Imagine the lights dimmed in a monastery church. One light is kept on for those who need to find their way out. The rest of the room is dark.The spoken prayers are over, and those who stay in the room sit. No one takes out a phone. No one talks. No one moves from seat to seat. For a half an hour those who are there sit in silence. Occasionally someone coughs or shifts in a seat, and a car on the country road might briefly makes a faint rumble. Otherwise, the only noise is the click and flow of the furnace warming the room.
We don’t have many silent spaces like this. We’re a culture of constant information and noise. Our brains expect constant stimulation, noise from speakers and the flow of images and messages from our screens. We grab our phones at first waking, checking to see who liked our Facebook post. We go to sleep with the dance of images from the televisions in our bedrooms. The radio immediately comes on when we start the car. When we have a spare minute we’re looking into our phones or scanning TV channels.
Two years ago I made an Advent retreat with the monks at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Michigan. I remember it being the right thing for me at a very busy and loud time in our culture. I took another December break this year and stayed a couple days with the monks again. After Vespers service and before supper they have a block of time called “Meditation.” After finishing the prayers and chants of their Vespers service they cut back the lights and sit in silence. Guests aren’t required to stay, but I do. At first it’s uncomfortable. I’m not conditioned to silence. I want to look at my phone. I want to hear or see something. I don’t immediately enjoy silence. I learned the trick, a few years ago, of counting my breaths, and when I slowly count off each breath my mind settles into a slower gear. After a few minutes the silence doesn’t feel like something I need to end, but it feels like something I hope doesn’t end. I pray, but my prayers aren’t the wordy ramblings of what we usually think of as prayers. The prayers I pray aren’t the forced chatter of an awkward first date; they’re more the quiet comfort of a couple who know each other so well they don’t have to say a word to communicate.
We need more of this, this silence. We’re a noisy culture. We’ve made a virtue of being the loudest voice in the room. We’ve baptized ourselves in a constant flow of information telling us we’re right and those who think differently are stupid. We jump from one social media outrage to the next. We have tools around us all the time keeping us from the challenging but beautiful gift of silence.
I know I’m swimming against the current here, and I know most in our culture aren’t going to turn down the noise, but I think what we need now is more silence. When we’re silent we set aside the need to be right all the time. When we’re silent we stop the neediness of filling our brains with constant stimulation. In silence we only have ourselves and God, and maybe that’s what we need now. J. Brent Bill, in describing the Desert Fathers’ emphasis on silence says “ . . . it brings us closer to God. . .” and “it leads us back to our true selves,” and I think whatever can give us those things is what we need now.
Meister Ekhart said, “Nothing in creation is so like God as silence.”
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict