People still ask Trappists about the “vow of silence”. For example, “Since Vatican II, do you still take a vow of silence?” In fact there never was a vow of silence and maintaining perpetual silence could not constitute approriate matter for a public vow.
Silence is a monastic value, not a purely Trappist trimming on the monastic life. Why would I remain silent? To protect my calm? To isolate myself from others? St. Benedict gives us a hint in the opening line of his Rule: “Obsculta, o fili.” That is, “Listen carefully, my child.” I am silent so I may listen better. So I can listen to the voice of experience, from further on, down the same road; so I can listen to the concerns of my peers; so I can hear and understand what’s beneath the words. So I can simply be released from my own preoccupations and prejudices.
A recent retreatant who spent three months in the community emailed me after he returned home. I asked him whether I could share some of his reflections with you. This is what he wrote:
The central fact of the monastery is community. Obvious, but not something I realized before, especially as the silence could give the impression that these were a bunch of hermits living together…the community is not that obviously in view to the outsider, but the central reality nonetheless. So perhaps the community provides the support, the solace, even the distraction, but provides the purpose, the intent behind the living. The theology itself, God existing in community-the Triune God as community-gives the clue.
Honestly, it was not apparent to me before, but I have some sense of it now. I think that a lot of people are more aware of the solitude and are not as focused on the communal aspect of monastic living. And especially, as community entails not only service but also openess to others. People may think more about getting away to quiet and solitude when they think of a monastery, instead of going to community.
As Christians, we confess that, corporately, we are the Body of Christ, each one of us a member of Christ. If one member suffers, all suffer; if one member is glorified, all are glorified. The local community, the monastic community, for example, is a “sacrament” of this reality. As such a community in Christ, here and now, we reflect that communal realtionship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in eternity. Of course, we reflect it imperfectly but that personal reality is our foundation. The effort, even struggle, to be a better community is as important as “achieving” that status–if we ever do! That effort opens me up, penetrates my defenses, bit by bit. I may never lose my hang-ups but they may loosen their grip on me.
And so, we are not an alternative to the Church–though we may be an alternative to our culture of alienation–but we are one, local incarnation of the Church, the Body of Christ. Our silence, as the silence in any relationship, can not afford to be, should never be the sort that separates. It needs to be the silence that knows how to listen.