Monday, April 19, 2010

Monastic Silence

It is somewhat ironic that it was almost a year ago to the day (in point of fact, a year ago to the day, minus one day) that we detailed the St. Conleth Society's monastic retreat in Ireland. In that same piece I was brought to mind of a monastic retreat of my own, made 15 years ago -- and one which has been with me ever since.

Today, Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican, gives a brief glimpse into a recent retreat he made to the Benedictine monks of Norcia, where he details his own struggle with the discipline of monastic silence. As I read his own response, I was brought very much to mind of my own parallel experience: it begins with a discomfort -- discomfort which is no doubt fed by our noise saturated world -- but eventually, brings a great sense of release, relief and delight.

Soli Deo Honor et Gloria

The only sound in the monastery refectory is the high metallic sound of forks clinking against plates.

"Clink.... clink clink..."

No, wait... I'm wrong.

As I sit listening, I can also hear the sound of water pouring into glasses, the sound of robes swooshing as the monks move about, the sound of chair legs scraping the floor as the monks rise to get a second helping (it is a buffet meal, of soup, pasta in tomato sauce with red and green olives, lettuce, and rough-cut bread, with the monks serving themselves in silence) and the sound of glasses thumping softly down against the table cloth after the monks take a drink.

"Clink...clink clink... thump... clink... scrape.... swooosh... clink, clink..."

The monks don't say a word.

Not even a whisper.


I sit and wonder if this discipline is excessive.

Why not talk about the weather, about tomorrow's plans, about anything at all?

I'm uneasy with this silence.

"Clink clink."

I don't know whether to smile, to look at the others across the room, or to sit sternly, gazing directly ahead in solitary isolation.

I don't know much about being a monk.

But as the minutes pass, I feel more comfortable.

In fact, I'm happy not to talk.

Who wants to talk about the weather anyway?

The silence deepens and starts to thicken with my thoughts.

Who are we? There is Father Cassian, my old friend, who is recovering from a bout with cancer. I respect his suffering, and feel compassion for it. There is Brother Ignatius, from Indonesia, who knew he wanted to become a monk, so he searched on the internet and found his way to this monastery in Norcia. He leads the chant, sometimes sounding a note on his round pitch pipe. His voice in choir is clear and melodious, with perfect pitch. There is Brother Evagrius, 24, who comes from Montana. Yesterday we drove to the ruined monastery up the hill which the monks intend to rebuild. The road was narrow and there was no place to turn around, so when we headed back, Evagrius simply shifted into reverse and backed up at about 30 miles per hour, down a narrow path, leaving me with white knuckles. "I've been driving since I was six years old," he chuckled. He's the guestmaster here. "I will stay here until I die," he told me.

There are nine other monks, and a guest, like myself, from the Roman Curia. Thirteen in all.

Why are we here? It is to seek Christ. To draw close to Christ. To live the minutes and hours of our lives with Christ as the focus of those minutes and hours. To live, as it were, in an attitude of openness toward eternity. And for this reason, silence seems to be the courtyard by means of which we can enter that great mystery, which surpasses human understanding.

The lack of conversation starts to seem pleasant. No need for chit-chat!

We are together, and there is no need to say anything at all. It is reassuring, in a way, to know that we have a common purpose which doesn't need to be spoken. We are here to "be" not to "say."

I embrace the silence.

"Clink.... clink clink."

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