Silence is considered an important monastic practice. Much ink has been spilled on the topic, including entire books, but is silence something just for monks to value? By no means! Into every life some silence should fall. Why? Because we are rational creatures, who need time to reflect, listen, absorb and be refreshed. Silence is a gateway to a balanced life.
If we talk all day or are bombarded with noise and distraction without end, as our culture readily and freely provides (think “the internet”), then we can easily become what Saint Paul calls a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). It is vivid imagery of a less-than-desirable condition. Monks and all who read this presumably desire to avoid such a state. Aren’t we looking for something entirely different from life?
Silence should be something positive, but it can also be a negative, if for example, I am silent for the wrong reasons. If I should speak up about injustice, abuse or other matters that need to be addressed verbally, and if I don’t do so, that is not a good silence. If I refuse to speak to others because I dislike them or have not forgiven them, that too is not proper silence. Perhaps I am not on “speaking terms” with a number of people. Maybe we all are to one degree or another, but we need to examine why.
The practice of silence in the monastic life is primarily about listening, and most especially, listening to God, in order to put God’s Word into action, with loving deeds and useful speech. At its best, silence quiets the senses, especially the thoughts that can dominate and even control our lives, even if my distracting thoughts normally go undetected to any one other than myself.
The ongoing and unending inner dialogue or monologue that goes on in one’s head has been described by Saint Teresa of Avila to be like the activity of wild beasts, such as “venomous reptiles,” she says. The Buddha described the matter of distracting thoughts as being like the chattering of a band of drunken monkeys. These are apt descriptions, at least from my short experience of nearly sixty-eight years of life!
The quieting of the mind is not easily conquered, but the cultivation of times and places of silence each day in one’s life is certainly a way to focus more on the “unum necessarium,” the one thing necessary: God’s Kingdom and immortal life.
In his extended essay for the brochure, “Come to the Mountain,” published by the Cistercian monks of Saint Benedict Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado, in 1964, Thomas Merton points out that silence, both external and internal, is a path to unity with God. Merton writes: “The mere ceaseless flow of words, sounds, images, and plain crude noise which constantly assails the senses of modern man must be regarded as a serious problem.” Though written over half a century ago, Merton’s words still ring true.
Monastic tradition holds that interior and exterior silence needs to be cultivated constantly by monks. This implies the striving to let go of over-clogged and unceasing thoughts that are useless and even harmful to one’s tranquility and connection with God. The need to open one’s heart to God’s message, especially as contained in Sacred Scripture should never be underestimated. Once again, this is something for both monks and non-monks alike. In essence, we are all on the same path to God. There are different means, but one goal, God’s Kingdom.
Those who cultivate silence, both internally and externally, are more open to being filled with something other than self and vain thoughts. Assertion of self, gaining attention, desiring to “be somebody” fades, recounting the call from Christ is to lose self in order to truly find self. Merton adds: “In order to be truly silent, one must get rid of the hankering for recognition, and cease to worry about whether or not one is making the right kind of impression—‘getting across.’”
Monks are not traditionally “news gatherers,” though that may well be changing with the arrival of the internet. On the other hand, even the silent monk needs to be concerned with others, in order to pray for them and sympathize with situations far and wide. In the present world climate, for example, he must know about taking precautions for the prevention of the spread of Covid -19. Expressed another way, the silence of the monk is never to be the image of the ostrich with its head in the sand!
Thomas Merton uses an apt image of the role of the monk when he writes in “Come to the Mountain”: “It is [the monk’s] function to be like the watchman on the tower who listens to the desert night for news from a different country. He must be keenly attentive to any message that comes from God, from whom [the monk] hopes to learn how to be transformed into a new person and to communicate secret and powerful grace to the rest of the Church.”
We may tend to think of silence as something penitential, grim and undesirable. It is good to recount that early on in monastic history silence was considered as something festive. The great feast days of the Church, which might be associated with levity and joy, were often the days of greatest silence, odd as that may sound. Days on which a monk or nun made vows, for example, were often kept as days of silence. So too the times between the death of a monk or nun and burial were often observed as times of special silence. This was considered not so much a time of grief, but as an opportunity to reflect in silence about one’s own mortality.
In “Come to the Mountain,” Thomas Merton concludes his thoughts on silence with the statement: “The chief function of monastic silence is then to preserve that “memoria Dei” [remembrance of God] which is much more than just ‘memory.’ It is a total consciousness and awareness of God which is impossible without silence, recollection, solitude and a certain withdrawal.” This also reminds me of a famous Latin saying:
“O beata solitudo, o sola beatitudo” (O blessed solitude, o sole bliss), sometimes attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who died in 1153, though it may well be from a later time. In any case, the idea is that in silence it is possible to find joy and peace.
In the end, silence is more than a practice, and can be thought of as a grace and a gift from God. Love of silence may not be an automatic thing, but something to be acquired over time and effort. Silence is often best found when the surroundings are also silent, as in a monastery. That does not mean, though, that silence is impossible when conditions are less than tranquil, as in an airport for example. Interior peace and relaxation, being open to hearing God is not confined to one or another setting. It should be possible everywhere!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB