Contemplative Silence

Rievaulx Abbey: Michael D Beckwith, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

An article in today’s Guardian about English Heritage’s plan to introduce an hour of silence at some of its monastic sites made me chuckle and groan in equal proportions. It isn’t that I don’t think the call to focus, immerse oneself in the moment and allow the beauty and serenity of the setting to permeate one’s being is a bad idea. On the contrary. Slowing down, switching off one’s ‘phone and really listening, seem to me vitally important — vitally being underlined in that sentence — and any attempt to encourage these is to be applauded.

I admit to a passing irritation with the repetition of the old inaccuracies about monks and nuns when it would have taken very little trouble to get matters right. Benedictines and Cistercians, for example, don’t make vows of poverty and chastity as such, although they are assumed under the older formula of conversatio morum, a promise to live monastic life as it should be lived. The glancing reference to the penal code in the Rule of St Benedict made me sigh a little because it harped upon some of the more dramatic elements without regard to the frequency with which they were/are employed. (I suspect the use of corporal punishment and bread-and-water fasts in earlier centuries may have been exaggerated, and I’d be surprised if they were used at all nowadays.)

What really got under my wimple, however, was the idea that silence is a form of escape. If silence were nothing more than a fleeting avoidance of the rush and ruck of the world about us, it would still have value; but that isn’t what monastic or contemplative silence is. Monastic silence is an engagement, not an escape; and to be honest, it isn’t always pleasant. In silence we confront the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God, other people, and everything that is. It is a discipline, an ascesis, but I’d want to argue that it is more than that. It is a fundamental form of connection. Love prompts us to practice silence; and love is the fulfilment of its purpose.

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