When was the last time you were silent? And what was the quality of that silence? Was it gloomy, angry, expectant, anxious, bored ... or joyful? Br. James Koester invites us to embrace and experience the joy of silence.
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Br. James Koester, SSJE, was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1989 he came to the United States to test his vocation with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, where he was life-professed in 1995. Br. James has served in a wide range of leadership posts in the Society, currently serving as the community’s Superior. During his time in the Society he has traveled widely in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Holy Land, and Africa, leading retreats and workshops, preaching, teaching, and offering spiritual direction. His personal interests include genealogy, the study and writing of icons, and beekeeping.
Read about James' vocation journey to the Monastery >
Waiting upon God
A few years ago I was speaking with someone who had known the community for about forty years. We were speaking about our life as a monastic community and our practice of silence and solitude. I don’t remember what I said, but it clearly didn’t satisfy her. She felt the amount of silence we had in our life, and the time we spent alone was at best odd, at worst, unnatural. Finally, not knowing what else to say, I said, “But this is what monks do. We spend time alone, in silence, so that we can think, pray, and reflect, and be alone with God.” Either something in that comment clicked, or she still didn’t understand me, but the conversation moved on.
When I first came to the community, there were two wooden signs, one just outside the chapel in the statio, and another in the pantry, off the refectory. They both said in bold capital letters: SILENCE. I don’t know how helpful they were as, at least in my experience, they seemed to impose something on us, rather than draw something out of us. And that, I think, is what we mean when we speak of the quality of our silence and solitude. Is it being imposed upon us, or has it been drawn out of us?
One of my favourite passages of Scripture comes from Galatians. I return to it often in my prayer. I use it as a benchmark in my life, as a way to determine whether or not I have strayed from my journey into the heart of God: …the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
This is what I mean when I speak of silence being drawn out of us. Is our silence and the desire for solitude an expression of the fruit of the Spirit or are we doing our best to ignore or shut someone out? Living as closely as we brothers do at the monastery, we all know when someone is not speaking because they are doing their best to avoid us. The latter, I would suggest, is not real silence. It may be an absence of conversation but it is not a response to the Spirit’s gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Father Benson, in his Instructions on the Religious Life speaks of mystical silence. “Mystical silence,” Father Benson teaches, “is the soul’s waiting upon God.” He goes on to say: “Cherish this mystical silence. Keep the soul expectant, waiting upon God.” As our Rule of Life says, “The gift of silence we seek to cherish is chiefly the silence of adoring love for the mystery of God which words cannot express.”
Father Benson puts it this way:
“The love of silence must draw our hearts up to God. Heaven will then shine forth in our life, and we shall glorify God in all our utterances. This silence will be a glad and cheerful silence. There will be no gloom in it, so silence is the bond between the mind of [humanity] and God, and the soul that rises up to God learns to rest in God and in His loving care. Our life will be made joyous if we have real unbroken fellowship with Jesus.”
If our silence truly is drawn out of us as a loving response to God who first loved us, then our silence, far from being gloomy, to use Father Benson’s word, would be a sign that we are truly partakers in the divine life of God. Again, to quote Father Benson:
“In silence we welcome the presence of the Incarnate Word. So [silence] must be a real, positive silence. Oh, if we felt the presence of God! If we all felt it, what a joyous community of fellowship with God! To speak with God is to become partaker of the Eternal Word and Spirit!”
This is the quality of silence which we seek to cherish. It is marked by joy, happiness and delight, and as Father Benson assures us, when we cherish the happiness of silence, then we will become partakers of the divine life of God, who will be sure to pour God’s divine gifts upon us in abundance.
 Galatians 5: 22 - 23
 Benson SSJE, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, First Series, 1927, page 60
 Ibid, page 60
 SSJE, Rule, Silence, Chapter XXVII, page 54
 Op. cit., page 61
 1 John 4:19
 Benson SSJE, Instructions, First Series, page 61
 Ibid, page 61