Silence is a way of life- Tim Lawrence

IMG_2845I 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.

I've "learned a lot" – Hannah Tadros

IMG_9355There 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


Brother, Thank You – Matthew Tenney

Matthew TenneyThis year, three exceptional young people took part in the Monastic Internship Program, living, worshipping, and working alongside the community for nine months. We asked them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience. Here is what Matthew Tenney had to say:

In reflecting on my time living and working and praying alongside the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, I’m reminded of Canon Henry Parry Liddon’s praise for the Father Founder: Read More

Help Us Let It Be – Sarah Brock

Sarah Brock - 1 This year, three exceptional young people took part in the Monastic Internship Program, living, worshipping, and working alongside the community for nine months. We asked them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience. Here is what Sarah Brock had to say:

“Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in your presence. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done. What has not been done has not been done. Help us let it be.” So begins one of the prayers we often lift up at the office of Compline. Upon hearing it prayed aloud during my first week as an intern, I was drawn in by the poetry of the words and particularly by this desire to let go of the work of the day and be still. It has been true for most of my life that there is no end to the work that needs to be done. Every time I cross an item off of my to-do list, it seems I also add at least five more.   Read More

Reflecting on the Internship Experience – Seth Woody

In September 2012 to June 2013, three exceptional young men took part in the Monastic Internship Program, living, worshipping, and working alongside the community for nine months. We asked them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience.

COWLEY shots 036The monastic daily schedule is the antithesis of undergraduate college living. Like most people after college, I graduated still in the midst of self-discovery, trying to figure out how to be the best version of myself. This internship was an opportunity to work on pieces of me that were just impossible to work on in the college setting. I knew that, as an extrovert, I wasn’t going to be able to take time to be silent and to live a disciplined, structured life without this experience.

I feel like I’ve learned a lot from just the act of being physically present five times a day for worship. Just having that discipline to show up if I’m not feeling well; if I don’t want to be there; if I do want to be there; if I have other things to do, there’s a lot to be learned in just showing up. That’s so simple, yet I think what the monastic life offers is such simple and profoundly deep practices of life.

I have actually gotten into the rhythm of waking up with the sun and going to bed a little bit after the sun. That seemed like such an impossibility to me coming here: to be able to awake at 5:30 and begin the day! I had never done that, never imagined I could. It goes back to discipline: My natural inclinations are not to stick to a disciplined life. After being able to live in this space for nine months, to experience this structure and discipline, I feel more equipped to go out on my own and put my own practices into place.



Reflecting on the Internship Experience – Waylon Whitley

In September 2012 to June 2013, three exceptional young men took part in the Monastic Internship Program, living, worshipping, and working alongside the community for nine months. We asked them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience.

COWLEY shots 029One of the real beauties of this year for me has been being seen, really being seen and embraced as a person. In this, I think that the Brothers epitomize the best of Christian community: They embrace people as individuals and don’t ask that you live up to a set of standards before they love you. That’s really rare. And it’s what I needed.

So often, as human beings, we settle for less than we deserve. We’ve bought into a commercial version of life where we’re told, “If you get certain stuff you’re going to be really happy; if you get these jobs, you’re going to be happy; if you climb high enough up on the ladder and get a certain house and get a certain amount of security, then everything is going to be okay.” The truth is that none of that is very important. The most important thing is community and love. The SSJE community really exemplifies those values, which are a central theme in Johannine spirituality, but which I’d always dismissed as sort of Hallmark stuff. But love, in its fullest sense, is what God wants for us. This kind of love is accepting and it’s warm and it’s forgiving and it’s very spacious and it allows us to be fully human and not need to put on airs or pretend like we’re something we’re not or to strive in some way for achievements or possessions. When you’ve lived in a place like this, where you’ve been shown great hospitality and abundant love, you begin to realize that love does have the potential to transform us as individuals. No material things can do that. No amount of security or money in the bank is going to really transform us. But love has the ability to really transform people.

That certainly has been my story here: To be loved, as I’ve experienced this year by this community, wakes up a part of you that makes loving other people possible. And I think that, as a church, or just as people on a very human journey, our capacity to love is really the most important thing that we can develop. If we’re going to spend time in life doing anything, this is the one thing that really has the potential to transform us the most, and to transform the lives of everybody around us.

Reflecting on the Internship Experience: Andrew Sinnes

In September 2012 to June 2013, three exceptional young men took part in the Monastic Internship Program, living, worshipping, and working alongside the community for nine months. We asked them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience.

COWLEY shots 032Coming to the Monastery I had this idea that it was going to be rapturous holiness all day long. I found it is a very welcoming environment here with really kind, authentic people, but it isn’t anything magical. I wasn’t hearing Jesus talk in my left ear or seeing visions like Teresa of Avila. I became aware that this is a mundane environment, like every environment.

That got me thinking: “If I keep trying to go to more exalted locations, like maybe Mt. Athos, after spiritual highs, then I’ll probably only end up anxious that I haven’t had one.” I kind of freaked out: “What am I going to do with the rest of my life if I don’t have a Message to share after I leave?” I reached a breaking point: “Well, I could just say, ‘I might not have a plan, but there may be a plan bigger than me, and I’m just going to go with that.’” I don’t have to keep seeking more rarefied experiences until I have known some exalted state of mind in which I’m pure, and then I’ll have a spiritual experience, since I will be free of all the things that are holding me back from living a full life. I can do it right now. I can just decide “I surrender my life to something bigger than me.”

The Monastery is not magical, but it is different. It’s a place where you might find God, or you might not. They give you that space to play. The liturgical life here just says, “Show up; the rest is up to you.” So, I’m in a better position than I was before I came here, despite not having discerned a clear call. You could say that I’ve had a conversion experience.

Reflecting on the Internship Experience: "Silence is what I make of it" – Nancy VanderBrink

I remember a question the Superior asked me during the phone interview that preceded my being accepted into the internship program: “What do you most fear about coming to the Monastery?” My answer: “The silence.”

Silence has always been hard for me, not just because I’m an extrovert by nature, but because silence can say so many things, and trying to figure out what it is saying has made me nervous and left me feeling alone and isolated.

So, silence being a major part of life here was something it took me a while to get used to. I’ve discovered that you, in fact, learn quite a lot about people when you’re not talking to them. Reading body language is hard for me, but big gestures and facial expressions – when I’m close enough to see them – are things I’ve gotten a little better about interpreting.

I’ve also noticed that, at least for me, silence is what I make of it. Since I can’t with certainty tell what one particular silence means, I can decide how I feel about it. Do I feel left out, or do I take the silence as an opportunity to think through some things that have been bouncing around? Or do I simply just be? It’s amazing the freedom that silence gives you: It’s all in what you make of it.

The attempt to simply “be” is something that came up in my very first session of spiritual direction back in September, and which has stayed with me the entire time I’ve been here. I think it’s one of the things I’m packing in my bag to take home with me. “Don’t do anything. Just sit there.” Whoa. Now, that was counter to almost everything I’d heard my entire life.

Over the past few months I’ve also learned that simply “sitting there,” simply being for a time, does not mean ignoring my responsibilities. Rather it means that when I’ve completed everything that is required of me, I shouldn’t just find things to do to fill the silent and/or boring spaces. Instead, embrace them, sit with them. I’ve come to call these times “the time when I hang out with Jesus.” I’ve also learned that, during these times, I don’t have to have an agenda, I don’t have to know what I’m going to say, I don’t have to say anything, I can just sit. Distraction characterized that space for me for a long time, and even still I find my mind wandering at times, but I’m getting more confident in my ability to bring myself back.

And sometimes, when distraction comes, I’ll offer up a prayer, “So, there’s obviously something I’m worried about, would you help me work on that, even though I don’t know what it is?” See, I’ve also discovered that I don’t have to be so preoccupied about praying the “right” way or using a particular method. Sometimes just sharing a jumble of confused emotions feels as valid to me as a well-thought-out prayer, and probably more honest.

I know I’ve unpacked some bags and worked them through while I’ve been here. And I’m packing up some things to take away with me. I’m not sure if I’m taking more or less away, but for me it doesn’t matter; it’s leaving myself open to this experience that’s been most important.