Seeking God in the Silence

“Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence…”
∼  T.S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday

One of the truly awful torments of modern life, from whose myriad aggressions no one is entirely safe, is noise. More and more, it fills the space that was once marked by that silence whose absence we seem increasingly not to notice.   Nor even, it seems, to mind, so accustomed have we grown to ever higher and more intrusive levels of din.   Indeed, so often are we in flight from silence, so quickly do we turn up the volume, that one might think the work of suppression part of a larger strategy to deflect the emptiness of our own lives.   Thus the ambient noise allows us not to think, to leave unattended the whole inner life, which we might otherwise activate, were there only enough silence to encourage the exercise.

“We are no longer able to hear God,” warns Pope Benedict, “when there are too many different frequencies filling our ears.” Where the decibel levels are so screamingly shrill as to drive all the silence away, it is no surprise that his presence goes undetected. So where does one go to escape the din? And if such places actually exist, will it cost very much to stay? For how long? The writer Pico Iyer, author of a number of studies on the subject, tells us that he regularly disappears into the silence, sequestering himself every three or four months in a small monastic cell about a thousand feet above an ocean. Why does he do it?   He goes, he tells us, “to become another self, the self that we all are if only we choose to unpack our overstuffed lives and leave our selves at home.”

It is obviously something very important to him, this entering into the silence. Where, effectively removed from the noise and the clutter of the daily round, he ventures with the utmost daring, “to lay claim to a mystery at the heart of me.” And I know just what he means, having myself spent a number of days in a comparable state of silence; I too found it wonderful and welcoming. Of course, unlike Mr. Pico, who finds himself seasonally ensconced in a monastery whose faith he does not share, I can’t imagine a setting both silent and yet without recourse to God. Except for the fact that Mr. Pico is free to come and go as he pleases, his situation strikes me as not much different from solitary confinement in a prison. The silence is undeniably there, all right, but it leads to a fixation on the self that seems, well, solipsistic.

So on what terms of incarceration do I spend my silent stretches? Well, the last time around, it was the result of an invitation to speak to a community of Cistercian monks, who had asked me to come and give a series of conferences on the spiritual life. Here are men who take the vocation of silence with utter seriousness. Their monastery, located high in the mountains outside Salt Lake City, had been founded in 1947 by a handful of Trappists from Gethsemani, Kentucky, determined on building a contemplative outpost in the heart of Mormon country. It was the aftermath of the Second World War, and among the GIs returning home, many having experienced firsthand the futility and horror of battle, there were some, a heroic few, who sought enlistment in a discipline more demanding even than the Marine Corps. It was holiness they were after. Unending intimacy with God. But it had to be pursued in a setting surrounded by, immersed in, silence. How else could they seek and find that Sounding Silence of which all the great mystics speak? There, amid the stillness, they would, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion….”

And so it happened that a small contingent of resolute young men belonging to the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, headed west in search of God. Throwing up a couple of Quonset huts for themselves, they set about in the spirit of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the order’s most celebrated member, to rediscover the joys of twelfth-century religious life.

So what was it like living among medievals in a world rendered blessedly mute save for the movement of the wind outside, the lovely lilt of music and prayer inside? It was as if time itself had stood still. Will heaven be like this? I wondered. In his moving encyclical On Christian Hope, Pope Benedict provides a glimpse—a sudden, luminous glint, as it were—of the joys that may await us on the other side of silence.

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists … such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.

And while we do not as yet possess this life, we nevertheless feel ourselves drawn to it in the silence that beckons, soliciting us by its benign and gentle grasp to let go, “to put off” (again, the words of Eliot come to mind):

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Can this happen without silence? Is it possible to acquire this repose of the soul, never mind how imperfect, unless there is silence? Certainly we long for it, and even in the midst of its noisy absence we feel ourselves drawn towards it; but without some conscious effort to create a space for it, nothing will happen. “A condition of complete simplicity,” is how Eliot describes it. And the cost, he asks? It can never be less than everything.

And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

So, yes, it will take some getting used to, this business of finding time for silence. A lifetime at least. But the effort will be worth it, providing as it must the setting for that necessary and salutary cultivation of the soul on which the life of holiness depends. And what really is silence but a whole world in which the spirit is set free to commune, not simply with its own deepest self, but with God himself. He Who Is.

Which is pretty much what the twenty or so monks living in Utah have been about all these years. Of that original group that began sixty or more years ago, not many have survived, and those who have, along with a handful of others who signed on later, all looked pretty long in the tooth to me. The abbot, for example, a most agreeable young man in his early seventies, told me the average age was just over eighty. I’d have put the figure rather higher than that. (Between conferences, I will confess, I could never be quite sure if anyone would survive.) Still, it was the oldest ones, those closest to the end of their journeys, who impressed me most. I think of dear Brother Felix, for example, who, God willing, must be in his late nineties by now. What a lovely man he was! Bent and gnarled by age and illness, his sight virtually gone, I watched him day by day moving in a sort of rhythmic silence from station to station, in a Via Dolorossa that had become his life.

And what will the fate of the monastery be, if fresh recruits cannot be found? Will God supply the need? He surely did seven centuries ago when the charism of Cistercian life found concrete expression in over five-hundred abbey churches strewn about the countryside of Northern Europe by the year 1300. Another one-hundred-and-fifty arose in the following century. “It’s a matter for prayer,” the Abbot says, his voice bespeaking a confidence borne of his own intense life of prayer.

All things being possible with God, I’d put my money on the monks. After all, isn’t prayer the thing they do best? And inhabiting, as they feel themselves obliged to do, a whole world of silence, the perfect medium for the life of prayer could scarcely be improved upon.  Yes, I do believe God will reward such faithfulness to prayer with renewed life and vocations.

Regis Martin

By

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    “St. Francis of Assisi once walked ten miles praying and said in the whole time one Pater Noster.”

    The Pater Noster that the saint prayed is full of silence and mystery. For most of us, monasteries are not where we are headed, but silence (which St. Bernard says is simply the true nature of all things when they are their natural selves) is ‘ours for the asking’.

  • Susan

    The unexpected moment of silence….the planned time set aside for silence, both gifts are thanked for. How good is Our Lord to shower us with this overwhelming power of peace, even a fleeting moment at the most unexpected moment…!

  • Consolatrix Afflictorum

    In this age, where it seems like the smallest of lads have their ears plugged with headphones listening to the newest rapper or the loudest rock band that they can find, it can be hard to teach them (and others) about the value of silence.

    However, without silence, we will be lost in a fantasy world. We will never be able to truly examine ourselves and see our faults. Without interior silence, we will never have exterior silence and henceforth there will be no progress in our interior life.

    “The first stage of this tranquility consists in silencing the lips when the heart is excited. The second, in silencing the mind when the soul is still excited. The goal is a perfect peacefulness even in the middle of the raging storm.”
    -St. John Climacus

    Pray for me, a sinner.

  • St JD George

    Money on the monks, which race (ha)? You know, it’s so simple yet so true. We fill our lives with so much stuff and can find things to do from the moment we get up until when we hit the pillow. Dedicating a slice of the day to the Lord in quite and without distraction is the most peaceful part of my life and I cherish it. Not just in direct prayer, but also in reflection on how we live our lives and what we did or can do to bring ourselves nearer to him.
    Funny personal story, but I have recently taken up the habit of praying on my knees at the foot of my bed at night (most, not all). Of course I could and do pray anywhere, but I found that simple act of putting myself in an old familiar yet unusual position helped me to focus because it made it something special that wasn’t otherwise part of my ordinary rhythm of daily motion. Maybe someday when it becomes ordinary I’ll have to try something else again.

  • Jacqueleen

    Spend more time in front of the Blessed Sacrament in adoration and silence!

  • SnowCherryBlossoms

    True contemplation in silence of God is a rare glimpse into the beauty of God.
    “Be still and know that I am God”. (Psalms.)

  • Peter Arnone

    Thank you Professor Martin. I immediately identified with the title and caption of your article. It reminded me of its exact opposite, Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death.”

  • TERRY

    I live in central Maine on a dirt road off a dirt road, there is no one else here but my dog. We have had about 5′ of snow over the last few weeks and the town snowplow turns around just below my neighbor’s driveway, cutting off the rest of the road until spring, and you can only imagine how quiet it gets, which is one of the reasons I live here. (There is the occasional noisy snowmobile.)

    The story is told of the Monastery where no one was permitted to speak – they had to chant when they wished to communicate with each other.

    One evening two of the monks passed each other – one one way the other the other way, and one of them changed ”evening”.

    Said another monk – “Someone chanted evening.”

    My work here is done and the dog and I are going to take a walk.

    • John200

      Lucky you!

      You are getting a foretaste of paradise, unless the dog talks back.

      • TERRY

        Actually I must tell you that just the other day we had a few feet of snow and my neighbor plowed me out and the dog and I went outside and when he saw the huge piles of snow in the front yard he (a black lab) looked at me and said “It’s about damn time we got some decent weather around here!!”

        He then plunged into the snow and for the next few minutes the only proof I had he was in the area was the occasional glimpse of a wagging tail.

        Yes, I am blessed to live here.

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

      You screwed up the joke. The monks are NOT supposed to speak at all and a newcomer accidentally says ‘Evening’ to someone. Another monk says… “Someone chanted evening, he must be a stranger…”
      Anyway, there’s a better joke. I first heard it in Yiddish so go figure. A man joins a strict monastery where just once a year the monks were allowed to speak just two words to the Abbott. At the end of the first year the monk says to the Abbott “FOOD BAD!” They improve his food. The next year the monk says, “BED HARD” and he gets a softer bed. The third year the monk comes to the Abbott and says “I LEAVE” and the Abbott says, “Good riddance! Since you came here all you do is complain!”

  • Objectivetruth

    Blessed Teresa of Calcutta knew well of the fruits of silence:

    “The fruit of Silence is prayer. The fruit of Prayer is faith. The fruit of Faith is love. The fruit of Love is service. The fruit of Service is peace.”

  • Akira88

    It’s become increasingly difficult to find any kind of silence in Church. After Mass, the Rosary, even during Exposition, there are those who just start talking in normal voice or several whisper loudly. It’s in many of the Churches.

    During my wacky period many years ago living in NYC I had some acting classes that incorporated yogo. The instructors had no problem at all demanding utter silence and concentration during these “relaxation” (yoga) exercises. Juxtapose that with parishioners giving the sign of peace or the full voice conversations after the Final Blessing.

    It’s too bad our Priests don’t encourage the faithful to silence letting us know God remains in the tabernacle while we’re all chattering about the latest goiter surgery.

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