Monastic silence

I made an allusion to silence in my previous posting, and I would like to qualify this badly understood word. It figures with a high profile in the Rule of Saint Benedict:

Let us act in conformity with that saying of the Prophet: “I said I will guard my ways lest I sin with my tongue; I have put a bridle on my mouth; I was dumb and was humbled and kept silence from good things.” Here the prophet shows that if we ought at times for the sake of silence to refrain even from good words, much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin. Therefore, on account of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be rarely given even to the perfect disciples, even though their words be good and holy and conducive to edification, because it is written: “In the multitude of words there shall not want sin.” And elsewhere: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” For to speak and to teach are the province of the master; whereas that of the disciple is to be silent and to listen. Therefore, if anything is to be asked of the superior, let it be done with all humility and subjection of reverence, lest one seem to speak more than is expedient.  Buffoonery, however, or idle words or such as move to laughter we utterly condemn in every place, and forbid the disciple to open his mouth to any such discourse.

The world is a noisy and stressful place. We hear a constant hubbub of the sound of machines, human conversation and what passes for “music”. It crosses the air and can be heard even from remote country areas. Nowhere is free from the world’s noise, except perhaps the sea. The sea is wonderful, because at about one league from land, no land noise is detectable to the sailor’s ear. The sounds we now hear are parts of the boat creaking or clanking against each other – which is why I prefer wooden spars to aluminium ones. There is the splashing and gurgling of the water under the boat’s hull, but these are natural sounds. We have entered the cloister of God’s presence. Silence and harmonious sound are very difficult to find.

Monastic life life is often caricatured by monks being portrayed as communicating with sign language and making a vow of silence. The “vow of silence” exists in no community I am aware of, and most monasteries allow “Brother Aidan, please pass me the hammer” or “Have you got a 14 mm spanner for this nut under the tractor engine?“. Then all monasteries have recreation times so that monks can have normal conversation and express friendship, go for walks or engage in sports. Silence is not the absence of sound or of human communication. It is a sense of reserve and economy of our words. Silence is the condition in which we can find prayer and contemplation. We focus on God by shutting out the chatter and noise intended to distract us and prevent us from getting to the essential. When we are parsimonious with words, we will be less likely to commit sins of detraction and calumny!

No religious community practices complete suppression of speech, and even the Trappists have done away with sign language. Speech without sound is no more silent than using your vocal cords and tongue in audible speech. Saint Benedict was concerned with unnecessary and superfluous chatter and talk. I always find the same scene in the supermarket – a group of five or six people so deeply engrossed in conversation that they block the alley and are totally unconcerned for people who might want to get through with their shopping trolley. The conversation seals them into an utterly selfish reality. It is striking. And when there is not enough speech, then there is the boom boom boom of hard rock, techno, or whatever they call it these days.

Here is what Abbot Delatte said about the spiritual value of silence:

When all noise is stilled, imagination becomes less active, thoughtfulness and prayer more easy. In the secret places of our souls there is produced an effect like that which result from the coming of the Angel of deliverance, described in the Book of Wisdom and applied by the Church to the coming of our Lord: “While all things were in quiet silence and the night was in the midst of her course, thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne…” (Wisdom 18:14-15).

There he hits it on the head. The problem is not one of communication or the enjoyment of music (real music I mean), but the role of the imagination. The imagination can make us go very wrong when it becomes sinful. We have to learn to let go, empty ourselves out and let God take over. Our souls need to be that little bit of the sea, far enough away that motorcycle engines and car horns can no longer be heard, and where the little voice can be heard. I discover that silence is about being down to earth and attending to the matter in hand. The word monastery comes from the Greek word monos meaning one. We learn to concentrate, shut out the irrelevant and get right down to the bottom of something. It can be done.

Silence and ordered harmony are precious, and are rare commodities. At least for me, silence is more of a gift than a constraint.

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2 Responses to Monastic silence

  1. James Morgan says:

    Amen, Amen, Silencia. Good post, Father
    \Other than that I will not speak.

    Rdr. james

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