Posts Tagged ‘Silence’
On my second night in the monastery, I heard the silence. I was inside the church: a beautiful, vast chamber of limestone blocks that resemble lumpy oatmeal and were quarried from the Iowan earth by the monks themselves in the mid-nineteenth century. The monks had finished compline, the last of the day’s seven prayer services, and had filed off into the inner recesses of the monastery, where they would observe the Great Silence, speaking to no one until after mass the next morning. The last of the monks to leave had switched off the lights above the choir, and then the light over the lectern. Though the section of visitors’ pews where I sat still had a little illumination, the body of the church was now in total blackness except for the faint flickering of a votive candle suspended high in the distance against the far wall. For the first quarter hour, a few worshippers remained on the benches around me.
Although I sat very quietly, I found my mind busy and loud. Mostly I was reflecting on the service I had just heard, which Brother Alberic, my gracious liaison to the world of the monastery, had described as a kind of lullaby. Compline is lovely, and I was frustrated that I had not been able to find it more profound. These weren’t my prayers. I yearned only for more quiet. My thoughts were noisy enough that I half expected to see them break out of my skull and begin dancing a musical number up and down the wooden benches.
Soon the other worshippers departed and I was left alone. For a moment or two, my experience was of literal silence. Then, all at once, there came a ting, a tic, another tic, a tap, and a clang. The sounds came from all around the enormous dark church. They ranged from the verge of inaudibility to the violence of hammer blows; discrete chips of sound and reverberatory gonnngs. Out of nowhere, I was treated to a concert by the sound of heat in the pipes. It was a grand, slightly menacing sound that I had been oblivious to not only during the prayer service but afterward in the din of my mental dithering. And it was worth that long opening pause. The ever-changing sonic punctuation of this empty space—which had first seemed soundless—gave me a tingling sense of elevation. This is it, I told myself. Silence made everything resonate.
And yet … Later that night when I retreated to my room, and my euphoria had subsided, I wondered why I had been affected so powerfully. Objectively, the only thing that had happened, after all, was that I had heard the metal of the pipes expanding and contracting as they heated and cooled. Why should that experience have made me feel that I was “hearing the silence”? Why did I feel at that lonely hour that I had found what I was looking for when I came to the monastery?
What brought me to the New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, was the desire to learn from people who had made a lifelong commitment to devout silence. Trappist monks, a branch of the Cistercian order, do not make a vow of total silence, and today there are times when they engage in conversation; but silence is their mother tongue. Saint Benedict, who is credited with founding Western Christian monasticism in the sixth century, most famously at Monte Cassino, southeast of Rome, wrote a document known as the Rule that remains their guide to this day. In the Rule, monks are defined before all else as disciples, and the defining quality of the disciple is “to be silent and listen.” Trappists are among the monks known as “contemplatives.” Their interaction with the world outside the monastery is minimal. Much of their worship is silent. They study in silence. They work almost entirely in silence. They eat primarily in silence. They pass each other in the monastery corridors without speaking. They retire at 8 PM to separate cells and rise at 3:15 AM, when they gather in silence to pray. They avoid idle talk at all times. And even after the morning mass, throughout much of their demanding day, they are discouraged from speaking. Almost everything the Trappist does takes place in silence—is pressed close by its weight, or opens out onto that expanse, depending on how you look at it.
Monks have, moreover, been at the pursuit for quite some time. Alberic remarked at one point that while it is often said that prostitution is the oldest profession, he believes that monks were around before there were prostitutes. This struck me as unlikely, but it still gave me pause.
There was a personal stake in this journey as well: I needed a break. I’d had a hectic, noisy winter in the city—medically harrowing, filled with bills, the hassles of insurance claims, technology fiascos, and preschool worries. Plans to visit friends in the country had fallen through several times. I’d tried to go to a Zen retreat in New England that taught the breath-and silence-based meditation practice of vipassana, only to be told at the last moment that although I could come and sit silently with the retreatants, the guesthouse itself was overbooked and I’d have to stay in a bed-and-breakfast in town. The thought of beginning my daily practice over fussy French toast in a dining room packed with antiquers—where tasteful classical music would be piped in to glaze over the gaps in conversation—didn’t conduce to inner quiet. I had to get out of New York. Yet it was hard to arrange anything. Just because we have a nagging sense that silence is good for us doesn’t make it any easier to actually commit to.
I didn’t think of quiet only as one of those overdue restoratives. Beyond the idea of wanting to learn something about the Trappist path and get away from the noise in my own life, I was hoping to find some truth in the silence of the monastery that I could take back to New York. I’d packed a stack of books and volumes of photocopied pages representing different theological and philosophical traditions—everything from Martin Heidegger and Max Picard to kabbalistic disquisitions, an array of Buddhist tracts, and enough Christian monastic literature to envelop a monk from tonsure to toe. I needed help.
From the air, the Great Plains in winter look like silence. During Advent week, when I made my trip to the monastery, the freeze of the landscape was so extreme that I couldn’t imagine anything down below ever vibrating. On the approach to Dubuque, the snow-covered squares of the farms resembled bathroom tiles painted over with primer that had bubbled and cracked. As we descended, the topographical buckling intensified; clumps of frayed brown trees bristled up through the white; little snow-crusted settlements traced ghostly circuit boards. We flew past clusters of red farm buildings with steep, snow-caked roofs. Then we circled 180 degrees, a seam of pale orange-gold suddenly opened across an endless gray horizon, and the plane touched down.
After we exchanged greetings, the first thing Alberic said was that I was in for some particularly ugly weather, even by Iowa standards. His voice was sad.
Alberic is a solidly built man a little above average height, in his early fifties. He wears round, dark-framed glasses over dark, shadowed eyes. His black hair is cropped close to the skull, and whenever he is at home he wears a full-length white robe beneath a long black apron with a pointy hood. Alberic “entered the monastery to stay,” as he puts it, in 1984. At the age of twenty-six, he was working as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, spending his free time painting and living a kind of bare-bones bohemian existence. Though he’d grown up with some degree of wealth, mostly in the suburbs of Atlanta, he had never liked “stuff” and had always sought out a life of austerity. Raised a Catholic, and always seeking silence—his mother called him “the little Buddha”—Alberic had given up active involvement in the church long before moving to New York. After several years of work at the museum, mostly on the night watch, he began to sink into a spiritual malaise. Then he learned that his sister was dying of cancer. Three weeks after her death, he was diagnosed with the same disease. “That was my wake-up call, and the beginning of my monastic formation,” Alberic told me. “It took the cancer for me to look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’”
For the first year after his diagnosis, he struggled with fear. Then, as his odds for survival began to improve, he started a gradual return to the church that brought him, eventually, to visit a monastery near Atlanta. He got lost on the way and arrived at night, just before compline. The church, when he entered, was quiet and dark. Then the monks walked in, their white cowls falling all the way to the floor. “I was transfixed,” Alberic said. “I saw the truth about myself. I saw my monastic soul externalized. There was no sound, just the vague rustling of robes as they came in one or two at a time, to kneel or stand in their stall. All my life I’d met priests who tried to evangelize, but nothing came close to that moment. I had a sense of God walking right up to me.” The experience, he said, “hijacked my life. I realized I’d always been a monk, and now I was home.”
“Monks live in the desert,” Alberic told me, after we’d driven back to the monastery and had a chance to sit down together. “These giant, snow-covered fields are the desert. It’s where monks have always been drawn. We come for a radical confrontation with ourselves. Silence is for bumping into yourself. That’s why monks pursue it. And that’s also why people can’t get into a car without turning the radio on, or walk into a room without switching on a television. They seek to avoid that confrontation. I think this may be one reason for the incredible violence of that final surge during the Gulf War.” I stared at him in surprise. He lowered his eyes. “You remember there were those long, long delays before the last invasion, with waves of troops going over there and just sitting in the desert, week after week. The soldiers just sat and waited in more silence than many of them had ever experienced. And then, all of a sudden there was that huge, violent surge—the Highway of Death. Americans don’t sit in a quiet, solitary place and flourish. They were starting to have a monastic experience. And that doesn’t jibe well with the military’s goals.”
Explaining the carnage on Highway 80 en route to Basra was, at the least, a provocative claim for the transformative power of even short-term exposure to monastic silence. But Alberic is clearly not alone in his belief that a taste of monk’s life can wreak meaningful changes on a person’s mind and spirit. Like many other monasteries around the world, New Melleray Abbey has something close to an all-time low in terms of permanent resident members—and a constantly overspilling guesthouse. Brother Neal, the monk in charge of bookkeeping at New Melleray, told me that whereas even five or six years ago if someone contacted the abbey during the workweek saying that they wanted to make a retreat or just visit for a night or two there was always room, now it is often booked solid long in advance. “There’s much more hunger,” he said. “People just looking for quiet.”
There are now silent retreats offered in the name of almost every belief system, and at least one interfaith silent retreat, in Virginia, in which a swami, a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and a sheikh work together to guide retreatants, as the description reads, to “their own unique experience of inner peace, joy and spiritual unity at the heart of all the faiths.” Spas are increasingly promoted as a retreat from the overstimulation of everyday life, as much as for their treatments and aesthetic services. (“Our philosophy … is simple,” begins one advertisement. “Soothe the spirit and beauty will follow. We intend to be a quiet refuge.”) The same longing for respite is driving people into the jungles of Thailand to visit Buddhist monasteries, sometimes for months at a time. The numbers of ten-day silent vipassana retreats offered in Southern California are multiplying, and there has been a recent surge in shorter “McRetreats” for teenagers—along with meditation classes for children as young as eight years old. Gene Lushtak and some of his fellow silent-meditation guides in the Bay Area are now being enlisted by the public school systems to provide sessions in “mindfulness and concentration,” a stealth way of introducing silent meditation in the classroom. “Teachers are scared,” Lushtak told me. “They can’t get the kids to settle down, and silent meditation is one of the only things that helps.”
At one point, Lushtak put me in touch with a woman named Kris, whom he described as having great insights into silence—someone who had spent considerable time living as a monastic and many years practicing silent meditation. When I called her, Kris spoke to me of how the hunger for silence is “hunger for the thing that silence facilitates or acts as a catalyst of,” rather than for the silence itself. “Silence,” she continued, “is one experience of getting in touch with that which is. The practitioners and teachers I know who have practiced for many years can walk into a room full of chaos and be as kind and gathered as though they’re with a baby, or a lizard.” I asked her whether her own experiences with silence had drawn her to devote more and more of her daily life to meditative practices. “You’re speaking to me through a speakerphone,” she snapped. “I’m a corporate lawyer sitting on the twenty-ninth floor of a downtown skyscraper! But even if I’m not spending as much time with it as when I was wearing little robes in Burma, it’s still a key part of my life.”
IDENTIFYING WITH SILENCE
When I retired to my plain but pleasant room in the guesthouse of New Melleray, I picked up a few volumes from the mini-library I’d brought with me and sat down in a chair by the window overlooking the courtyard, where a modest stone fountain and a few sprays of black branches thrust up through deep white snow. The room was completely quiet, except for a bar radiator by my feet that made a constant crickly-crackling, as though a microphone were being held up to a bowl of Rice Krispies.
When I had told friends that I was going to spend a little time in a Trappist monastery in Iowa, they responded with professions of envy. “You’re so lucky! The peace, and quiet …,” they sighed. Yet the hope of finding a walled-off spa of rest and relaxation was not what drove people to visit monasteries in the past. In earlier ages, when people sought out the ascetic monks they did so to be enlightened as to why we live and die. Just as Benedict thought of the monk as a disciple commanded, above all, to be silent and listen, worldly sorts have always sought out those who cut themselves off from the rest of humanity to hear what they had to say. There is an abiding popular sympathy with the notion expressed by contemplative monks to a synod of bishops after Vatican II, that the monk withdraws from the world not to indulge a lust for ascetic martyrdom but rather “to place himself more intensely at the divine source from which the forces that drive the world onward originate, and to understand in this light the great designs of mankind.”
The precursors of the contemplative monks were the men of Egypt who left home in the fourth century to dwell in the desert. This was the great era of perching in silence on top of poles under the burning eye of the North African sun, and fasting sleepless in Tora Bora–style caves while assailed by noisy visions of jeering demons, inviting maidens, and various upsetting combinations of the two. Since the withdrawal from the world that gave the Desert Fathers their name was intended to promote self-transformation, the type of silence with which they were most concerned was that which came when they shut their own lips. As Abbas Diadochus, fifth-century bishop of Photiki, remarked, “Just as, if you leave open the door of the public baths the steam escapes and their virtue is lost, so the virtue of the person who talks a lot escapes the open doors of the voice.” One hermit spent three years with a stone in his mouth to help him learn to stay quiet. How he managed to eat enough to survive without swallowing the rock is a matter about which the chronicles remain silent.
When people managed to track down a Desert Father in his desolate lair, they would stand before him to beg, “Abba, a word!” (“Abba” is the Hebrew and Aramaic term for “father,” from which the words abbot and abbey derive.) After one anonymous fourth-century truth-seeker had traveled deep into the desert of Scetes to plead for a word from Abbot Moses, the old man dismissed him with a single sentence: “Go and sit in thy cell, and thy cell shall teach thee all things.” The parable suggests some of the great questions surrounding silence: How much does our pursuit of silence require us to withdraw from the world? To what extent is silence experiential in a manner that can be neither explained nor conveyed? To what degree must we remain literally still in order to experience the truths of silence?
All of us have intuitive formulas for gauging the point at which silence has been attained. The study of the human reception of sound moves quickly from the realm of physics and physiology to that of psychology and psychoacoustics. Mental associations that we bring to sounds along with intricacies of how the brain maps sound waves define our experience of what we hear.
A sniper named Robert who served with the U.S. military in Iraq described for me the experience of silence in battle. One listens, he said, “for anything that will keep you alive, orienting to any sound that may be a threat, just like an animal.” It is in those moments of silence, he explained, when he is maximally focused, before the “fireworks begin and while the silence is everywhere, that the weight of the silence is almost too much.” He compared this to an animal trying to orient itself to a threat when there is nothing visible, and nothing to be heard—yet the threat is certain and everywhere. It’s in those states, he believes, that we fall within ourselves, our vision narrowing, our hearing becoming fainter. “The more we hear nothing, the more nothing we hear,” he went on, “while we wait for … for death really. And, maybe, like the animals on the plains in Africa when they are rolled on their backs by the lion and enter some trance-like state before being eaten, I would, in these still moments, feel the weight of silence pulling me into myself, and I would fight against it for a chance to live.”
Theologians push the origins of the pursuit of silence far back in time. The doctrine of tsimtsum, developed by Isaac Luria, a sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, makes the pursuit of silence nothing less than the foundational act of the universe.
Luria began his own pursuit as a young man in a series of solitary retreats to islands in the Nile, where he gained renown for being able to interpret the language of birds, swishing palm-tree fronds, and burning embers. (Certain kabbalists thought that after the destruction of the temple, guardian angels used birds as a kind of remote storage for some of the deepest secrets of the Torah, hence their chirping was full of wisdom. Luria kept mum about what the leaves and coals had to say.) Eventually he moved to Safed in Palestine, and there developed the body of mystical thought for which he is most remembered. He himself wrote almost nothing, being constrained by the vastness of the truth he wished to articulate. “I can hardly open up my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed,” he explained. Tsimtsum (roughly translated as “contraction”) is also premised on a problem of space. If God is everything—infinite and all-filling—how could there be any room for God’s creations? Thus, the first act in genesis had to be God’s withdrawal of Himself into Himself in order to make space for anything else. This withdrawal—a kind of inner retreat of the Divine—has been described both as a self-limiting and a self-silencing. (The Jewish identification of God with language makes any pullback on His part a retraction of the Divine tongue.) In Luria’s vision, God becomes the original monkish pursuer of silence, retreating into the dark, secluded depths of His nature so that creation would one day have the chance to sing in the light. Early commentators on Luria’s theories likened this process to a kind of cosmic inhalation: “How did He produce and create His world? Like a man who holds and restricts his breath, in order that the little may contain the many.” Each new expression of God’s creative force had to be preceded by another withdrawal, another self-emptying.
A humanistic reading of Luria’s myth might lead us to reflect that when we shut up and yank ourselves out of the picture, the world rushes vibrantly into the gap we leave behind—springing into fresh visibility and audibility. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master Nahman of Bratslav, however, invested the lesson of tsimtsum with a further mystical twist. Nahman argued that mankind had to reproduce the steps the Divine had gone through in His self-silencing so as to make contact with God’s essence. A process of emptying and quieting takes the pursuer deep into an inner void that opens onto the emptiness left behind by God. Yet once inside what Nahman described as the “mazes of silence,” the righteous one discovers that in some inexpressible fashion God exists within the void as well.
What I read about Luria and Nahman called to mind several conversations I’d had with people in which silence triggered a kind of exfoliation of the everyday self. An artist friend named Alfonse, who is also a devout Catholic, told me, “Sometimes when I’m silent and alone, I’ll have this feeling of layers of my identity just peeling away, emptying, until I’m down to the core. And when I get there, to that silence, I’m meeting other selves I’ve loved. All of a sudden, I’m back with my mother and father. They’re still here and I’m still with them.”
A Buddhist friend described her experience of silent meditation as a never-ending process of emptying herself of thoughts. “By the end of the retreat, the process of getting rid of all this stuff in your head becomes physical,” she said. “People are crying—they’re coughing—they have colds.” The experience has changed how she deals with different situations outside the meditation room. “Whereas before, my mind was constantly vibrating and making noise, I’m much more nonreactive now, which means I see the way everything around me is constantly changing and don’t take every little decision I make as life or death. It’s like a mental cleansing.”
What actually happens inside the brain when we concentrate on experiencing silence?
The neuroscientific study of the effects of silent meditation is still in the early stages. But fMRI studies (imaging studies that can track blood flow through the brain) of people involved in vipassana and similar practices consistently show that meditation enhances the ability to make discriminations between important and unimportant stimuli. This translates into a reduction in overall brain activity. Lidia Glodzik-Sobanska, a researcher at the New York University Center for Brain Health, described for me the chain reaction that’s set in motion when an individual embarks on an unfamiliar task. Neurons start firing. Glutamate receptors get involved, triggering a process that eventually allows calcium to flow into the cell and activate various enzymes, which in turn initiate other reactions. There is, she said, “an enormous downstream range of events, in which new synaptic connections and branches are being formed.” When you’re first learning a new task, these patches of intense activity are a sign of healthy brain functioning. But gradually, with training, the network should become more refined. When you don’t see that refinement, in which less brain network is engaged to perform a familiar activity, the broad range of downstream events becomes a cacophony. “In Alzheimer studies,” Glodzik-Sobanska said, “what shows up in imaging is that certain brain regions vulnerable to the disease reveal a complete absence of activity, while elsewhere in the brain the individual might manifest enhanced activity not present in normal people.” Though this other activity is considered compensatory, it doesn’t actually compensate for anything; it’s just a desperate loudening of brain noise. “The goal over time,” Glodzik-Sobanska said, “is always reduced activity. You want to see impulses travel more quickly through certain more limited numbers of synapses to make the whole thing more effective.”
The drop in brain activity that’s been recorded among experienced meditators seems to be one from which they can quickly snap over to high, concentrated activity. It’s comparable to an athlete whose regular pulse rate is very low, but who can smoothly get the rate of blood flow up where it needs to be to perform some challenging physical activity; once the activity is over, the rate rapidly drops back to its baseline of minimal exertion. The brains of individuals who’ve made deep commitments to silence seem to enjoy its very character on a metabolic level, themselves becoming more still and quiet—less likely to amplify neural responses willy-nilly in a purposeless static when some chance stimulus calls out.
Despite the bitter cold, after my initial conversations with the New Melleray monks and a few hours of reading, I wanted to stretch my legs before night descended. It was absolutely still outside. The wide sky was iron gray; the earth was a white blank. Trappist monasteries are traditionally situated in flat landscapes, where the repetitive monotony is supposed to turn one’s thoughts to mortality. Though snow was forecast for later that night, none had fallen for several days and the path was now packed firm. The deep silence was instantly broken by the squitch, squatch of boot tread on snow. “Feet, stop making so much noise,” I thought.
The frozen road dipped toward a creek. As I neared the water, a great blue heron suddenly lifted off the brown ripple of water, flapping soundlessly as it rose high above bare branches. After the streets of New York, it seemed magical to have that motion without a soundtrack. I remembered a Brazilian friend telling me that in her country, “everything screams,” and that when she eventually traveled to Japan she found the sight of the cityscape “like watching a silent film.” The streets and the buildings rose before her without the noise she had always attached to those sights.
I walked along the edge of a dark road that unspooled through the white landscape as far as the eye could see. Tiny clusters of gray farm buildings loomed off in the distance, silos like church towers from which the spires had been snapped. I recalled the message written by contemplative monks defending their vocation to a synod of bishops. The monks noted that God had created his people in the desert, and it was to the desert that he had brought them after their sin in order, in the words of Hosea, to “allure her, and speak to her tenderly.”
All ascetic practices, silence as much as fasting, can become forms of seduction if entered into deeply enough. But those of us who don’t adopt them can never know the possibilities of life revealed to their adherents. In the early twentieth century, Dr. Frazer, an American anthropologist, went off to study the so-called Silent Widows of a tribe of Australian Aborigines. It was the custom of these women to enter a period of silence lasting as long as two years after the death of a spouse to elude and repel the spirit of the dead husband. Because the rule of silence extended to mothers, sisters, daughters, and mothers-in-law of the departed spouse, it happened that the majority of women in the tribe were prohibited from speaking during the period of mourning. To the outsider, this suggested an awfully limited existence. Yet Frazer noted the “odd circumstance” that many of the women, when the time of mourning was complete, chose to remain silent, communicating only by signs.
As I walked along, white feathers began to twirl down from the sky.
The Trappists are technically known as the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. The movement developed in the seventeenth century under the guidance of Abbot Rancé at the French monastery La Trappe, for which the order is named. Before becoming a monk, Rancé had been a dazzling polymath, an ardent hunter, and a lover of fancy dress. Then he had the unfortunate experience of walking into the sickroom of the Duchess de Montbazon, his grand passion, to discover that she was missing her head. After the duchess’s unexpectedly abrupt death, an impatient undertaker had decapitated her corpse to make it fit inside a mismeasured coffin. That sight marked the end of Rancé’s days of gadding about in lace from the Sorbonne to the chase. He sold everything he had, withdrew into La Trappe with his valet, and set about forging the most ascetic monastic order the world had ever seen. Their rule of silence was absolute, with the brethren discoursing between themselves by sign language alone. For half the year, strict fasts were observed. During the remaining six months, the monks subsided primarily on roots. When not praying and silently meditating, they performed field labor, sometimes adding a chastening innersole of thorns to their wooden sandals.
In the tradition of the older Cluniac order that the Trappists sought to renew, silence, as much as celibacy, was seen as a way of copying the angels who parted their lips only to praise God. By observing quiet as a community, the monks blocked off the main highway to frivolity—chatter—and sought to lift themselves onto a plane of rapt attention where God’s sacrifice and human mortality became audible to all.
The idea of silence as the quickest route to solemnity is enshrined in countless religious practices and lies at the origins of national moments of silence as well. While we don’t know when silence first became part of mourning rituals where the secular and sacred intermingled, we might glimpse traces of the crossover in Carnival observances. An eyewitness of the Venice Carnival in 1868 recounted how, at the final moment, “As the great clock of St. Mark was striking the midnight hour, the band ceased playing and scarcely a sound was heard in all that immense crowd.” After the intervention of “a moment of silence and darkness,” a small light appeared, followed by a blaze of fiery serpents, Roman candles, and rockets. Eventually the flames ignited “the figure of the doomed Monarch”—King Carnival—who perished in a “deafening explosion.” The moment of silence at midnight signaled the end of the rule of the flesh and reminded the crowd that Lent was imminent.
There are competing claims for the first national moment of silence, most of which—like stories of a memorial silence held across the United States the year that the Titanic sank—are suspiciously unmentioned by contemporary sources. The first widely observed national moment of silence appears to have been one commemorating Armistice Day in England. It was begun in 1919, the year after the armistice, at the prompting of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, a former high commissioner in South Africa who’d been deeply affected by a three-minute pause in work and conversation observed daily in that country throughout the First World War. In a letter he wrote advocating for the silent pause, Fitzpatrick declared that it would serve both to preserve the memory of the sacrifices made by the “Glorious and Immortal” war dead and to create solidarity among the living.
When the British adopted the ritual, not only sound but all motion was interrupted, with trains halting, factories shutting down, and telephone exchanges ceasing to connect calls. So powerful did this two minutes of silence prove to be that the BBC began lobbying to broadcast the silence, instead of just switching off during its observance. In 1929 they began doing so, and these transmissions of national silence became a phenomenon in their own right. As a BBC representative explained, “Its impressiveness is intensified by the fact that the silence is not a dead silence, for Big Ben strikes the hour, and then the bickering of sparrows, the crisp rustle of falling leaves, the creasing of pigeon wings as they take flight, uneasy at this strange hush, contrast with the traffic din of London some minutes before.” The BBC’s role, he concluded, was to allow the silence to be heard for what it really was, “a solvent which destroys personality and gives us leave to be great and universal.”
I remember experiencing some of these emotions myself when I once observed the two minutes of silence held in Israel on Holocaust Memorial Day. I had no expectations for the event, but when the sirens began wailing and everything stopped moving—pedestrians freezing in place on the sidewalk, people stepping out of their cars and simply standing, doors left hanging open—I found myself immediately overwhelmed. I remember watching the traffic lights change color over and over—red, green, yellow; red, green, yellow—with no car responding to the signals. Silence seemed to create a hole in the present into which the unspeakable past poured in a flood, swallowing our individual lives. At the end of it, the trivia surrounding those two minutes sounded painfully loud. I wanted somehow to live up to that moment of suspension.
The yearning to be great and universal, so often awakened by war and disaster, seems to lie behind the last boom time of novices entering the silence of New Melleray Abbey as well. Since the surge began shortly after the Second World War, one might suspect that mass revulsion at the violent ways of humanity lay behind the increase in applicants. But an oral history of New Melleray that I paged through from the monastery library suggests a more complicated picture. One monk who came to the abbey after his army service explained, “You can’t look at a block of houses that’s just been blown to pieces and not realize there is more to life than consumerism and having a good time.” For this man, it wasn’t a repudiation of war and violence that fueled the decision to enter the monastery but disgust with the peaceable, vacuous face of the American consumer society he returned to. The military and the monastery are each, in their own way, dedicated to the watchful preparation for death—often in silence. The interviews with monks that I read suggested that the spike in monks in the late 1940s and early 1950s reflected the desire not to flee but to perpetuate certain intensities of life during wartime.
SILENCE AND THE UNSPEAKABLE
When Alberic and I met at the breakfast table the morning of my second day at the abbey, he looked glum. On the following day Brother Jonas was to be ordained as a priest. It had been a long process for him to reach this milestone. He had family and friends coming from all over to witness the ceremony, and now because of the weather many of them were canceling their visits. We also would be unable to set out to Trappist Caskets, where Alberic had intended to show me the quiet of monks at work. Instead of touring the coffin plant, he’d made arrangements for me to speak to several other monks about their pursuits of silence. “Nature is not friendly here,” he remarked, nervously eyeing the window, curtained with white snowfall from the outside. “She’ll walk over your face. She’s a bipolar mother. The monk in me loves this. We live on the edge, at the extreme of human capacities, but my human nature struggles with it.”
The local population struggled with it too, and though not upholding vows of silence, they were little given to idle conversation, Alberic said. The farming was relentlessly difficult and unprofitable. It would also, I knew, have been deafening, despite the rural setting: 75 percent of farmworkers are said to have a hearing problem due to their use of heavy machinery.
Indeed, the traditional Midwestern tight-lipped stoicism is now only rarely complemented by a larger environmental quiet. A priest I met at lunch after Brother Jonas’s ordination told me that his parishioners simply have no experience of silence. In consequence, Father David and other religious leaders increasingly prescribe very basic, pragmatic experiences of silence as part of their ministry. “We’ll tell people, ‘Allow for a period of no television or music each day,’” he told me. “‘Sit alone in quiet for a while.’ And I’ve had some people—after as little as half an hour—say, ‘Father, that was the most profound thing I’ve ever experienced!’ They just have nothing comparable in their life.”
But what do they do with that profound experience? I asked. Father Stephen, an older, retired priest who was seated at our table, said that in his experience the problem was that without silence people had no ability to understand one another. He currently oversees meetings for councils that set policy for different parishes, and he has recently stopped allowing any difficult decisions to be made by discussion. Doing so, he has found, means that “the noise makes the decision.” Instead, he sends everyone off to meditate on their own about their place in the discord. They’ll regather much later and as often as not he finds people’s minds have changed. “‘Father, I was out walking the farm, and I was thinking about how I would feel bad if I were them and the matter were to be worked out the way I said it should be.’” Perhaps this was what Saint Bernard, the patron saint of the Cistercians, meant when, in one of his letters, he cited Isaiah to the effect that “silence is the work of justice.”
As Alberic spoke of life on the Great Plains, much of which revolved around an extraordinary work ethic, I began thinking about the laborious rigor of the monks’ own lives. It seemed a far cry from the idyll my friends had envisioned. “Why do you get up so early?” I blurted out. “Why skew the day to begin at 3:15 AM?”
“We’re supposed to cultivate wakefulness,” Alberic said, and he described vigil, the first prayer service of the day, as a microcosm of the hyperawareness that a Cistercian monk is called to uphold at all hours. To him, Alberic said, “the darkness is a very safe space. It’s about birth. Christmas night. The night when anything can happen. The quiet, dark places are where the treasure is buried.”
“What do you do after you’ve finished vigil?” I asked.
“We go back to our cells and read. Monks and books just belong together. We study. We pray. We meditate. We have six free hours before our workday begins. How many rich people can say that? We call it ‘holy leisure.’ Having that time does something to your humanity.”
Brother Neal, a tall, slender, slightly stooped man with a face that tends to cock to one side and piercing, pale eyes that crinkle and gleam, had his own perspective. “How do you relate to the fact of God being incomprehensible to us?” he asked me. Citing the twentieth-century German theologian Karl Rahner, Neal answered his rhetorical question: “Ultimately the only adequate response to God is silent adoration.” This is another idea that crosses multiple traditions, though it was slow to catch on in ancient religions. For much of antiquity, prayers were said out loud since the ears of the gods were thought to resemble gigantic human ears, requiring worshippers to make actual sound. Silent prayer was also looked on askance because the rationale for praying inaudibly was often the wish to conceal what one was praying for—taboo sex, magical powers, and criminal plunder, for example. As the gods shed their physical sensory apparatus, attitudes began to change. The late Platonists believed that, in order to reach a transcendent being, prayer itself needed to be distilled beyond the world of the senses. “Let us sacrifice in such a manner as is fit, offering different sacrifices to different natures,” wrote Porphyry, the third-century Neoplatonist. “For there is nothing material which is not immediately impure to an immaterial nature … Hence neither is vocal language nor internal speech adapted to the highest God … but we should venerate him in profound silence.” Rather than Alberic’s notion of silence serving as a reminder of dependence of being, what Neal talked about was the way that silence can represent a dissolving of all our habitual perceptions before some great truth.
This aspect of Neal’s faith brushes up against many secular ideals of silence, often in relationship to the natural world. A famous Japanese poem about the islands of Matsushima consists only of the words, “Oh Matsushima!” The poet is so overwhelmed by the place’s beauty that he can only speak its name before he falls into silence. Many early-twentieth-century philosophies of silence resonate with this idea of an incommensurability between truth and our powers of expression. Wittgenstein ended his first book of philosophy with the proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Heidegger once declared: “Above all, silence about silence.” The French philosopher Max Picard wrote that the “silence points to a state where only being is valid.” In Picard’s view, this is “the state of the Divine.” Here Picard, a practicing Catholic, echoes many of the foundational ideas in Zen Buddhism. At one point in our conversations, Lushtak, my meditation-teacher friend, described silent meditation as an effort to “unplug from the mental story” we are constantly telling ourselves, in order to be completely attentive to the wonder of the ever-unfolding present moment.
The Apaches, among other Native American tribes, are famous for their silence, and sociolinguistic research has found that the contexts in which silence dominates the dialogue include courtship and reunions after long separations, in which ambiguities about social roles abound. Silence seems a mark of acknowledgment of these uncertainties; the long pause gives people time to come into a new relationship with one another. The rest of us confront these same ambiguities all the time, but we often pave over them with speech and so deprive ourselves and our interlocutors both of the chance to know what it is not to know where we stand with each other—and to find new grounds for meaningful exchange.
In some folklore rituals, silence is invested with the power not just to enrich existing relationships but to conjure up future lovers. The English tradition of the “dumb cake” involves variations on the idea of young women baking and eating a cake in absolute silence. After the women go to bed—sometimes sliding a slice of dumb cake under their pillows beforehand—visions of their husbands-to-be are supposed to appear to them. (In the eighteenth-century Journal of a Young Lady of Virginia, we find the young diarist on a visit to the house of Mr. George Washington trying to persuade a friend to join her one night in eating the “dum cake,” but her friend is too spooked to take part.) There are also rituals of “Dumb Suppers,” comprising midnight meals consumed in total silence. Sometimes these suppers were rites of divination that foretold a woman’s fate in marriage; on other occasions they enabled the guests to make contact with a recently deceased loved one.
In many traditions, silence forms a bridge to the unknowable far side of human experience, whether the searcher is gazing forward or backward in time.
Before I left New Melleray, Alberic told me that he was going to “bend the rules a little” and take me down to a chapel reserved for the monks beneath the church that was, in his estimation, the most silent place in the abbey. He warned me that the silence in the room was so intense that it was likely to “take me outside of my comfort zone.” He knew of cases where people from the big city had found themselves physically unable to remain in the chapel for even five minutes.
We descended lower and lower, and then wound our way through interminable unlit corridors. Alberic gestured for me to wait against a stone wall in a low-ceilinged hall and went on ahead of me to investigate the state of the chapel. After a minute, he returned, whispering in a low voice that he would not be able to read me the passage he’d hoped to recite as preparation for the silence since there was another monk inside the chapel. He led me forward through another door, and then we passed around a barrier wall into a small room that was completely dark except for a tiny candle in a glass at the far end, suspended from the ceiling by a chain. In the center of a row of chairs directly across from the candle, I could faintly make out the silhouette of a large man sitting with his legs wide apart and his hands on his thighs, breathing quite loudly. Alberic and I lowered ourselves into chairs along the side wall.
Here, in this darkness, I began to feel a real gravity to the silence of the monastery, an inescapability that made me glean something of the rigor with which these men spend their lives preparing for death. The death of a monk is, in Alberic’s words, a “graduation ceremony. You haven’t persevered in the monk’s calling until you die. Death marks the point at which you’ve completed your transaction. There’s a lightness, even joy to the funeral. The night before a monk is buried, we light an Easter candle. We put two chairs on either side of the body, which has been placed in the center of the church. The candle is placed at the feet of the body. We take turns praying two by two over the body all night. And talk about entering into that silence.” Alberic shook his head. “You’d think it would be morbid or scary, but those are some of the lightest, most joyful moments in the monastery. The silence is telling you it’s going to be okay. Unless you have real psychological resistance, you know it’s going to be okay.”
In the chapel, my eyes were drawn to the candle in the glass. Though I couldn’t feel a breath of air where I was, the chain was being tugged gently this way and that by an otherwise imperceptible draft; the reflection of fire on the glass doubled the image of its burning orange glow and made it look like two wings fluttering tremulously open and closed, as though the proverbial moth had actually become the flame.
So far from being taken outside my comfort zone, I found myself wanting to remain and sink deeper into it.
The monks at New Melleray each, in one way or another, described themselves listening to silence for self-knowledge. Yet the self-knowledge that the silence of the monastery promotes is, in the end, less about discovering whom one really is, in our conventional use of the term, than about acknowledging the limitations of our grasp on what lies within and without us. Indeed, the self-knowledge the monks advocate—and which they believe the quiet of monastic life reveals to them—is the knowledge that there’s something beyond the self.
All the time I’d been in the monastery, I’d been searching for some kind of clear, encapsulated lesson in the silence—something that I could take home with me. But what I’d received instead was a powerful reminder of the good that can come from not knowing, from lingering where the mind keeps reaching outward. I remembered speaking earlier to Vinod Menon, a neuroscientist who has done extensive fMRI studies of people listening to music. Menon discovered that the peak of positive brain activity actually occurs in the silent pauses between sounds, when the brain is striving to anticipate what the next note will be. The burst of neural firing that takes place in the absence of sound stimulus enables the mind to perform some of its most vital work of maintaining attention and encoding memories. I asked Menon what he took from this finding. His small, dark eyes twinkled. “Silence is golden,” he said. “Silence in the right contexts.”
Even brief silence, it seems, can inject us with a fertile unknown: a space in which to focus and absorb experience—a reminder that the person we are with may yet surprise us; a reflection that some things we cannot put into words are yet resoundingly real; a reawakening to our dependency on something greater than ourselves.
I wanted to stay in the chapel. But Alberic was already rising to his feet and beckoning me forward. I resisted his summons a few moments longer, then stood. I don’t know how long we remained in the end. It wasn’t long enough, and I felt overcome with sadness as we stepped away—rising back up from the depths of darkness and stillness, into the light and echoing footsteps of the abbey’s upper stories.
— George Prochnik
The blessing of the morning light to you,
may it find you even in your invisible appearances,
may you be seen to have risen
from some other place we intuit and know
in the darkness and that carries all we need.
May you see what is hidden in you
as a place of hospitality and shadowed shelter,
may that hidden darkness be your gift to give,
may you hold the shadow to the light
and the silence of that place to the word of the light,
may you join all of your previous disappearances
with this new appearance, this new morning,
this being seen again, new and newly alive.
— David Whyte
A few years ago BBC asked a Benedictine monastery to open its doors to 5 ordinary men to share in the lifestyle of the monks. Does the 1500-year-old spiritual vision of the monks have relevance in our day and age? What does the monastery have to offer to our frenetic, materialistic, consumeristic society?
Abbot Christopher Jamison says:
We saw in this project an opportunity to discover what our way of life offers to people today who do not share our beliefs.
The 5 participants, although coming from different backgrounds, had a common desire to find out if life has meaning. The challenge for them is: Will they be able to follow the strict rules of the monastery? Will they be able to live a life of silence, simplicity, prayer, study, and manual labor for 40 days?
Tony Burke is 29 years old. He’s single, lives in London, and works in an ad agency, producing trailers for a sex chat line. He has recently questioned the materialistic and hedonistic life he’s living. He doesn’t believe in God, and has no religious background. Will he be able to turn around his life?
Gary McCormick is from Belfast. He is 36 years old and single. He currently lives in Cornwall, where he works as a painter and decorator. He struggles with his faith, and the emotional scars he carries from spending time in prison early in his life. Will he be able to cope with the pain in his life and move on?
Nick Buxton is 37 years old and single. Studying for a PhD in Buddhism at Cambridge University, he has been on a spiritual search for the past 10 years. Coming back recently to his Anglican roots, he’s questioning some of the tenets of his faith. Will he be able to make that leap of faith?
Anthoney Wright is a high-earning 32-year-old bachelor from London. He works for a legal publishing company. He has issues stemming from the fact that his mother abandoned him when he was a child. Will he be able to find inner peace?
Peter Gruffyd is a married published poet and a retired teacher, living in Bristol. Having rejected religion when he was a young man, he would like to know if life makes sense. Will he be able to find the answer to his question: “What is the meaning of life?”
To find out watch the episodes of “The Monastery” by clicking the links below:
“Silence, Please.” No one expected that such a plain, nondescript phrase would be used by the government of Finland to promote their country.
It was in March, 2010 when a group of 100 marketing experts met in Helsinki to brainstorm on how to attract tourists to Finland. Over drinks they discussed the various strengths of their country. The problem was Finland was known as a quiet country. Finland is also known for exceptional teachers, and an abundance of wild berries and mushrooms — not exactly compelling ideas to make a country a world-class tourist destination.
Then out of the blue someone said that quiet wasn’t such a bad thing after all. That set them to thinking.
A few months later, they came out with a “Country Brand Report.” It highlighted themes that could make Finland a preferred tourist destination. Among other things, it emphasized Finland’s renowned educational system and school of functional design. However, somewhat surprisingly, a brand new theme emerged from the report: silence. “Silence is a resource. In the future, people will be prepared to pay for the experience of silence,” the report stated.
A year later, the Finnish Tourist Board decided to put out a series of photographs of lone figures in Finland’s official travel site, with the caption “Silence, Please.” It is one of the most popular pages, and has proven to be the most popular theme in attracting tourists to Finland.
Why are people attracted to silence? Are there tangible effects of silence?
In 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote,”Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” She observed that noise can be a source of distress, and loss of sleep for recovering patients. Surprisingly, she asserted that sudden noise can be a cause of death among sick children! Was she exaggerating?
Research proves that she was right. Chronic noise can cause high blood pressure. Increased levels of noise are linked to sleep loss and heart disease. In 2011, the World Health Organization concluded that 340 million residents of Western Europe annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. It also asserted that 3,000 deaths was directly attributed to excessive noise.
Silence as a subject of scientific research only began to appear in 2006. Strangely, it was studied only accidentally.
The physician Luciano Bernardi started out by studying the physiological effects of music. He says, “We didn’t think about the effect of silence. That was not meant to be studied specifically.”
Bernardi observed two dozen subjects while they listened to six musical tracks. He found out that the effects of listening to music could be correlated with changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. It is not surprising that a physiological change is linked to a condition of physical arousal. This made sense since active listening requires alertness and attention.
But what surprised him was the drastic effect of the inserted stretches of silence between the musical tracks. The two-minute pauses proved more relaxing than listening to music!
Silence, which was considered irrelevant at the start of the research, became the main object of the study. What they concluded, is that silence seemed heightened by contrast, perhaps because it gave the subjects a release from paying attention to the music. “Perhaps the arousal is something that concentrates the mind in one direction, so that when there is nothing more arousing, then you have deeper relaxation,” he says.
Ever since Bernardi’s ground-breaking study, other neurological experiments have reinforced Bernardi’s key findings.
Noora Vikman is a consultant on silence for the government of Finland. She lives in the eastern part of Finland, a quiet and isolated place, surrounded by quiet lakes and forests. Standing in the Finnish wilderness, she strained her ears to pick out the faintest sounds of animals or wind. “It’s strange,” she says, “the way you change. You have all the power–you can break the silence with even with the smallest sounds. And then you don’t want to do it. You try to be as quiet as you can be.”
Note: This blog post is based on the article “This Is Your Brain on Silence” by Daniel A. Gross
George Prochnik would like the world to put a sock in it. He makes his case in a new book, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (Doubleday, $26). Here he explains himself (using his indoor voice):
Jackhammers. Leaf blowers. Car alarms. The aggravating, tinny sound coming out of iPod earphones. We’ve become so accustomed to noise, there’s almost an ingrained prejudice against the idea that silence might be beneficial. If you tell someone to be quiet, you sound like an old man. But it’s never been more essential to find sustainable quiet. Silence focuses us, brings us closer to the people around us, improves our health, and is a key to lasting peace and contentment.
We need to excite people about the sounds you start to hear if you merely quiet things down a little. During a Japanese tea ceremony, the smallest sounds become a kind of artistry — the clacking spoons on a bowl, the edges of a kimono brushing against the floor. In ancient times, even those who entered a Zen garden without being in a silent frame of mind — samurai warriors, even — were seduced into silence.
We have different samurai today: televisions blaring at high volume, restaurants assaulting our ears with deafening music. It’s okay to socialize with friends in a way that doesn’t revolve around noise. At work and at home, we need to find places that are escapes from the world of sound. That’s not as difficult as you might think. It may involve good earplugs (I favor blue Hearos from the Xtreme Protection Series), though you want it to be more encompassing. Find a fountain or a place where water flows. Falling water not only masks noise; it has acoustic properties that are psychologically beneficial.
In deaf communities, attentiveness is heightened in almost every aspect of life. If two deaf people are walking together, using sign language, they constantly watch out for each other and protect each other by holding the other in their gaze. They are connected yet also keenly aware of their surroundings. Even deaf teenagers! We in the hearing world can learn from them. If we remove the overwhelming blasts of noise, we become aware of an extraordinarily rich world around us — of little rustling sounds and the patter of footsteps, of bird songs and ice cracking. It’s astonishing how beautiful things sound when you can really listen.
~ Interview by David Hochman, Reader’s Digest May 2010 edition
Monk: from the Greek monachos meaning single or solitary, a monk in the world does not live apart but immersed in the everyday with a single-hearted and undivided presence, always striving for greater wholeness and integrity.
Manifesto: from the Latin for clear, means a public declaration of principles and intentions.
Monk Manifesto: A public expression of your commitment to live a compassionate, contemplative, and creative life.
1. I commit to finding moments each day for silence and solitude, to make space for another voice to be heard, and to resist a culture of noise and constant stimulation.
2. I commit to radical acts of hospitality by welcoming the stranger both without and within. I recognize that when I make space inside my heart for the unclaimed parts of myself, I cultivate compassion and the ability to accept those places in others.
3. I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.
4. I commit to cultivating awareness of my kinship with creation and a healthy asceticism by discerning my use of energy and things, letting go of what does not help nature to flourish.
5. I commit to bringing myself fully present to the work I do, whether paid or unpaid, holding a heart of gratitude for the ability to express my gifts in the world in meaningful ways.
6. I commit to rhythms of rest and renewal through the regular practice of Sabbath and resist a culture of busyness that measures my worth by what I do.
7. I commit to a lifetime of ongoing conversion and transformation, recognizing that I am always on a journey with both gifts and limitations.