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:
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…