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In Pursuit of Silence

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New Melleray Abbey (Photo: Cassidy Hall)

New Melleray Abbey (Photo: Cassidy Hall)

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.”


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.


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

Written by MattAndJojang

February 6, 2016 at 11:34 am

Is Merton Still Relevant?

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Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

–Pope Francis

I was surprised and taken aback when Pope Francis honored Thomas Merton in his speech before the U.S. Congress. It is not that I wasn’t not happy about it, but considering the bad blood between Merton and the American Catholic Church hierarchy — it was quite unexpected.

Who is Thomas Merton? Why did Pope Francis honor him? Is he still relevant for our times?

Thomas Merton was an American writer and intellectual who became a Trappist monk, officially known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, which is considered one of the strictest Catholic religious orders, in 1941 at the age of 26. Before that, he was a restless young man living a troubled life. But in 1938 he converted to Catholicism; he was only 23 years old. He spent the next 27 years of his life living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

It was not an easy decision for him to become a monk, considering his extroverted and gregarious personality. But, above all, it wasn’t easy for him to give up writing. The Trappists are known to live a simple life of prayer and manual labor. And intellectual pursuits, like writing, are not encouraged in the monastery. Fortunately, his abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, was a man who valued and appreciated Merton’s writing abilities. Thanks to him, thousands upon thousands of people have been and are still inspired by Merton’s books.

In 1948 he wrote his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which became a best-seller. On a personal note, I read this book when I was in my teens and it changed my life. His autobiography as well as the many books he wrote later inspired not only monks and nuns, but also ordinary people, even non Christians, to live spiritual lives. For Merton, the experience of God’s presence and love is something that is available to everyone.

Later in his life he became a social activist, who was involved in the peace and civil rights movement in the 60s. Unfortunately, this drew heavy criticism from officials of the Catholic Church. This rift between Merton and the Catholic establishment continues to this day.

10 years ago the first national catechism for adults was published in the U.S. Included in an earlier draft was Merton’s story. Sadly, though, his story was removed from the final version. It was a bad decision, because Merton’s story is significant and central to 20th-century American Catholicism.

Two influential Catholic officials considered him a lapsed Catholic, due to the fact that he was involved in dialogue with people of other faith traditions, especially Buddhists. They said he spent his last days “wandering in the East, seeking consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality… ” I find this incomprehensible. The Vatican II Council, a gathering of Catholic bishops in the 60s, came out with an official document encouraging dialogue with other faith traditions. In the document, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Catholics are encouraged to respect and even learn from other religions. It states:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men…

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions… they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

Cardinal Wuerl, who was often seen at the side of the Pope Francis during his visit to the U.S., was the chairman of the committee tasked to write the catechism. When the catechism was published, the then U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president Bishop William Skylstad said they were deeply disturbed by the exclusion of Merton. He said:

Merton, has played a crucial role in the faith journeys of thousands upon thousands of Catholics (as well as other Christians and even non-Christians) both during his lifetime and since his death, and we believe his inclusion in the catechism can and should be a significant way to extend the powerful witness of his life and writings to a new audience.

Merton’s pursuit of a deeper spiritual life led him to embark on a trip to Asia in 1968. During that trip he explored Eastern spirituality and met with people of other faith traditions. One of the most significant persons that he met with was the Dalai Lama, who continues to talk about Thomas Merton as his “brother.”

He met an untimely death, at the age of 53, in Bangkok, Thailand, electrocuted by a faulty fan.

Almost 50 years after his death, Merton continues to be an inspiration to many people, especially through his books.

Pope Francis, in spite of the rejection of Merton by the official American Catholic hierarchy, honored him:

Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

So, if you ask me: “Is Merton still relevant?” My resounding answer is “Yes!”

And here are some of the reasons why:

His Humanity

Merton was a genuine human being; he was no plaster saint. He didn’t like pretense and phoniness. He had his share of struggles, weaknesses and failures, and didn’t attempt to hide them. He wrote about his doubts and questions. Towards the end of his life he writes:

When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of ‘answers.’ But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further in solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions… I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts…

His Respect for People

During Merton’s Asian trip, John Stier, an American government official, hosted him during his stay at Sri Lanka. As they were discussing Buddhism, Stier asserted that Buddhism was a negative approach to life. Having studied Buddhism in-depth, Merton disagreed with him. Stier says: “He was surprisingly gentle in disagreement, he had a wonderful way about him.” Hundreds of the people that Merton related and corresponded with will agree with Stier’s observation. Merton respected and responded to people in their uniqueness; he accepted them as they are.

His Openness

Merton is known to have cultivated many interests; he also related with people of diverse cultures, races, and religions. He was capable of communicating with people who had a different background and tradition than his own. He wrote about William Blake, James Joyce, Boris Pasternak, William Faulkner, Louis Zukofsky, Flannery O’Connor. His correspondence was voluminous, having written to a great number of people. Here are few of the names: Jacques Maritain, Erich Fromm, Ernesto Cardenal, Dorothy Day, Catherine Doherty, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Haring, Henry Miller, Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Paul Tillich, Rosemary Radford Ruether, D.T. Suzuki, Rachel Carson, Louis Massignon, Mark Van Doren. This gave him a great insight into the human condition that enabled him to articulate our deepest longings; his insights transcended that of his own life and his own generation.

His Deep Spirituality

Once Merton stated that he didn’t want to have any disciples. He urged people not to follow him but to follow Christ. But in spite of his protestations he has become the spiritual director of many people. He wrote about the spiritual life in a fresh and attractive way; he articulated the depths and riches of the spiritual life in a way that can relate to the modern person. Whether he liked it or not, he guided the spiritual journey of many people, even those who didn’t have any link with any institutional religion. For these people, his writings will continue to be a continual source of inspiration and guidance.


Written by MattAndJojang

October 16, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Three Rebel Monks

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Screenshot from

Screenshot from “Three Rebel Monks” trailer.

A group of young adults in Spain are bringing to the big screen a novel about the renewal of the Cistercian Order by three saints who strove to recover the poverty, simplicity and austerity of the early monastic era.

“Three Rebel Monks” tells the story of Saint Robert of Molesmes, Saint Albéric, and Saint Stephen Harding, who overcame the challenges of monasteries that resisted their efforts.

The film is an adaptation of the book with the same title written by M. Raymond. The film director, Aleix Forcada, said that he began with a short university project and ended up with a thorough production.

The film was shot at the medieval monastery of Santa Maria de Huerta in Soria, Spain, where there is currently a Cistercian community.

Forcada and the other filmmakers are young adults in the Schoenstatt movement in Madrid. They spent four years in filming and editing, a period of time that they say has been an opportunity to encounter God, according to a press release on the movie.

Although the film is set in the 12th century, Forcada said it can be considered contemporary “because it speaks to us of eternal values such as constancy, perseverance, trust, humility, effort, courage…values that don’t have anything to do with ideologies or distinctions, are for everyone.”

He also emphasized that it has a special message for young people that are trying “to wake up from the toxic anesthesia of the ephemeral, of the ‘here and now.’ Things in life take time, and nothing comes without effort.”

Forcada also said that “the whole process of filming was an experience of God. I couldn’t pick out an exact moment…the simple fact of having been able to complete the film is a clear sign of the presence of God.”

The entire production and filming were made possible through small donations. Forcada said they received help from “anyone who could teach us how to organize film shoots with extras, anyone who gave us free lighting, the community of monks that welcomed us with such affection, the people that gave of their time to help us.”

Forcada said he hopes that people who see the film “leave the movie theater in a reflective mood,” regardless of whether they are Christian.

— from the “Catholic News Agency”

Written by MattAndJojang

April 23, 2015 at 8:25 pm

Thomas Merton

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Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, to artists, Ruth and Owen Merton. His early years were spent in the south of France; later, he went to private school in England and then to Cambridge. Both of his parents were deceased by the time Merton was a young teen and he eventually moved to his grandparents’ home in the United States to finish his education at Columbia University in New York City. While a student there, he completed a thesis on William Blake who was to remain a lifelong influence on Merton’s thought and writings.

But Merton’s active social and political conscience was also informed by his conversion to Christianity and Catholicism in his early twenties. He worked for a time at Friendship House under the mentorship of Catherine Doherty and then began to sense a vocation in the priesthood. In December 1941, he resigned his teaching post at Bonaventure College, Olean, NY, and journeyed to the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky. There, Merton undertook the life of a scholar and man of letters, in addition to his formation as a Cistercian monk.

The thoroughly secular man was about to undertake a lifelong spiritual journey into monasticism and the pursuit of his own spirituality. The more than 50 books, 2000 poems, and numerous essays, reviews, and lectures that have been recorded and published, now form the canon of Merton’s writings. His importance as a writer in the American literary tradition is becoming clear. His influence as a religious thinker and social critic is taking its place alongside such luminaries as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King. His explorations of the religions of the east initiated Merton’s entrance into inter-religious dialogue that puts him in the pioneering forefront of worldwide ecumenical movements. Merton died suddenly, electrocuted by a malfunctioning fan, while he was attending his first international monastic conference near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968.

~Source: Thomas Merton Society of Canada

Click Here to Watch a Short Documentary about Thomas Merton

Written by MattAndJojang

November 29, 2013 at 10:23 am

Guava Jelly

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Photo: Jojang

Photo: Jojang

Early this week Jojang bought this bottle of guava jelly made by the Trappist monks at the Our Lady of the Philippines Trappist Abbey.

It brings back good memories of my stay at that particular Trappist monastery almost 30 years ago.

In fact, when I was there to discern my  vocation to the monastic life, I was assigned to the section making jams and jellies!

~ Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

November 5, 2013 at 6:20 pm

A Trappist Monk and the Key to Success

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Trappist Monks of Mepkin Abbey    (Photo:

Trappist Monks of Mepkin Abbey (Photo:

For the last 17 years I have had the privilege of living and working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner, South Carolina as a frequent monastic guest. And I always enjoyed Father Leonard’s fiery homilies at Mass; not just for their erudition, but for his keen insights into human nature as well. Though, as an African-American native of Charleston, SC, how he came to be a Catholic priest and monk in a monastery hemmed in by so many congregations of African-American Baptists remains a mystery.

When I first met Father Leonard in 1996, he was still a monastic youngster of 65 or so spending his days on his knees prayerfully scrubbing the monastery’s floors. And though the sweat dripping from his headband in the blistering heat of a South Carolina summer made it seem more like a crown of thorns than a halo, every time I happened by he would lean on his brush, wave, and speed me on my way with a smile so full of genuine joy that it never failed to lighten my step.

Eventually, Parkinson’s, vascular disease, and an assortment of other maladies took their toll. Father Leonard could no longer scrub floors or say Mass, and when propping his legs up on a pillow resting on his desk could no longer alleviate the pain, he even had to stop answering Mepkin’s phone. Only the luminous joy remained: a joy that despite their best efforts his painful infirmities only seemed to manage to magnify.

Eight years ago I was spending a few weeks over Christmas at Mepkin. My father had died a year earlier and this was my first Christmas without him. One day I stopped by the deserted monastic kitchen on my way back from work for a cup of tea. As I stood in front of the hot water dispenser watching my slowly twirling tea bag gradually dissolve, a hand firmly gripped my elbow. I tried to turn but the grip tightened freezing me in place.

“Don’t you think for one minute that we’ve forgotten you, your father, and your family,” a voice urgently whispered into my ear. “We pray for you every day.”

It was Father Leonard, but before I could catch my breath his silver walker and black hooded head were already inching away.

* * *

Father Leonard peacefully passed away a few years ago, but he lives on in my memory as the beau ideal — not only of a Trappist monk and human being — but of the secret to Trappist business success as well. For over 1,000 years Trappist monasteries have run some of the world’s most successful businesses. These businesses, often built on prosaic products like mushrooms and eggs, have been so successful in fact that a recent article rather boldly argued that capitalism itself should be credited, not to Adam Smith, but to Trappist monks instead.

But what distinguishes the Trappist business philosophy from most of its secular competition is that very same spirit of service and selflessness toward others that Father Leonard epitomized so well. Every great salesman knows that the more he forgets himself, his product, his quota, and his commissions and instead relentlessly focuses on serving his customer’s needs, the more sales he makes. The commissions take care of themselves. When an entire corporation focuses on delighting customers, profits take care of themselves as well. And as every great leader knows, the more he focuses on making other people successful, the more successful he becomes.

I have been in business for over 35 years: First as a salesman and later as an executive and entrepreneur. Over that time I have seen a gradual transformation in the philosophy of business from a model based purely on the competitive zero sum game of win/lose toward a more cooperative service oriented model based on win/win. But while books espousing such a philosophy now appear like clockwork, unlike Father Leonard and his fellow monks, all too often all we have to show for it is lip service rather than the concrete behavioral changes that are essential to success. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet ruefully opined about the manners of his fellow Danes, selfless service is usually honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Louis R. Mobley, my mentor and one of the founders of the IBM Executive School back in 1956, was an early secular pioneer in this trend toward a service oriented business model. And one of his most critical discoveries was that building a corporate culture based on selfless service requires what he called a “transformation in consciousness” or what the monks might call a “radical change of heart” in IBM’s executives. As a result Mobley abandoned the “skills and knowledge” based “training” curriculum of the IBM Executive School and refocused his efforts on transforming the “values and attitudes” of his students instead. And as a result IBM became the most successful and admired corporation in the world in the 1960s and 70s.

It was his longing for this transformation from selfishness to selflessness that sent Father Leonard to the monastery so many years ago. This longing is the urge to transformation, and it produces the kind of “change of heart” or essential “change of being” that remade Father Leonard into someone who had so completely forgotten himself and his suffering that he recalled a man he had never met by silently reading my heart. And if, like the monks, we want to see the business, professional, and personal benefits that only a spirit of selfless service can bring, we must commit, both collectively and individually, to transforming ourselves as well.

~ August Turak

Click Here to Read an Excerpt from August Turak’s book “Business Secrets of Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity”

The Hard Work of Keeping Still

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One day last fall, just after 3 a.m, I found myself on a country road in the high Ogden Valley near Huntsville, Utah. It was the first morning of a three-day retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, a Trappist-Cistercian monastery, and I was walking the half mile from the guest house to the church for Vigils, the first of seven times each day that the monks gather to chant and pray.

I am not Catholic. As a child, I did not attend church of any kind and my adult observance can best be described as “Cafeterian,” drawing nourishment from many spiritual traditions. But the abbey offers retreat to anyone who seeks renewal, and for three days I had an apartment in the guest house to myself and an invitation to use my time for contemplation in whatever form I chose.

On a moonless night, the earth was inky black and the sky a field of diamonds. I did not, however, find myself in a world of ethereal quiet. I might have expected the chirp of night birds, the strange wooden cooing of Sandhill cranes, the bark of town dogs a few miles away, or even a truck groaning up a distant grade. All of these were present but only as bass tones to a more pervasive racket, an eerie, high-pitched call and response back and forth across the valley from high up in the hills. I didn’t recognize the sound: certainly not coyotes and too high-pitched for donkeys — unlike any bird call I could imagine. The sound wrapped me in its mystery and I had a thought that often occurs when I stop to really listen, even in midday: a world exists outside my knowing because I am asleep.

Later, Father Charles, who coordinates the retreats for women, told me I had arrived at the height of elk mating season. Of course. I should have known. I had heard bugling once or twice in my childhood, but I remembered it as much lower in pitch, and in fact elk make many different sounds. On subsequent mornings, I heard a range of calls as well as other signs that the animals were near: the sound of hooves running in the field beside the road, the stick-on-stick clatter of antlers as two bulls sparred. All this in the pitch dark. By day, the elk were nowhere to be seen, but I took comfort in knowing they were about, taking refuge, as was I, at the abbey.

The Abbey of our Lady of the Holy Trinity was founded in 1947 with 34 monks from Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky and is one of twelve Cistercian-Trappist monasteries in the United States. (There are also five convents.) The monks observe seven periods of Scripture, prayer, and song throughout the day known as the Liturgy of the Hours: Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. The ancient chants — historically in Latin but now in English — are sung in unison. In addition, the monks devote their lives to private prayer and manual labor.

Monks who enter a Trappist monastery live out their lives in community. Today, 15 monks live at the Huntsville Abbey and their average age is 80; there have been four funerals in the past year. There are more stones in the graveyard than plates on the table. They have no novices. “We are praying for that to change,” Father Charles told me.

The Abbey is self-supporting on 1800 acres of crop and range ground. Traditionally, the monks did all the ranch work themselves. Now, in deference to their ages, they lease out the land but still do the maintenance and housekeeping themselves as well as process creamed honey and run a book store and gift shop. One monk, a fine woodworker, builds grandfather clocks.

I had been under the impression that Trappist monks observe a vow of silence, but that has never been the case. They follow rules of silence that were stricter in the past than now, but they have always believed, as they explain on their website, that silence ”is a form of charity to others, but it is not absolute. Charity may sometimes oblige persons, including monks, to speak at the right time and in the right way.” The words have stayed with me. Often I am so distracted, so “busy,” that I feel far removed from a world in which I know how to speak — or do anything else, for that matter — “at the right time and in the right way.”

Recently, a friend reminded me of a quote from advertising: “I know half my advertising dollars are completely wasted; the problem is I don’t know which half.” And then commented that she felt that way about her busy-ness. “It’s usually only in retrospect that I can see things that really didn’t need to be done,” she wrote, “or at least not done in the frenzy with which I approached them, or indeed would have been much better left undone.”

She identifies a quandary that many of us feel. We are dancing so fast that we hardly hear the music. We fall in bed each night too exhausted to imagine that the ceaseless tasks that engage us might be a form of what the Tibetan Buddhist master Sogyal Rinpoche calls “active laziness.”

“Eastern laziness,” he writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,“ is like the one practiced to perfection in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues.

Many of us want to confront the real issues: how to live responsibly on this Earth, practice love for one other, and live in gratitude for the miracle of our existence — but we have forgotten how. It is one reason I went to Huntsville: to grow quiet enough to remember. It was not a complete retreat. I was “too busy” not to bring a writing deadline with me and I spent a few hours each day in the Huntsville library. But for a little sliver of time, my days were not so very different from those of the monks, in form if not in depth: I attended many, though not all, of the hours; I spent time in private meditation; I worked quietly with little outside distraction.

The Trappists are not teachers in the active sense. They do no ministry outside the monastery. In their words, they devote their lives “to live the gospel in our particular way for the sake of our brothers and sisters throughout the world.” They pray for us, and they provide a model of commitment and reverent industry through the quiet order of their day.

The monks live the strength of their vows to a degree that few of us can imagine. But as they observe the hours, they remind us that we all make vows with time, something which David Whyte eloquently explores in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity:

“When we make a good marriage with time, … whatever sanity, patience, generosity and creative genius we are able to achieve in life is not solely within our own remit. It comes from a real conversation with something other than ourselves…The closer we are to the productions of time — that is, to the eternal — the more easily we understand the particular currents we must navigate on any given day…

To say yes …to [something] that we know we cannot do with any sanity given all our present commitments … would be the equivalent of promiscuity, of faithlessness and betrayal. Stress means we have committed adultery with regard to our marriage with time. If we want to understand the particulars of our reality, we must understand the way we conduct our daily relationship with the hours.”

I did not come home from Huntsville having entirely healed my marriage with time, and I know myself well enough to doubt I can completely resist the seduction of unnecessary busy-ness. But the retreat reminded me of the power of contemplation to create a spaciousness where our larger commitments can come into view. This seems a simple truth and in fact the Greek word for truth, aletheia, means a clearing. No matter how full the hours, I need to make time to hear the elk bugling in the hills, the monks chanting in the chapel, and the still small voice within.

~ Teresa Jordan

Written by MattAndJojang

March 13, 2011 at 9:41 am