Formations #3: Shhhhhhhhh! It’s Quiet Hours! Contemplative Silence in Monasticism

 

(This is part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)

When I was a guest of the Taize community in southeastern France during my first year of college, my companions and I were invited to take on a week of silence. Yes, a WEEK of SILENCE. No talking, no communication of any sort–even when meeting people on the road, we were supposed to avert our eyes. My three companions and I were assigned a small area of one of the women’s houses, each given separate rooms, and instructed that we would have Bible study with one of the Sisters (a nun associated with the Taize community) each morning. We would still participate in worship morning, noon and night with the whole community, but we would spend days and nights in solitude.

To this day, I don’t think my parents believe that I actually was silent for a whole week. I love talking and communicating with people, especially when we were in France and surrounded by a bunch of people from all over the world! But I was scared, and didn’t think I could do it. That’s a LONG TIME to not speak. And more than my FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), I was terrified to be left alone with God. The first semester of my freshmen year of college had been filled with a rough break-up, a grandparent’s stroke, and friend troubles–going into this period of silence, I knew that my soul had a lot of work to do and it would be a difficult week.

Here’s the truth: silence is not easy. It is an intensive spiritual discipline and, though difficult and alienating at times, it can be very rewarding. The Desert Fathers and Mothers sometimes took on practices of contemplative silence, the virtue of which was not only in their refraining from communication with the outside world, but was in learning to be intentional with what words they do choose to speak aloud.

The Desert Father Abba Poemen said, “If we remembered that it is written, “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned,” we would choose to remain silent.” By saying this, he was reprimanding those who were tempted to speak unjustly. Did your parent ever tell you to “Say something nice or say nothing at all?” Yeah. If Abba Poemen had been a family guy, he would have been one of those parents.

Here’s another one: Abba Poemen also said,

“A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent, that is, he says nothing that is not profitable.”

Here, the carelessness in the internal spiritual practice that leads to judging others in your heart is what is bad–even if you appear to be pious on the outside. And, conversely, people whose hearts are focused on God can speak a lot and be dropping wisdom all over the place! So, translated into parent aphorisms, that means “mean what you say and say what you mean.”

So if we can be intentional about how we talk, how can we be intentional about how we are silent? Isn’t that kinda the same thing? At the time I went into the silence in Taize, I didn’t know how to pray. Weird to say, right, for someone raised in the church like I was? Not really–I thought praying was saying the Lord’s Prayer with your congregation, listing your sins and saying “thank you” at the end. But Brother Roger of Taize, quoting St. Augustine, offers some help on this matter of silence and prayer:

“There is also a voice of the heart and a language of the heart…That inner voice is our prayer when our lips are closed and our soul open before God. We remain silent and our heart speaks, not to human ears but to God. Be sure that God will listen to you.”

contemplative prayer.jpeg

Even in silence, and perhaps especially in silence, we are not distracted with the words coming out of our mouths or even the words from someone else. We are trusting that God knows what our hearts are concerned with, as long as we can be present and open before God. This can take some practice for those of us who grew up in Western United States American culture and have many technological distractions at our fingertips. One of my college roommates would always be watching Netflix on her computer while playing a game on her phone and maybe brainstorming about her homework on her iPad, when all I wanted to do was hang out and talk with her. God wants us to rest in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is always with us, in silence or in chatter.

Something that surprised me about my time in the silence (doesn’t it sound like a movie? “In the Silence”–horror and intrigue, ooh!) was that people could be silent together. This shouldn’t have been surprising for me, since I loved sitting around my loved ones and not talking but enjoying the togetherness quietly. But this time, having no distractions (no technology! no talking! woohoo!) left me and my companions to be alone…together. A member of the Leb Shomea community in Texas offers this thought on communal silence, “Silence is not ‘me and God’ but a way of being present to each other in God.” From the desert of old into the modern college campus, this remains compelling: if we can turn off the noise around us, turn off the internal distractions of worries and comparisons and judgments, and rest in the presence of God, we can share in God’s peace, alone or together.

prayer around the cross

For your practice this week, try on some silence. That doesn’t necessarily mean not answering a question your professor or TA asks you–it can be, if you want!–but maybe try setting aside several morning hours on the weekend (wait, are you even awake on the weekend, you college students out there?) to practice not talking or communicating with anyone around you. You might want to let your roommate and your family know that you are taking on this practice for a few hours, so they won’t be offended if you brush off their “good mornings” or miss the weekly phone call from home. Remember, silence does not necessarily mean solitude–there are plenty of spaces where public silence is held (think of your school library, public vigils, contemplative church services, and annoying coffee shops where everyone is on their laptops). Some things you might want to do during your time of silence are:

  • walk outside–what do you notice that you’d usually pass by because you are texting or talking to friends?
  • meditate/sit contemplatively–centering prayer might help here.
  • journal or draw–challenge yourself to use as few words as possible while expressing yourself.

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. How can I continue to be engaged in my life (doing school/work/family, etc.) and carry this practice of silence with me?

 

Peace be with you!

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