How do we feel about silence? Is it a welcome gift or something that evokes a deep uneasiness? Silence is such a rare commodity in our society and our lives it is possible that we haven’t experienced enough silence to really know how we feel about it.
Silence has always been a deeply monastic value. In the stories of the early desert fathers and mothers silence is one of the principle practices of their life, the rush of words and noise one of the things these early monastics sought to flee. They knew that silence is an integral part of the difficult journey toward transformation, the central metanoia of the Christian life.
It is clear that Benedict assumed that silence would pervade monastic practices. He taught that speech was to be the exception, that monks would speak as they needed to, mindfully, aware of what they were doing rather than unconsciously and constantly. Silence and awareness go hand in hand for Benedict. Without chatter the monks could reflect on why and how they were living their life. Silence is an antidote to unconscious and routine activity and busyness of our daily life.
In the last few months here at the Monastery we have revived the practice of “Recollection Sundays.” These are days of silence from Saturday evening Vigils to Sunday Evening Prayer there is silence in the house and a chance to open a space, a time for reflection and renewal. It can be a hard wake-up call to help us realize that even in a monastery there is an inordinate amount of chatter, noise, busyness. An occasional day of silence may simply be the invitation to awareness of how little silence we all have in our lives.
We have to be honest that silence can also be intimidating. There is a comfort in noise and activity. Silence forces to be aware of what is going on in our lives, deep in our hearts and we may not like what we see. The sharp edges, the shallowness, laziness, anger, and a host of other sharp-tongued demons have a way of manifesting themselves in the silence.
But God is also in the silence, whispering softly beneath the cacophony of our internal chatter. Perhaps God whispers in silence wanting us to stop and strain to hear. Most of us have spiritual attention deficit disorder; we can’t focus or sit still or listen without a great struggle. But fortunately God gives us the gift of silence, a gift that requires practice and patience but one that will root and blooms in our soul.