and think about how we had shared a very spiritual evening really trying to listen to one another.

  2. I have started a class Holy Space – Holy Time at my Church (St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.) I started the first class by having us listen to Br. Kevin’s amazing sermon. Thanks you so much. Next, we learned about Centering Prayer.
    Shalom ….. Stuart.

  3. Thank you Brother Kevin for a very meaningful and thought provoking sermon on silence . . . how much we need to make time and to take time to hear all there is to be heard. Appreciated very much your suggestion to wonder about our response to the prayer litanies to “speak Lord, your servants are listening” instead of “Lord hear our prayer” . . . doesn’t He always hear us?

  4. Becoming silence. I can’t imagine a more worthy goal. To be so empty and still that a wounded soul would feel safe in releasing painful memories and burdens too great to bear. To be so yielded to the Holy Spirit that a gentle touch, soft eyes, and a reassuring smile become prayers through which healing flows.

  5. Over a year and a half and God is still working His will through this sermon! What a blessing to read and to share with others. Thank you for listening so well.

  6. This is a sermon I will always keep close at hand. I just enjoyed it for the first time today on A Daily Word, and look forward to sharing it with several other dear friends, a couple of whom seem never to have enjoyed the richness of silence. Thank you for repeating this sermon.

  7. Perfect message for today. Thank-you Brother for the reminder of the need to practice, practice, practice being ‘silence’ in the presence of God.

  8. I have always loved “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” I am reminded of a favorite story about an old French peasant who goes in to the village church every day and sits for a while. One day, the priest approaches him, remarking that he never sees the old man pray or light a candle or say a rosary. The old man replies that he just sits and looks at God and God sits and looks at him and they both feel better. Maybe that has something to do with “becoming silence”.

    Thank you for affirmation that often to be is to do. And even the most exquisitly beautiful words, welcome as they can be, can only intimate the Presence.

  9. I have always loved “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” I am reminded of a favorite story about an old French peasant who goes in to the village church every day and sits for a while. One day, the priest approaches him, remarking that he never sees the old man pray or light a candle or say a rosary. The old man replies that he just sits and looks at God and God sits and looks at him and they both feel better. Maybe that has something to do with “becoming silence”.

    Thank you for affirmation that often to be is to do. And even the most exquisitly beautiful words, welcome as they sometimes are, can only intimate the Presence.

  10. I have been struggling with “being silent” for a pretty good while now. Being “silence,”. . . what a provocative and challenging insight! Thank you, Br. Kevin.

  11. I wasn’t looking forward to the silent retreat we had at the monastery prior to my deaconate ordination. It seemed awkward to me at that time. However, as the retreat progressed I began to appreciate the need to be in silence. We’re now intentionally including silence at different points in our worship services.
    After spending three weeks in meditation at both Hindu and Christian ashrams in India, I am now, more than ever, a believer in our need to be in silence to experience God who is within us. Br. Kevin, thank you for this insight and affirmation. As I write this, I am at a Christian Ashram in Bangalore, India experiencing silence and God’s presence.

  12. thanks kevin for those words. i think that that is something we have to keep trying. i know i have asked john different times about it. i find it hard to meditate and i think all i can do is just to keep trying. jane

  13. My priest recently gave us church business cards to distribute. The card shows a burning candle with the words “Be still, and know that I am God.”
    Psa. 46:10. We cannot talk while being still. In being still, I am able to be
    more aware of His presence.

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