The best I can offer is thinking from my monastic perspective, especially as shaped by St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries. The fact that the Rule, as stated in an earlier post, teaches us about verbal silence, rather than a lack of noise, is significant. Verbal silence is relalted to the responsible use of words (words that build up rather than words that tear down) on one hand and the ability to listen well on the other hand. Silence is not the only component of the spiritual life as described in St. Benedict’s monastic program. Not speaking and keeping quiet are not all that we need. The fact that we are exhorted to use words well and to listen well reminds us that silence of some sort is an ingredient of communications.
It is often helpful to state the obvious, so here goes: St. Benedict lived in a very different world than ours. Perhaps he didn’t write about noise in the monastery per se because he didn’t have to put up with generators, water-softeners, washing machines, cuisine art, electric mowers, cars and trucks, et cetera. Mind you, in passing, he is aware of “technological noise” which in his manual culture came from the human being. So he is aware that those who have trouble getting up in the morning should be encouraged but with discretion so the process isn’t disturbing to others. Or that, outside the hours of liturgical prayer, monks should not prolong their prayers in the oratory (church, in our day) lest they disturb others. He leaves room for grace moving the individual monk to longer prayer, even tears (I’m presuming that he pictures the prayer of tears as quiet and not melodramatic sobbing, though that may be my cultural prejudice). So his Rule does acknowledge, if obliquely, that noise can be a problem.
It’s always dangerous to pursue the rubric “If so-and-so were alive today, he’d…” Well, if St. Benedict were alive today in the Twenty-First Century, I imagine he’d be a very different person than he was in the Sixth Century. I can’t pretend to know what he’d think or do. For me, it’s enough that living in the Twenty-First Century, my experience tells me that there is more noise now in every day life in the United States than there was when I was a kid in the 1950’s or even when I was a college student in the raucous mid-1960’s; and that noise is intrusive and a problem for keeping my balance. Here’s where St. Benedict’s Rule makes me aware of a link between noise and verbal silence: if noise is so much a part of our lives, how much do I let speaking become just another kind of noise? If noise is a bi-product of our technology, how much have I let my speach degenerate into a bi-product of my metabolism?
I can’t say what that might say to you, but to me, that says I need some physical silence to function well when I speak. I just had a day in the hermitage yesterday; I usually enjoy a day in solitude, but the timing was bad and I probably needed human company. I didn’t use words outside the Liturgy of the Hours and I didn’t read–I wasn’t up to reading. I had no interest in music and the best part of the day was listening to the downpour of rain that hit our county between 1:30 and 2:45 PM. Other than that it seemed a restless, fruitless, frustrating day. Today, except for one adjective, I wouldn’t change that description. I would say, however, that the loneliness and lack of words, of fresh input and noise did help the swirling dust of my thoughts and fears to settle. Not bad. I didn’t enjoy the day but I would no longer say that it was fruitless.
There’s no computer in the hermitage (of course) and I did not substitute fresh information and email (I don’t do Facebook, etc) for loneliness. How much of our communication technology confuses the exchange of information (the Presidential Primary, attacks on US Embassies in the Middle East, flash-flood warnings) with genuine communication, with self-disclosure? Granted, we can’t have that level of trust, vulnerability and intimacy with everyone we know, but have I reduced my communication with even those special people to an exchange of information and my commentary on it? These aren’t rhetorical questions. If I pose them, I do so because they address my problems. I, at least, need physical silence to allow the questions to emerge and self-examination to happen.
But that silence will happen one way in a monastery, another in a committed relationship, in another should I live alone, and in yet another if I’m caring for a loved. We all have that challenging moment in the morning when the alarm goes off and I have to get up. How do I use that time? Am I awakened by a radio going off (do they still make radio alarms?) or do I turn off the alarm and restore physical silence? Do I just throw clothes on my back or allow myself to be aware of the silence around me? Do I enter the day intentionally or hurl myself into the business of regrouping? There may be some people who wake up fresh and bright–I’ve yet to meet one (and they must be hard to put up with) and I’m not one of them. But those first moments of awakening are precious.
I remember when I did not live alone, when I practiced my yoga and exercized, no one came near me: it was not a pretty sight. Don’t some of us have moments like that still? We don’t have to “utilize” the time listening to music or the news or learning Aramaic from Rosetta Stone. That can be silent time (and it’s worth noting that Yoga or Tai Chi have a way of quieting the mind). Walking to the subway or the bus, walking the dog, waiting for the Kuerig to kich in can be silent time and not just dead time. My mom used to stay up till midnight after everyone else was in bed (“You need less sleep as you get older”, she told me, though I’m no proof of that) and work on her needle point. She once confessed to me that was her prayer time; with each stitch, she did her Way of the Pilgrim routine.
As Kurt wrote, if I make God a priority, I can make time for silence. Silence as prayer is time for communion beyond words, a deeper form of communication. Despite the evidence of our “communications” technology, communication is not always achieved by an exchange of words or information. Did you ever notice a young couple in love? They can just walk hand in hand without saying a word. Their relationship can’t stay there but it’s a great place to begin. Did you ever notice a mature couple who have lived out the ups and downs of love? They can contentedly sit quietly with one another, aware of the mystery the other will always remain, yet confident in the steadiness of what they nonetheless mean to one another. They’ve also learnt what not to expect from one another. And that’s a really neat form of communication or as close to communion as we get as human beings. When I want to aim at that as my relationship to God, I don’t mind giving up time on the computer (communication technology), for example, to make time for silence. I don’t mind the “wasted” experience of silence, like yesterday in the hermitage, because it’s not wasted at all.
to be continued