It is often wrongly thought that Cistercian monks and nuns take a vow of silence. Instead, the Rule of St Benedict proposes a strict discipline around the use of silence in the monastic life, and so develops it, from the outset, as a tool which helps one grow in maturity in this life. The very first word of the Rule – ‘Listen’ – presumes that the one who is going to take this way of life seriously will do just that. And to listen we need to silence a great deal of the noise which vies for our attention.
The Constitutions of our Order give a very beautiful introduction to the use of silence:
Silence is counted among the principal monastic values of the Order. It assures solitude for the monk in community. It fosters mindfulness of God and fraternal communion. It opens the mind to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and favours attentiveness of heart and solitary prayer to God. Therefore, at all times but especially during the hours of night, the brothers are to be zealous for silence, which is the guardian both of speech and of thought. (Constitution 24)
So, silence is a value, something which gives character and definition and positive content to what a monk or nun undertakes. It works to help the religious embrace a solitude which never cuts off from community, but does allow an openness to discerning deeper relationship, especially that with God. It opens the space in which we turn our mind to God Present. It allows the movement of the Spirit to become a life-giving breath. And it teaches us – to consider the right moment to speak, and what we say when we do.
Christ Jesus himself gives a powerful example of how silence becomes a tool provoking reflection, and then action. In Chapter 8 of St John’s Gospel a woman who has been caught committing adultery is brought to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees. They wish him to join them in condemning her. But Jesus merely bends down – twice – and writes with his finger in the sand. And waits. Much has been written and debated about what Jesus might have been writing and how it impacted all those standing about him and the woman. But had it been of any great importance John the evangelist would have told us what Jesus was writing. Instead, what is important here is the silent space which Jesus introduces into this anxious scene. In that silence – and it may have been short or long – all involved can consider what is taking place. In those moments of reflection, when all else has been put aside, all see more clearly the truth of the situation, and of their own situations, and the dynamic is transformed for all the participants. Silence here has done so much more than speech could ever have done.
Silence allows us to make a connection between the business of our hearts and heads and our tongue. In the stories of the desert fathers and mothers this is said of Abba Poemen:
Abba Poemen also said, ‘Teach your heart to guard that which your tongue teaches’.
Our speaking comes from a heart which is reflective, which takes time, which allows thoughts to unfold in silence before they are brought forth.
This, of course, is how the fathers of the Church, and the Cistercian Fathers also, saw the Word of God taking flesh and coming to birth in the womb of the Virgin Mary – a Word spoken from before time began coming to birth in the silence of Mary’s womb.
Above all, silence is the great tool by which we learn to listen, and it is the consecrated place in which we venture into prayer. For those who withdrew from the noise and hustle and bustle of the city three key moments marked the invitation to enter into relationship with God. These are expressed in the famous saying about Abba Arsenius as he began his serious search for God in the Egyptian desert: “Arsenius, flee, keep silent, be still”.
These are still for us the pivotal moments in our own search. To flee from those noises and things which distract us, demand our attention, which bring us no real nourishment or sense of growth but rather drag us down and rob us of our sense of being. To keep silent – gently to move aside the noise and the sources of noise, not just those which are exterior but, more importantly perhaps, the interior noises which bring us worry, anger, anxiety, darkness. Then to be still – so that, as the psalmist says, we can know that God is and addresses himself to us, and not just the place in which God is. The great spiritual writer John Climacus says something similar:
“Close the door of your cell physically, the door of your tongue to speech, and the inward door (of your heart) to the evil spirits (the thoughts which afflict and darken our hearts)”.
Using the tool of silence begins in little ways – and it is clear that it must be a tool which helps to build up other good practices. It is too often the case for all of us that silence can be aggressive, condescending, judgemental, threatening, and this poor use of the gift should always be avoided. Silence allows us to listen at three levels – to the movements of my own heart and the discernments by which I try to figure out God’s will for me in particular moments; to those around me, as they speak a word to me, perhaps even by their inability at times to articulate a word; to the God whom I desire above all to meet, and so in the silence which I create to begin to listen to him in my prayer and lectio divina with his par excellence Word.
It is good to think about silence not simply as an absence of noise or sound, but a stillness which allows us to open up to the sound of God’s voice. Silence is already an anticipation, an expectant waiting, an attitude which lives hopefully and confidently that God addresses himself to me. Indeed, silence is already God praying within us –
In other words, let God speak.
-Part of our ‘Monastic Practices’ series-