In my first Aleteia article, I discussed in a general way the role of contemplative monasticism in the life of the Church. In this and in several forthcoming articles, I wish to look more deeply at certain principles of the monastic life and describe how they can be fruitfully applied in ways in the lives of lay people living in the world.
"Silence: More than the absence of speech."
Here I wish to discuss the practice of silence. Contrary to popular imagination, monks and nuns do not take a "vow of silence." Rather, silence is a discipline and a custom of monastic life to which the monk conforms himself. He lifts his voice in song with his brother monks throughout the day in the Divine Office and in the daily community Mass, but other than that, he speaks only as necessary in the course of manual labor or other such instances of necessity. When he does speak, he does so only in certain locations of the monastic enclosure where speaking is permitted. Additionally, this practice of silence extends beyond speech, and indeed beyond sound, to encompass a detachment from all manner of sensory distractions. The monastery, in the Trappist tradition, is a place of subdued color, hushed voices, and deliberate motion.
It would be a mistake to think of this broad practice of silence merely in terms of deprivation or as a sacrifice; although there is an undeniable penitential, Lenten aspect to monastic life, silence is not treated as an end in itself. It is, rather, a way of entering more deeply into the sacred, into the mystery of God’s love for us. By being silent, by being still, by eliminating extraneous distractions in the form of chatter, electronic gadgetry, music, videos, and other forms of "noise", one can begin to experience new things. The senses become more attuned to ambient nature sounds, such as the rainfall, or the wind in the trees, or the song of birds at daybreak; smells, like that of bread, or fresh-cut grass, or the incense used at Mass, all take on a new intensity. In the silence, you begin to experience a deeper sense of connection to Creation, and a deeper understanding of yourself and of God.
"I do not give peace as the world gives it."
It is crucial to mention that this silence can be disorienting and even terrifying at first. So often we like to believe that our problems and worries are caused by factors outside of ourselves; if only we could get away from that annoying coworker, or the distressing nightly news report, or the chronically-ill family member we could be at peace. From this mindset, a period of silence seems like a perfect respite, a time of relaxation. The silence, in fact, can have the opposite effect: with the outside distractions stripped away, one is left to confront one’s own pride, or envy, or greed, or resentments, or whatever else might be concealed under the cover of constant stimulation found in the world.
"Peace," as the world gives it, could be envisioned as relaxation: I could be at peace sitting on in a beach chair under an umbrella, or camping on a mountaintop, or fishing on a still lake early in the morning. The peace found in the silence of the monastery, however, is a deeper peace: it is not a state of relaxation, but rather one of hopeful activity. There is a surprising exertion to be found there: waking at 3 a.m. in order to pray the Office of Vigils, spending several hours in solitude in the cell to read the Scriptures, the periods of manual work. In the midst of this exertion, brought about by observing the schedule of prayer, of silence, of solitude, one experiences a sense of being in the midst of a great battle against one’s own weaknesses and sins, as well as the spiritual forces of temptations. Here is where monastic peace, the otherworldly peace that Jesus gives to his disciples is found: it is the calm assurance of his presence and unfailing protection in the midst of this great battle.
"I have a devotion to the voice of Jesus."
Those who have been trained for many years in this battle, such as the monks of New Melleray Abbey, exude a deep sense of this peace. They move and speak with a calm deliberation. Nothing is either rushed or unnecessary, such that when they speak, they have a tendency to speak plainly about matters of great importance that do not ordinarily come up in conversations out in the world, such as death. They also casually share the fruits of their spiritual lives in conversation.
During my most recent visit, I was invited to participate in a brief Bible study with the novices and two senior monks. We were discussing the Mass readings for the following day, and when it was his turn to share, Fr. Alberic said, "I have a devotion to the voice of Jesus. i try to imagine what it must have been like to hear him preach, to hear the sound of his voice."
This remark led me to think of all the times throughout the Gospels we read words such as "Jesus said to his disciples" or "Jesus said to the crowds." From there, I began to think of all the times throughout the Scriptures we encounter God speaking: from the burning bush to Moses, through the voices of the many prophets, through the Psalms, and in one of the most beautiful instances, in the still, small voice to Elijah. And so we see that God speaks to us, sometimes with a voice that shatters the cedars, or raises the dead, and other times in a whisper. In order to hear him, however, we must turn away from our distractions and defenses that we put up between ourselves and him.
Although we who live out in the world cannot keep the same schedule or observe silence in the same way as the Trappist monks do, we can use this time of Lent especially well by setting aside, to the best of our abilities in our particular circumstances, a period of daily silence to meditate, or to read Scripture, or simply to be still, listening ever for the voice of Jesus calling us to be close to him. It might be difficult or uncomfortable at first, but in time you, too, will come to find his peace.
Colin O’Briencurrently works in the Communications Department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and has previously worked as a litigation paralegal in New York City. He completed a six-week observership with the Trappist community at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa in spring 2013, and is affiliated with the monastery as a layman through its Monastic Center program. He periodically updates his personal blog, "Fallen Sparrow," and also sings in his parish choir. Colin is a native of Minneapolis and studied philosophy at the University of Minnesota. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area.