Ask many people, and they will tell you that they hate the clamour of modern life and sometimes long to ‘get away from it all’. To them, a monastery appears as an island of silence and calm in the midst of an ocean of noise and turbulence. It is somewhere to escape to, a refuge, a haven. Ask a monk or nun, and they will probably tell you that any noise or disturbance brought inside the cloister will intensify. Far from being a haven or a refuge, the monastery is a place where we must confront our demons, and the battle can be long and hard. There is no more noisy echo chamber than the human heart and mind!
That said, I can’t imagine any monk or nun denying the need for silence: physical silence in the first instance, but, even more important, what one might call moral silence, the kind of silence that must be maintained in the midst of all activity and which doesn’t depend on physical quiet because it is primarily an attitude, a disposition. This kind of silence has less to do with buttoning up the lips than opening the ears and eyes. It is the silence of attention, of humility, of love.
Cultivating moral silence is the work of a lifetime, but I think it is one we must all engage in because without it we can fail to live in the present moment. We inhabit the past or the future but not the present. The desire to ‘escape from it all’ is seductive because it can never be fully realized. Indeed, the degree to which it is realized may be the measure of our failure to discover the true meaning of silence and its purpose in our lives. If we aren’t more generous, more loving, because of silence, then something has gone wrong. We haven’t become quieter, just more selfish.