Monastic Practices Silence


“Monastic silence, meant to facilitate conversation with God, drives some to talk with themselves.”  C Cummings

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It is a cloudy morning after a bright sunrise today.  The moods of the countryside change many times in one day here in the Monastery in Eresing Germany half way between Augsburg and Munich.  Last night I sat on a park bench in front of the Monastery General Store (where they sell all their food and products from the farm).  In front of the store is a huge wheat field that is just beginning to ripen.  Last night the clouds were slowly rolling in with the brightness of the Sun as it made its final turn to the west filling the entire area with Golden warmth.  It was glorious as the birds sang their evening praise before the sun went down.  It was such a deep contrast to the daily and hourly sirens we hear in the city of Los Angeles of firetrucks, ambulances, and police cars.  It was Silence in it’s best and most wonderful form because it was natural.  No meditation app on the i phone, no running plugged in water fountain, natural and heartwarming silence. 

There is a lot of Silence in the Monastery.  There is the silence of the early morning, when one wakes from a night sleep, as the monks awake to the ringing of the bell calling all of them to Vigils and Laudes.  There is the silence of walking in the halls with little or no conversation as monks pass by each other in their daily routines.  There is the silence of the Refectory where everyone eats and listens to a small portion of the Rule of Benedict, the list of Monks who are celebrating names days or birthdays, and those who have died since the foundation of the Monastery on this day.  There is the Silence of Nature that surrounds the Monastic setting, the wind, the birds chirping, the sound of cows mooing and geese gaggling and roosters crowing.  This silence of the Monastic setting is a harmonious dance between gentle  noise and sound.  It is not interruptive but woven into the silence of time and space.  There is no silence without noise.  It is the deep contrast and tension between the two where God comes to meet us. 

Thomas Merton wrote alot about both Solitude and Silence even though I wonder at times whether is was much a part of his own character.  For a hermit-monk, he had a lot of visitors and loved chatting and picnicking with friends and frequently found time here and there to go to the local pub for a drink.  At the same time Merton cherished Silence to no end, and made it clear that there was NO substitute for silence in the Monastic life.  His silence too, was the ongoing conversation between natural silence and natural noise, not contrived, or mechanical, or imposed. 

Damaging Noise, the opposite of natural silence, fills much of our daily routine in life.  Damaging noise is not only external, but internal.  It comes in the form of media, the written word, the spoken word, and the inner conversations that go on inside us constantly.  It appears in the emotional upheavals that we frequently engage in while we are in traffic, or in heated discussions with others, or even when we are reading or checking the latest News or Facebook posts.  It comes in forms of “hard news, fake news, terrorism, tweets, criticism, violence to the innocent, and economic struggles for survival.”  This noise goes immediately to the Spirit and begins to stifle, and destroy.  Even at a personal level says our author there is damaging noise.  “At the personal level of self, my ego raises an inner clamor by its aggressive and ambitious drives, its tendency to manage, control and organize all of life for it’s own glory.” This is the noise of the inner spirit always in conflict with itself and with it’s exterior forces. 

For those of us who are not always used to silence, it takes time and energy to enter into the beauty of this stillness.  It should never be forced or harshly imposed.  Silence is as natural as the sun rising and setting or an afternoon rain.  It just is.  What we are called to do as Monastics and as Christians is to slowly peal away the layers of noise that keep us from listening to the presence of the Living God in our midst.  Sitting down every afternoon alone with a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit, may be the first place we can begin to find that natural silence.  Night time is always a good place to allow silence to penetrate our inner and outer noise since all of us tend to slow down and decrease our activity after sunset.  Early mornings as we slowly get our bodies back into activity are also good moments to enter into silent reflection.  When we are bathing or taking a shower, when we are in the intimacy of our bathrooms in the morning with our personal hygiene.  Monasteries nearly always have Silence built into the daily schedule and life.  Even so, a Monastery can be a very busy and noisy place if there is not a conceded effort to make room for silence.  At one monastery I was visiting there were phones on each floor of the monastery and every time someone rang to call the community the phone would blast the same odd tune to some well known classical piece of music.  Even so, it was a constant distraction in the Monastery.  Perhaps office hours or someone who could answered the phone in an enclosed room would have been better. 

Evelyn Underhill wrote for one of her retreats, “It is not Christian to leave the Mystery out.”  Cummings writes, “Monastic silence in its fullest reality is not simply the absence of noise but the presence of a reality too great for expression.  The monk or nun senses in the silence a mysterious depth, substance, density, richness, presence.”

One of my discoveries while on retreat has been the inner noise of the ear that I experience when I am alone, that I am not aware of when I am busy and active in my everyday life.  I have been so much more aware of my “hearing” during these days in the monastery.  Then of course there is the inner voice, that is almost always active. But as soon as I begin to concentrate on my breath and breathing, silence quickly begins to pervade my body again.   

Making Room for Silence

It is not easy to make room for silence.  There are little rituals that can help us to create more places of silence.  Taking a walk and just listening to the natural noises around the neighborhood,  sitting in a chair in front of a burning candle and an icon or sacred picture near by, drinking a cup of coffee or tea in a relaxed way, not looking at our I-phones or seeking distractions.  Remember the 1960’s song, “Silence is golden, when my eyes meet you.”?   Probably not.  But there is the silence of lovers and friends that imitates and leads us to the Silence between God and ourselves.  I always admire for example, the expression in the face of our pets when they see us.  There is a profound “connection” between them and us when they look into our eyes.  This is particularly so with dogs and their owners.  Yet dogs rarely speak or make any noise unless they are warning you of an intruder.  These are all clues for us to find and make room for silence in our daily living. 

“As we mature in monastic life, we grow accustomed to silence, feel more comfortable with silence, come genuinely to love silence.  The silence around us becomes a silence within us, and the silence within meets and merges with the silence of God.”  C Cummings

Be still, and know….that I am God (Psalm 46:11)

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