I have volunteered to present the introduction to Benedictine Silence at our 2023 Disciplined Order of Christ annual retreat. Why did I volunteer? I don’t really know but I felt it was time for me to step up and volunteer for the one speaking part I have never done before at those retreats.
Based on one definition, silence is the condition or quality of being or keeping still and silent. It is a kind of circular definition but was further refined by the following two additional definitions: 1) the absence of sound; stillness; and 2) a period of time without speech or noise.
So much of our lives are filled with noise (and light which would be an entirely separate post). We wake up to sounds. In our morning rituals, we hear sounds from heating and air conditioning units, from the shower or faucets, from our bathroom fixtures, from some of our lights, from our pots and pans, and from our favorite beverage maker. We grow accustomed to the constant chatter of man-made things.
Then we step outside. The sounds of nature, traffic, motors, street lights and other noises jar us further into wakefulness. Jumping in our car or truck, we switch on music or news or stories to carry us to work. Our work environments are filled with key clicks, soft music, conversations and meetings. Lunchtimes are filled with even louder conversation and music, the clatter of dishes and the shouting of orders.
A walk through a town or city introduces us to other glaring sounds from horn honks, to construction equipment to those who share their music tastes with everyone around them (boom-boom).
We finally end our work day, take a deep breath and plunge not the whorl of rush hour traffic. Brakes squealing, motors racing, and the shouts of irritated drivers are only barely covered by the music or programs we listen to on our drive. We arrive to the peaceful bliss of our homes and are greeted with kids, spouses, pets and our “normal” home sounds. A few hours of television watching or music listening or kids sports activity shouting, and we finally get a chance to go to sleep.
The clocks and other technology hum us to sleep, and then with a rousing sound we repeat the pattern on the morn.
So, it goes.
St. Benedict, who lived from 480-547 AD, created a set of rules for monks, nuns and lay brothers to live by. Those rules cover prayer, labor, and study each one must practice daily. For St. Benedict, silence played a key role because it helped to remove distractions and allowed one to connect and listen to God.
Our challenge, more so than in the past, is we have a continual cacophony around us. Taking a moment to slow down or better yet stop, just does not seem possible today. Even if we make allowance for the background noises, we have grown accustomed to, there is that one insidious noise we have trouble shutting off: ourselves. We self-talk…we create an inner voice that uplifts, criticizes, dreams Walter Mitty-esc dreams, and shatters our days by remembered wrongs and regrets.
Perhaps that is why we fill our lives with so much noise…we are trying to drown out our inner voice…to silence the critic of our lives past, present and future. We clasp our hands on the thresholds of bad times and forget the wonders God has provided to keep us sane and moving forward.
Or maybe that’s just me. I might be the only one. No one else has created so high expectations of their behavior, plans or thoughts that perhaps God Himself would find accomplishing them to be a challenge.
Let’s assume I am the only one and I need a way to shut up both vocally and mentally. I have been able to do that (and no, unconsciousness does not count). Through meditative practices in my past, I have been able to silence the world and me. It requires only a few steps, which I have forgotten until writing this.
- Step one: get comfortable but not in a position where comfort leads to sleep.
- Step two: close your eyes because open eyes can lead to easy distractions by what is physically around you.
- Step three: breathe…we often forget to do this and there are various schools of thought on how deep to breathe and how to exhale. We just need to start by being conscious of our breath.
- Step four: find a key phrase, word, or scripture. Examples: a simple In-Out coinciding with our breathing, a simple sound…yes, Om has been used but it can be any sound that does not conjure up a picture or thought, Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God” or just the first part “Be still”)
- Step five: repeat breathing and using your key phrase. If a thought comes to mind, once you are aware you have strayed from the simple act of breathing and repeating your key phrase, gently give yourself permission to go back to the breathing and word/phrase/sound repetition. Berating yourself for falling off the wagon allows our inner voice to wake up so a gentle “ok, I just need to start again” reminder is all you need.
- Step six: keep doing this for as long as you can…whether it is 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 30 minutes.
- Step seven: slowly open your eyes and take a final deep breath.
As part of the Benedictine Silence, you need to make room for God. You must listen more than you talk. You must intentionally stop and give God a chance to talk with you. You must be open to the messages you will hear.
And that is hard if you are running around, doing your daily tasks, and not taking time to pause the mad rush. It is hard if you are continually listening only to your voice or the opinions of others.
As Mother Teresa said
“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…We need silence to be able to touch souls.”
Or from Ecclesiastes 3, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:” “…a time to be silent and a time to speak”
Let us be silent, if only for a little while. It will allow us to hear God and will give us a better appreciation of the sounds around us.