The Bonds of Silence
Robert Hart on Finding Friends While Alone with God
An hour or so from moist and chilly Berkeley, our cars, filled to capacity with fugitives from secular turmoil, with luggage and sacramental appointments, traveled into the Napa Valley, amid mountains standing guard over the vineyards. Pine forests grow up the sides all the way to the top, and clouds envelop the tallest of these, as if lending modesty to the peaks.
Our small caravan of priests, deacons, and seminarians had already begun to create that informal fellowship best expressed with the good humor of jokes, the wittier the better. (Humor and meaningful conversation, rather than “male bonding,” makes friends of men.)
Our cars drove uphill along the thin road that serves as an entrance to the Carmelite monastery. We were greeted inside the large main house by an elderly Irish monk. After being signed in, we were taken to our rooms and left to prepare. In the early evening, in our cassocks, we made our way to a beautiful chapel, where we sang Evening Prayer and heard the first of several talks, meditations on the Desert Fathers.
We sat across from each other in two “choirs,” with the sound of the prayers, mostly the chanting of the old Prayer Book Psalter, echoing off the stone. High above us, near the ceiling, were great windows admitting the dying light of the ending day. Over the marble altar was a very stark crucifix, the Son of Man in his agonies looking down at us.
God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
This was the beginning of the silence, silence broken only by the offices of prayer, the daily Mass, and the reading out loud, in turn one by one, of The Screwtape Letters during each meal. Otherwise, only a private confession would serve as a reason to speak. As the leader of our retreat pointed out, the purpose in coming together was to be alone. The shared solitude is itself a very old tradition, giving us time for prayer and meditation unlike the kind we attempt regularly during our busy lives in the world.
And the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus, and told him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught. And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while (Mark 6:30–31).
The silence itself teaches and refreshes. Without words, without the need to speak—without the social pressure to direct our gaze constantly on what others place before us—we find freedom. In the silence we discover that we are resting not only from the cares, the business, and the turmoil of the world. We rest as well from the amusements and entertainments, learning only in this way that these things, too, are a burden.
They, creating their own demands upon our time, shut out prayer as much as do the cares and anxieties of life. It is only in this silence, silence that is directed towards God, in solitude that is protected by a community in which to be alone, that we finally see what a burden those entertaining forms of relaxation can be, what labor in themselves. But, for now, we lay that labor down and discover peace, blessed relief, in so doing.
We cannot find this kind of solitude nearly so well if we are alone. The presence of other men contemplating God as they pray, meditate, or read, reinforces our attention and directs our gaze heavenward. The presence of our brothers, and the respect we owe to their solitude, protects us from turning our own solitude into isolation, a time in which thoughts wander all too easily back to the duties and amusements that await us.
And should we take the opportunity to examine ourselves and prepare for confession, we direct our gaze as well into our own hearts, our thoughts, words, and deeds. This we do before God, knowing that his light must shine into whatever place we have tried to hide away even from ourselves.
Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (John 3:19).
The communal silence increases charity. Here you see each man, like yourself, directing his attention to God, living in prayer and in the most serious and essential of reflections. Here, with him, you stick to contemplative prayer and the rhythm of corporate daily offices, and you keep to the rule of silence and do not speak, in charitable consideration, because he needs this time as much as you do. To violate it is unthinkable.
When it must end, and you will speak at last, the next communication will be all the more profound. How many of the words we speak are no more than wasted, having no thought in them, are an invasion of another’s time, a theft of his few brief hours in this world. For now, we respect his silence, and will be glad to speak later, for we shall value words in a different way, no longer as obligatory.
Men at Prayer
Our charity builds also because for a few days we have, in solitude before God, been a community of men at prayer. We have begun each day together in the chapel, at noon have held the Mass in the chapel, and at night have ended each day once again in the chapel with the familiar words of compline. In each of the offices of prayer, we have chanted the familiar psalms and other prayers in Cranmerian English to Gregorian notation:
“Our Father, who art in Heaven. . . . My soul doth magnify the Lord. . . . I believe in God, the Father Almighty. . . .”
Surrounded as it is by the beauty of the monastery grounds, the sweet air from the vineyards, and the pines and mountains, the chapel itself becomes the place each man wants most to be. After an office is completed, several minutes pass before we depart. We simply grow to like sitting there in the place of prayer, a room designed for worship and for celebration of the Blessed Sacrament, a place where that Presence is reserved.
Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves (Luke 10:3).
It will not be like this when we return to our homes and the silence is driven away by business, even, as in my case, the business of pastoring a church. We know we go from rest to battle. But we may carry back into the battle the benefits of the retreat.
I am grateful to those who live in the religious orders and keep to the Rule of St. Benedict. We can enter into their way of life only to a small degree, and only temporarily. But they do not hide it away and keep it a secret; they do not begrudge those who want to share a bit of it.
When we leave, they let us take some of that treasure where it can be adapted to the life we must live in the world. As much as it is a treasure, it is also an armament.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Bonds of Silence” first appeared in the December 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.