“Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence…”
∼ T.S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday
One of the truly awful torments of modern life, from whose myriad aggressions no one is entirely safe, is noise. More and more, it fills the space that was once marked by that silence whose absence we seem increasingly not to notice. Nor even, it seems, to mind, so accustomed have we grown to ever higher and more intrusive levels of din. Indeed, so often are we in flight from silence, so quickly do we turn up the volume, that one might think the work of suppression part of a larger strategy to deflect the emptiness of our own lives. Thus the ambient noise allows us not to think, to leave unattended the whole inner life, which we might otherwise activate, were there only enough silence to encourage the exercise.
“We are no longer able to hear God,” warns Pope Benedict, “when there are too many different frequencies filling our ears.” Where the decibel levels are so screamingly shrill as to drive all the silence away, it is no surprise that his presence goes undetected. So where does one go to escape the din? And if such places actually exist, will it cost very much to stay? For how long? The writer Pico Iyer, author of a number of studies on the subject, tells us that he regularly disappears into the silence, sequestering himself every three or four months in a small monastic cell about a thousand feet above an ocean. Why does he do it? He goes, he tells us, “to become another self, the self that we all are if only we choose to unpack our overstuffed lives and leave our selves at home.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It is obviously something very important to him, this entering into the silence. Where, effectively removed from the noise and the clutter of the daily round, he ventures with the utmost daring, “to lay claim to a mystery at the heart of me.” And I know just what he means, having myself spent a number of days in a comparable state of silence; I too found it wonderful and welcoming. Of course, unlike Mr. Pico, who finds himself seasonally ensconced in a monastery whose faith he does not share, I can’t imagine a setting both silent and yet without recourse to God. Except for the fact that Mr. Pico is free to come and go as he pleases, his situation strikes me as not much different from solitary confinement in a prison. The silence is undeniably there, all right, but it leads to a fixation on the self that seems, well, solipsistic.
So on what terms of incarceration do I spend my silent stretches? Well, the last time around, it was the result of an invitation to speak to a community of Cistercian monks, who had asked me to come and give a series of conferences on the spiritual life. Here are men who take the vocation of silence with utter seriousness. Their monastery, located high in the mountains outside Salt Lake City, had been founded in 1947 by a handful of Trappists from Gethsemani, Kentucky, determined on building a contemplative outpost in the heart of Mormon country. It was the aftermath of the Second World War, and among the GIs returning home, many having experienced firsthand the futility and horror of battle, there were some, a heroic few, who sought enlistment in a discipline more demanding even than the Marine Corps. It was holiness they were after. Unending intimacy with God. But it had to be pursued in a setting surrounded by, immersed in, silence. How else could they seek and find that Sounding Silence of which all the great mystics speak? There, amid the stillness, they would, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion….”
And so it happened that a small contingent of resolute young men belonging to the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, headed west in search of God. Throwing up a couple of Quonset huts for themselves, they set about in the spirit of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the order’s most celebrated member, to rediscover the joys of twelfth-century religious life.
So what was it like living among medievals in a world rendered blessedly mute save for the movement of the wind outside, the lovely lilt of music and prayer inside? It was as if time itself had stood still. Will heaven be like this? I wondered. In his moving encyclical On Christian Hope, Pope Benedict provides a glimpse—a sudden, luminous glint, as it were—of the joys that may await us on the other side of silence.
To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists … such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.
And while we do not as yet possess this life, we nevertheless feel ourselves drawn to it in the silence that beckons, soliciting us by its benign and gentle grasp to let go, “to put off” (again, the words of Eliot come to mind):
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
Can this happen without silence? Is it possible to acquire this repose of the soul, never mind how imperfect, unless there is silence? Certainly we long for it, and even in the midst of its noisy absence we feel ourselves drawn towards it; but without some conscious effort to create a space for it, nothing will happen. “A condition of complete simplicity,” is how Eliot describes it. And the cost, he asks? It can never be less than everything.
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
So, yes, it will take some getting used to, this business of finding time for silence. A lifetime at least. But the effort will be worth it, providing as it must the setting for that necessary and salutary cultivation of the soul on which the life of holiness depends. And what really is silence but a whole world in which the spirit is set free to commune, not simply with its own deepest self, but with God himself. He Who Is.
Which is pretty much what the twenty or so monks living in Utah have been about all these years. Of that original group that began sixty or more years ago, not many have survived, and those who have, along with a handful of others who signed on later, all looked pretty long in the tooth to me. The abbot, for example, a most agreeable young man in his early seventies, told me the average age was just over eighty. I’d have put the figure rather higher than that. (Between conferences, I will confess, I could never be quite sure if anyone would survive.) Still, it was the oldest ones, those closest to the end of their journeys, who impressed me most. I think of dear Brother Felix, for example, who, God willing, must be in his late nineties by now. What a lovely man he was! Bent and gnarled by age and illness, his sight virtually gone, I watched him day by day moving in a sort of rhythmic silence from station to station, in a Via Dolorossa that had become his life.
And what will the fate of the monastery be, if fresh recruits cannot be found? Will God supply the need? He surely did seven centuries ago when the charism of Cistercian life found concrete expression in over five-hundred abbey churches strewn about the countryside of Northern Europe by the year 1300. Another one-hundred-and-fifty arose in the following century. “It’s a matter for prayer,” the Abbot says, his voice bespeaking a confidence borne of his own intense life of prayer.
All things being possible with God, I’d put my money on the monks. After all, isn’t prayer the thing they do best? And inhabiting, as they feel themselves obliged to do, a whole world of silence, the perfect medium for the life of prayer could scarcely be improved upon. Yes, I do believe God will reward such faithfulness to prayer with renewed life and vocations.