The vow of silence. It’s nearly as pervasive as the stereotype that all Italians are somehow involved in the mob or that everyone in New Jersey says “Joisey.” (After 25 years in this state I haven’t heard a single native say Joisey!)
When I saw a story about Ave Maria a short film about an Orthodox Jewish family in a run-in of sorts with Carmelite Nuns who make a vow of silence, I let out a sigh. I watched the trailer hoping I was wrong, and open to finding humor in the plot.
I tried, I really did. In order for something to be humorous, though, there has to be an element of truth in the situation. Ethnic humor is often funny precisely because, in an exaggerated way, it contains kernels of truth that we recognize.
Ave Maria isn’t funny. It is ludicrous because it is based on a premise that isn’t true. Nuns and monks don’t make a “vow of silence.” We never did and never will. Popular culture, especially movies, want us to because it helps to depict this radical way of following Christ as crazy and stupid. Nuns are made to look like hare-brained, infantile adults.
Monastic men and women have a practice of silence — not because speech is bad but in order to help us to speak better! We are by nature social beings who communicate. As one of the Sisters in my community has observed, it’s usually easy to be charitable with others if we never see or interact with them. In the cloister, that is impossible.
The practice of silence is really a courtesy of community life that facilitates each person in listening to God, who — more often than not — comes to us as a tiny, whispering sound (1 Kings 19:12). If our minds are a cacophony of distractions and voiced thoughts, we may miss the Bridegroom when he stands at the door of our hearts and knocks. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Monastic men and women, by limiting conversation, attempt to create that balance.
So why don’t we make a vow of silence if it is such a good thing?
Silence is a good but not necessarily a greater good. Talking with our brother or sister is sometimes a better good. More often than not, misunderstanding is the result of a lack of communication or poor communication. Talking out the problem often helps us to understand.
The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is the Word of God, the utterance of the Father. This “one Word” “leaped down from heaven, from his royal throne” in the stillness and silence of the night as a tiny, helpless infant to redeem us and reveal to us God’s merciful love. In becoming man, the Word speaks in a way we understand, redeeming the yes of the garden with the yes of Mary’s “Fiat.”
That is why so much of the “speaking” of monastic men and women is reserved for proclaiming the Word, coming together as many as seven times a day to praise God with his own Word through the psalms and readings of scripture. Abbot Louf wrote, “The Word of God seizes our heart so as to enable it to seize the Word in its turn” (In the School of Contemplation, Cistercian Publications, 2015). For the Word to so capture my heart so as to recreate and convert it, silence is necessary both interiorly and exteriorly.
Despite depicting the monastic life as banal and wasteful, the world actually craves silence even as it craves relationships. Our instant modes of communication are mad and desperate attempts to fill the deep loneliness of the heart that no created thing can fill. More often than not the excessive communication available through multiple devices and social media are no different than the novice in Ave Maria, substituting wild gesticulation for real, meaningful speech.
Lent is here, a perfect time to introduce more times of silence in our lives. And if we do, on Easter we will hear the Risen Lord call out our names in the garden and we will respond, “Rabboni! Speak, your servant is listening!”
Sr. Mary Catharine Perry, OP, is Novice Mistress at the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, in Summit, NJ.