Impressions of Rome: Silence in the City

Is it possible to find, enjoy and rest in silence in a city such as Rome? One would hope so, as silence is not so much a place or even an environment, but something that is almost indescribable but as real as one’s being, and theoretically achievable anywhere.

Over the years of traveling and being in “noisy places,” such as airports and especially here in Rome, being regularly on busy streets, in bustling train stations, on jam-packed buses or in music-blaring stores, I believe silence is still possible. Since silence is not merely the absence of noise, but an approach to life and to one’s environment, it is possible even in less than silent places, like the city of Rome!

I like what the late Father Romano Guardini, Italian priest, theologian and prolific author, who lived from 1885 to 1968, had to say about prayer and silence. In his book, “Prayer in Practice,” he writes:

“The mysterious place into which you must step if you want to get a hold of yourself does exist. Take the step and you will know it. It is not merely a place, it is a center of power; it is something quite distinct from that realm of your being which is constantly changing, fleeting and dissolving. It is substantial and everlasting. It is you; your self, your proper being. From there and through it you can still your unrest. There you can take root and be present; from there you can gather in all that is dispersed; lift the weight off the mind and lighten your darkness.”

These words certainly “speak to my condition,” as Quakers say. Adjusting to life in a huge city as a monk and priest, at least for me, at the age of sixty-four, requires much of what Guardini describes above.

In addition to the place where I live, Sant’Ambrogio, which has its quiet corners and times, including the house chapel, cloister garden and cell, the myriads of churches in Rome offer regular refuge from the busy city. A number of the churches, especially where I walk, are almost always open during the day, located on quiet side streets and rarely have more than a few, if any, people inside. They aren’t the more popular and frequented churches and basilicas, like Saint Peter’s, Saint Mary Major or Saint John Lateran. I must admit I usually don’t go to the heavily visited churches, but visit the quiet ones instead.

Because of their excellent rendering of Gregorian chant, I regularly attend Vespers followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at the Brigittine convent in Piazza Farnese, right next to the French Embassy. The thirty or so nuns chant the Opus Dei in both Latin and Italian, but all of it with Gregorian chant melodies.

Thirty years ago I rarely heard Gregorian modes with Italian words. Today it seems very acceptable and common, perhaps because the Gregorian tones tend to be much simpler and melodic than the modern tunes that were used with Italian in the 1970’s and 80’s. I am happy to see and hear the transition. We monks at Sant’Ambrogio also chant some of the Divine Office and Mass, in Italian and Latin, using traditional chant melodies as well.

To and from the Brigittine convent, just a ten or twelve minute walk from where I live, I pass no fewer than four churches, all of them beautiful and inspiring in their own way. In order of location in relation to Sant’Ambrogio, the first is dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo; the next one honors the Blessed Virgin Mary, followed by one dedicated to Saint Paul the Apostle and the final church to the Most Holy Trinity.

The chapel of the Brigittine nuns is the smallest of them all, though perhaps the most beautiful. I don’t stop at all the churches each time I go to the Brigittines, but visit one or another of them regularly. “Visit” usually means taking a few minutes to imbibe the atmosphere and offering a few prayers. Some of these churches are quite historic, like the one dedicated to Saint Paul, built on the site where the Apostle Paul is believed to have lived when he came to Rome for the first time.

Returning to the basic theme of silence in the city, Romano Guardini says that, “Before one even begins to pray one must begin with silence.” This may not be easy and actually hard for some. Just as at night, when we try to sleep, “cares and desires assail us with a force they do not possess during the day,” says Guardini, so too attempts to “be still and know God,” in silence and recollection, can be challenging.

The impact of distractions is something we probably all face and it shouldn’t surprise us. Taming such distractions, though, is a call, something we should pursue and persevere at. Otherwise, as Guardini says, “we shall never learn to be silent, let alone pray.”

Efforts to be silent are not wasted time. In fact, Guardini suggests, the pursuit of silence can be a form of prayer. Sometimes the term “prayer of silence” is used to describe such a state. Even when we feel we lack an inner unity to really be present to God, “something will have been gained,” writes Guardini, for in some way we “have made contact with that center which knows no distraction, where in silence we encounter God.”

I admit this happens for me more easily in a quiet space, such as a church or a beautiful garden, than on busy sidewalks. Even these should not be excluded as possible places of meeting the living God. That is part of what is called “the practice of the presence of God,” made famous by the French Carmelite friar, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.

Along these lines, there is a story from the Jewish Hasidic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries, recounted by Martin Buber in his book, “Tales of the Hasidim: the Later Masters.”

The story goes like this:

“A hasad (practitioner) told the rabbi of Katzek about his poverty and his troubles. ‘Don’t worry,’ advised the rabbi, ‘Go to your room and be before God in silence. Pray to God with all your heart, and the merciful Lord will have mercy upon you.’ ‘But I don’t know how to be silent or how to pray,’ said the other. Pity surged up in the rabbi as he looked at him. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘you have a great deal to worry about.’

The point is not to get us worried, but to encourage us along the path that leads to God, even in trials, rather than being obsessed with distractions and worry. This notion is sometimes expressed in the phrase: let go and let God.

Benedictines profess three vows: obedience, stability and conversion of life. The motto most often associated with the vow of “conversatio morum,” translated as “conversion of life,” is the phrase, “Always we begin again.” In Latin it runs: “Rursus incipiemus nunc et semper.”

The quote is not precisely found in the Rule of Saint Benedict, but it certainly sums up the notion Saint Benedict wants to convey for the essential vow of “conversatio morum,” beginning anew each day.

Contained in the vow of conversatio, conversion of life, and applicable to all who seek Christ, is the fact that we try or attempt at many things, including silence. We desire and strive to find a time and place for silence in our lives.

In reality we may succeed at it sometimes or even often, but sometimes or often we don’t succeed. Nonetheless, we can always begin again and lay a new foundation today, as the desert fathers and mothers often expressed the idea. This is a powerful and hopefully consoling gift to us from God.