One of the questions that I get asked as a monk quite often when I travel around is, “Are you a silent order?” Kind of a difficult one to answer. No – we don’t take a vow of silence, and we do talk quite a lot. But silence is a hugely important part of our monastic life. Guests sometimes say – “Oh, being silent – is that sort of part of the Brothers’ penance?”
I say – No – we like silence. I would go so far as to say, that for those who come on retreat in our guest houses here and at Emery House, the greatest gift we have to offer is the gift of silence. Why is silence important; such a gift? Because it is when we are deeply silent, that we are able to hear another voice speaking – the voice of God.
Today’s first lesson from the 1st Book of Kings is one of my favorite ones. Poor Elijah is scared stiff of being killed by Jezebel, and so he flees deep into the wilderness, all the way to Mount Horeb, the mount of God. And it is in that place, after 40 days and 40 nights of fasting, that he encounters the living God. He was told that the Lord was about to pass by. There was a great wind, so strong it was breaking rocks in pieces – but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake. There was a fire – but the Lord wasn’t in the fire. And then came the sound of sheer silence – and in sheer silence he encounters the numinous, the otherness of God. And he has to hide his face before the Holy One.
There was God – in the sound of sheer silence. It sounds a contradiction – an oxymoron. How can God speak in silence? It is a contradiction – until you know it to be true. The sixteenth Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross famously said, “God’s first language is silence. Everything else is a poor translation.” It was only in that deep silence that Elijah could truly hear the Lord God speaking to him.
Coursing through all the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures there is this urgent call to be silent – and then to listen. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God….” The prophets plead again and again, “Hear O my people, listen to me….” “O my people you have shut your ears to the words of my mouth….” The Psalmist cries out in Psalm 81 “Hear O my people, and I will admonish you: O Israel, if you would but listen to me.” For Israel, the beginning of change, of conversion, of healing, came through listening.
That wisdom is at the very heart of monastic tradition. The very first word of the Rule of St. Benedict, which has been the guiding principle for Western Monasticism for fifteen centuries – the very first word is Obsculta – listen.
So, I wonder what part does silence play in your life? Do you enjoy silence? Can you tolerate silence? It is incredibly difficult to find a place of silence. So often the way we live our lives – frantic, non-stop – even when outwardly silent, so much is going on inside us: loud voices, drowning out God’s quiet vice.
For Benedict, as for the Old Testament prophets, the way of conversion was primarily through listening – carefully and deeply – with the ears of your heart – to the word of God. And in order to listen, we need to keep silence.
The SSJE Rule states: “Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation. Technology has intensified our risk of becoming saturated with stimuli.” (Ch. 27)
Think about your own life. Where do you weave silence into the fabric of your daily life? When there is silence, do you instinctively turn on the radio or the TV, or surf the net? If God seems distant or uncommunicative these days, maybe you’re simply not listening? God doesn’t shout. God’s first language is silence. Maybe in your prayers you are doing too much talking, not enough listening?
So how might you deepen your own experience of silence and listening? One of the most famous pieces of wisdom from the fourth century desert monastic wisdom is to “Go into your cell and stay there – and your cell will teach you everything.” Your cell is a place without external stimuli where you are forced to go deep – not stay on the surface with comforting distractions. In Matthew 6 Jesus says, “Go into your room and close your door and pray to your Father…”
The great mystery is that God in Christ dwells in the very depths of our souls. But to reach these depths requires silence and disciplined listening. The noises of the world and the clamors of the self must be stilled. But when we practice the presence of God, and become inwardly silent and listen with deep attention, then we too may hear the sound of sheer silence in all its fullness and all its energy – the creative word that gives us life.
In her beautiful and deceptively simple poem “Praying,” Mary Oliver writes:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
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