The Need for Silence

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.

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15 thoughts on “The Need for Silence”

    • Ah, I’d hoped my second paragraph explained. Let’s try a different tack. Benedictines make a vow of conversatio morum, often translated as conversion of life, where the word mos, mores, customs, manners, signifies the whole being of the monk or nun. By moral silence I mean a silence that embraces the totality of our being. It isn’t just a physical silence, an absence of noise, although it certainly includes that. It is an attentiveness, an interior listening, that accompanies every moment of our lives. It is not absence or negativity but an attempt at presence, a positive thing. So, for example, when writing this blog post, I was trying to be receptive to the Holy Spirit, even though I was shaping thoughts and words with my mind and keyboard. I was physically silent; I was speaking (writing, to be exact); and I was listening, all at the same time. Does that help at all, or is it’confusion worse confounded’?

      • I understand that quite clearly I hope – I must be missing something, being mentally blind or just having a senior moment. I don’t understand the use of the word moral to describe this type of ever present attentiveness to listen to God. I agree that learning to live in the constant presence and awareness of God is the work of a lifetime as I have tried to live that way for forty years and it is still a daily struggle. Perhaps I am lacking a catholic knowledge of the use of the word.
        I do appreciate you taking the time to try and make it clearer for me.

  1. One of the films that really explained it for me was “Into Great Silence” filmed by Philip Groning at the Carthusian Monastery. Every sound, no matter how small seemed amplified in its effect – whether it was a platter gently moving as it dripped dry or the sound of scissors as they cut the cloth needed for a new habit.

    An unexpected alternative story came from Michael Caine’s autobiography “What’s It All About?”. He was making the film “The Man Who Would Be King” when he had to go out into the desert and the car broke down. The driver asked them to get out of the car as he wanted to show them something. With nothing to see but desert in every direction. ‘Stand still and don’t make a noise,’ said our driver mysteriously, ‘and listen.’
    We stood there puzzled at what we were supposed to hear.
    ‘I always do this with Westerners when they come to the desert for the first time,’ he told us. ‘Stand still and keep quiet, and you will for the first time in your lives hear the sound of complete silence.’ We both stood there for a while and all we could hear was the sound of our own blood pumping through our ears and then gradually even this sound faded and there it was – complete and utter silence. We stood there for a long time and let it wash over us; it gave us a strange, relaxed feeling, almost like taking a drug.

  2. Yesterday in my reading I came across the term “solitudo vasstissima” in reference to the desert Fathers. Meaning the true desert they inhabit is not the geographic desert where they locate but the interior more psychological/spiritual one where stripped of external distraction they are come to face inner demons of sin and delusion. I sense that your idea of moral silence encompasses this but also more – a calm stability of mind and countenance in all situations?

  3. I suspect achieving “moral silence” over the course of a lifetime of practice in a monastic setting nevertheless very difficult. And for non-monastics perhaps more so. Though I would hope not impossible. Restructuring one’s external environment to a basic simplicity, extending the Lenten quality of renunciation, of self-denial, the removal of easy distraction, (all of which difficult to achieve with any constancy I find), with the inclusion of good practices such as prayer and spiritual reading, e.g., perhaps will open one to the all important interior work? Or is it all a grace?

    Or is it an ideal to be striven for but impossible to achieve like purity of heart?

    • A lot of things to reply to there, Margaret! Everything is grace, but it also requires our co-operation. We lay the groundwork with our prayer, reading, and good works; but it is God who gives the increase. Purity of heart . . . is not impossible of achievement, but we can never (usually) see it in ourselves. I certainly can’t.

  4. This discussion reminded me of the story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers where Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis. The assembled brethren said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’ The implication seems to be that silence is a spiritual state of being. Maybe this is another way of describing the moral silence you describe, Sister, as embracing the totality of our being.

  5. I also love the story of how his teacher gave him as his first Scripture to study the verse from Psalm 38, “I said I will be watchful of my ways for fear I should sin with my tongue.” Abba Pambo responded, “that will do for today,” and he went off to think about it. Six months later he returned ready to continue his lesson.

  6. I can’t remember where I heard this little maxim, but I like it….’Ever on my lips – seldom in my heart…..ever in my heart -seldom on my lips’…..perhaps a bit like the alleged St Francis tag ‘Preach the gospel – where necessary use words’?

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