There was a Sunday afternoon when I was a child that I sat my mother down and demanded to know about life and death, where babies come from, and where we go. When my mother had answered all my questions to my satisfaction, I announced, “I’ve learned a lot today,” and left the room confident in my grasp of existence.
To say I’ve “learned a lot” from the Brothers, from the other interns and residents, from the time spent here in prayer and silence, would be a simplification of the same sort. To give in to my tendency to itemize and label each “revelation” and new awareness seems to me to be my thirty-three-year-old version of that same seven-year-old confidence: an only slightly more grown up “I’ve got this.”
During the nine months in the Monastic Internship Program, I always found it difficult to answer the question most commonly posed by guests during Sunday talking meals: “Why are you doing this program?” I think one particularly taxing week I may have responded with, “I heard there was treasure buried under the Chapel.”
As an adult, I haven’t been blessed with the same gift of certainty I had as a child. I cannot claim many affirmative statements about God, myself, or the world. I entered the Monastery with a list of questions ranging from the subject of theodicy to the definition of love. I guess my response to the guests’ repeated question should have been that I came here wanting an index of answers, one monolithic truth about who and what God is, a tremendously long, Roman-numeraled outline entitled “How to Be a Human and Do This Whole ‘Life’ Thing.”
But better than a great big cosmic sense of “I’ve got this” was the invitation to get comfortable in uncertainty. And more relevant than a clearly delineated blueprint of reality were often the quiet truths couched in the negative. “Love is not coercive,” a Brother told us interns. “Force is not of God,” a hymn repeated. And finally, from a James Martin, SJ book we read as a group, words that now speak to me from three Post-It notes on my mirror, “You’re not God. This isn’t heaven. Don’t be a jackass.”
Besides my being sleepy, my most intense experience of my time at SSJE has been one of gratitude. In the understanding I had of faith for most of my life, calling me an unbeliever would be generous. (A generosity often extended to me by those blessed with religious certitude.) By their doing and not doing, by their words and silence, mostly by their astonishing expression of grace, the Brothers have helped heal and widen the damaged and limited awareness of God, self, and faith that I brought with me nine months ago.
– Hannah Tadros
I came to the Monastery seeking discipline and refuge. I came to navigate the love that had been offered so beautifully by the Brothers, and assimilate it into my being. I came to worship in community; to find commonality and a shared sense of grace with a small band of brothers and sisters. I came not to escape the world, but to find a new way to be a part of it.
In my time at the Monastery my spirit was hit over the head with a crowbar. I was struck by how much the experience challenged me, frustrated me, and changed me all at once. There were several components of the journey that taught me a great deal about myself, yet there is no doubt that nothing affected me quite like the practice of silence.
Although I had been on numerous monastic retreats, I had never found myself having to commit to long periods of silence, every day, for months on end. I welcomed the challenge, yet I had no idea whether I’d be able to handle it. Much to my surprise, it quickly became a source of great refuge and inner strength for me.
Within days, I found that I was far more present on a moment-to-moment basis. When I was faced with the grief of a friend, I found myself far more available to her. When I would have the opportunity to talk for extended periods of time, I’d speak more slowly and with far more honesty than I normally would in the outside world.
What I learned is that silence forced me to change because I was literally living differently. I became more confident because I was less inclined to seek out the approval of others through empty words. I also chose my words carefully when I did speak, and I spoke with far more authority.
Over time, I came to look forward to it. I looked for ways in which I could be silent and relished the peace that silence would bring me when I was engaging in the mundane matters of life. When I was stocking a kitchen, or raking leaves, or setting a table, I often found myself actively enjoying these activities much more than I had in the past. This happened because I wasn’t just being quiet, I was actively engaging in silence. Silence wasn’t merely the absence of words, it was the activation of an internal intention; a desire to see the world as it really was, and to see myself as I really am. This proved to be much more difficult than it seemed on the surface, but its practice brought about repeated experiences of catharsis, revelation, grief, and joy. It protruded the walls I often placed around my spirit and in so doing gave me a renewed sense of life. It pierced apertures in my self-absorption and forced me to pay attention to my motivations. In short, it did not allow me to hide from myself. I had no choice but to allow myself to be exposed to myself; to stand in the interior of my own soul and to resist the urge to flee into the darkness.
This occurred because I was taking myself out of the comfort of my own inner indulgences in order to face both the gifts and the horrors of my own mind. Over the months, silence became a mechanism by which I accessed a part of myself that I didn’t even know was there. Silence became a means of meditating upon the world in a way that encouraged continual self-reflection, the denial of the ego, and focused discipline.
Words are powerful. Words are our friends. Words are our teachers. Yet they are also often superfluous, distracting, and insidious. They are just as often architects of destruction as purveyors of peace. Silence doesn’t take away these proclivities, as our words are preceded by thoughts, which silence makes us all too aware of. But what silence does is to take us into our thoughts – around them, alongside them – and forces us to pay attention. It demands our presence; our active, unfiltered presence. It does not allow for anything less.
Observing the Greater Silence every night took my focus away from the trivialities of life and laid my soul’s eye directly onto what really mattered, both internally and in community. My inner life was caressed with grace, and my external life was opened with new possibilities. The Brothers’ constant encouragement and invocation to examine my role in this world more honestly served as a source of beauty and strength that I would return to daily until I left.
In the end, I left my monastic journey with the knowledge that silence wasn’t merely a practice; not simply another tool to be added to my arsenal. Instead, I came to see it as something far more powerful: a way of life. – Tim Lawrence