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The Great Silence – Contemplative Days:

During my last week at Holy Cross monastery (click here to see my blog post about my month at the monastery), the entire community participated in contemplative days, which meant living in complete silence and attending reduced offices.

The idea of living in silence, or vows of silence, seems to be most people’s most common idea of monasteries, helped by popular media and many a funny comic gag of hardships or side effects of silence like this,

or a monk being forced out of their silence


Some people also know about monastic silence through the 2005 documentary, Into Great Silence, which was filmed in a Carthusian order in France, which is a reclusive order that does keep the Great Silence for all but singing in the monastic offices and for conversation for a few hours on Sunday, and the movie itself is almost entirely silent, with no voice over, so the only sounds are pages turning in a book, the cracking of splitting firewood, the crunch of walking in snow, the rustle of robes.

Click for a link to the trailer.

This movie is very much a true characterization of that particular order, and that type of reclusive monasticism, but it is not typical of the Order of the Holy Cross and many other monasteries and convents like it (here is a lovely slideshow video of photographs of the many different Anglican orders in the Americas)  The Holy Cross monastery is an Episcopal monastery that observes the Rule of St. Benedict, and as part of this, one of their primary ministries is providing comfort and rest to guests.  This work requires conversation, and as such, while the order is monastic and contemplative, and the brothers live a life centered around prayer, their life is not a reclusive one – it is not a life of total silence.  The brothers keep the Great Silence from 8:30 pm to 8:30 am, and besides that, conversation and talk is allowed.  However, in order to ensure that they do not too far overstretch themselves in their guest ministry, the monks also take regular respites of greater silence – of total silent retreats, and they have now opened some of these to the public, and I was lucky enough to join in a period of those “contemplative days,” where it isn’t just silence for silence’s sake, or for a test of will, but silence in order to allow for true rest, contemplation and communication with the sacred (all of the above is, of course, my interpretation and understanding of the brother’s monastic life, which is limited).

For this period of silence, the guesthouse was limited to fifteen guests. Powerful is the word to which I keep returning to when I try to describe those days of silence, and I have yet to figure out another word that encompasses the experience. To live in community, in total silence except for hymns and prayer was a powerful experience, as was the experience of being silent my self. Essentially, for me the experience of this power manifested in several ways, some of which I will share here, and some of which are simply for me alone:

ONE: Silence in community as POWER

There were about a dozen guests there for the contemplative days, and about twelve of the fifteen monks were present, and all of us were in silence. We were united in this pursuit of quiet, of hearing what the quiet told us, and so I experienced no loneliness. We ate together in silence, could read together in silence, or even in different rooms, but with the knowledge that there were others around doing the same thing.  I spent the majority of each day alone, at the practice of my writing, but even when alone, if I needed to be near others, I only needed to head out into Pilgrim Hall to read and write in the company of others doing the same work.  I also very much looked forward to the moments of communal prayer, in the reduced monastic offices of the contemplative days: Matins, Eucharist and Vespers.

We also sat together at meals, in total silence.  There was enough room for us to spread out in the refectory, so that we all sat with an empty space between us and our neighbor, but none of us sat at a table completely alone.  There was a comfort in sitting in silence, together.  I am a person who likes to eat by myself, and usually read as I do so.  I have a handful of cafes that I frequent, and look forward to lingering over my meal with a good book, but while I brought my book with me to my meals at the monastery, I found that I rarely opened it, and instead just enjoyed eating and being in the moment.  I enjoyed the taste of the food, the view out over the Hudson River, and above all, I enjoyed the quiet to think, to be in my own thoughts and self.  I also found that I needed and craved the quiet in order to truly be able to listen, which is another way of saying that I needed the quiet to pray.

My first introduction to the idea of monks was through my father, who when frazzled by the noise of two young daughters at mealtime, would occasionally institute a monk’s meal where we had to eat in complete silence, and failure to do so would lose you a chair, a utensil, etc.  It was both a game and serious, and the idea that there were people who were living apart from society, who were choosing silence and contemplation as their way of life, stayed with me.

The idea of silence at meals seems to be the thing that also most amuses and confuses my sister and her family, much as our childhood game of monk’s meals amused, scared and intrigued us.  Even outside of contemplative days, breakfasts are always in silence, and my family can’t seem to quite imagine this idea of sharing food with people without communicating, and thus imagines a meal filled with lots of exaggerated nodding and gesturing and smiling.  As ridiculous (and funny) as their imagined pantomime is, it does somewhat get to the truth of dining in silence, which is an awareness of each other, and each others needs.  Rather then necessitate someone needing to reach for the water pitcher, you fill their glass as you fill yours, if your companion is sitting farther from the napkins, you offer them a napkin.  These small gestures of community meant a lot, both in meals of silence during the contemplative days, and throughout my time at the monastery.

TWO:   The contrast of silence in community vs. silence in solitude  

A picture of gathering for prayer before the meal. This photograph is apparently of a Christmas feast at the monastery – most meals don’t have the fancy tablecloth, and the monks are in their regular clothes, just wearing their robes to meals on feast days (otherwise, they mostly just wear their robes during services and in doing ministry). I have never taken a photo in here, and so am grateful for this blog of Holy Cross visits for the photo.

Previous to my time at the monastery, I’ve had periods of prolonged silence in solitude due to jobs, or simple isolation. Sometimes this was/is good – especially when I’m silent for a day or two because I simply need to be by myself, in my house, reading or writing or just simply being on my own. I have lots of periods of silence like that, and I love those times. As an introvert, I NEED those times to refill my well, so that I can really enjoy my time with friends, family and with my students and colleagues. So those times have been good, but sometimes silence when alone can be, well, lonely and really hard, especially when the solitude is, even if temporarily, inescapable.

I first experienced real solitude, and real loneliness, in college, while working on a maintenance crew for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). While I worked on a crew of four, due to an accident of circumstances, I spent a week working by myself on Port Isobel, which is CBF’s small island that is just off of Tangier Island. I spent four days trimming three feet off the top of six foot tall and wide hedges, with hand trimmers, in 90+ degree humid heat, wearing long sleeves and long pants to try to counteract both all the biting insects and to try to avoid the effects of the poison ivy that was woven throughout the hedge. In order to avoid smearing my face with poison ivy oil, I dropped my gloves every ten minutes or so to kill all the deer flies on my face, resulting in a face coated with streaks of blood by the end of the day. And since my gloves weren’t taped on, I got a nasty case of poison ivy up both arms.

I was, needless to say, miserable, and my solitude compounded that misery, because I had no one to affirm that the conditions were, indeed, hard.  In my nineteen year old mind, I had no right to be lonely and miserable in a place of such beauty, living in the sort of remote location like my heroes Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder and Henry David Thoreau, all of whom seemed to relish their solitude.  I felt like I was a fraud.  I mean, what right did I have to be lonely and depressed in a place that looked like this?

I had no one to chat with, to laugh with, to share my thoughts with. My journal from that time show a young woman very much on the brink of despair, compounded by the fear that she had picked the wrong life to pursue (the life of working outside, in the woods/marshes/wilds). Thankfully, the tenor of my journal entries absolutely transformed the moment I was joined by other co-workers. I still spent most of my day in silence after everyone else arrived working on whatever project I was assigned, but there was the possibility of conversation at the end of the day, and there was the communion of working in silence next to others.

I have changed a lot since then, I have grown a lot and become much healthier emotionally, and so I would likely tolerate the isolation better, but I also realize that it still isn’t the match for me.  While I love spending whole days at home by myself, and prefer to spend most of my days in solitary work, I do best when those days of solitary living are spent in the midst of community, like they were at the monastery.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, the 6th century rule that sets the founding principles of Benedictine monks, St. Benedict opens with a discussion of the various types of monastics, clarifying that while there are hermits, these are those that:

no longer in the first fervor of their reformation,
but after long probation in a monastery,
having learned by the help of many brethren
how to fight against the devil,
go out well armed from the ranks of the community
to the solitary combat of the desert.
They are able now,
with no help save from God,
to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh
and their own evil thoughts. (Chapter 1)

St. Benedict thus makes it clear that the ability to sustain silence in solitude is a very special skill that takes training to do, and takes intentionality. There is a reason while solitary confinement is “cruel and unusual” punishment, and why it can cause so much damage. Not long ago I heard a podcast about the psychological effect of solitary confinement.  I have looked all over the Internet for that podcast, but could not find it, but did find this Scientific American article about the studies showing the cruelty and effects of solitary and this Atlantic article on the particular dangers solitary poses to the teenage brain.

My search also led me to a Radiolab episode that I missed (a segment in the Morality episode), along with an accompanying blog post, titled: “Shattering Silence and the Eye of God” which is on the origins of solitary confinement as a new form of imprisonment, that was “a forced monastery, a machine for reform,” with the word penitentiary coming from the idea of penitence.  The design of the interior was made to be church like, to inspire spiritual transformation.

The key problem with the penitentiary is the very conception of forced monasticism.  Monastics are called to the life through a process of discernment.  They enter a life of quiet by choice, and living the life requires guidance, practice and, above all, community.  As St. Benedict notes in his rule, silent solitude is only for those who have studied and worked toward that goal for years.  I was lacking these things when I was a in my late teens and and trying to make a go at solitude, just as prisoners lack that same preparation.

In contrast, while at the monastery during the contemplative days, while I was silent, I was not solitary.  While the monk’s cell looks very much like a prisoner’s cell (interesting side note – when the biological structures of cells were first discovered, in 1664, they were called cells because they reminded the discoverer, Robert Hooke, of monk’s cells.  So monk’s cells came first, before prison cells or plant cells), the key difference is that the prisoners could never leave their cells – their entire life was in isolation.

Eastern State Penitentiary Cell (Original cells for solitary confinement).

Guesthouse cell at Holy Cross (image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal)

So while I could chose to leave my room and go into Pilgrim Hall, the cloister, or the library to read and write amongst others, prisoners have no such choice, just as I had no choice for company in those early “dream” jobs of mine.

THREE: Silence with words.

While I am calling these three days of silence, it was actually three days of contemplation, and words were spoken, but they were all words spoken, or sung, during the monastic offices. There were only three offices a day during the contemplative days, instead of the usual five, which allowed for more silence, but during Matins (7 am), Eucharist (which was shifted to a later 11:45 am time), and Vespers (5 pm), we did read/sing the psalms, recite prayers, sing hymns, and listen to the days scriptures being read. The result was that not only were these the only words I spoke during these days, but these were also the only words I heard. I didn’t listen to music or podcasts, both of which I usually listen to at some point during a day, and I also wasn’t watching anything, so that meant that during the silence, the sounds that continued to run through my head here the hymns we had sung, the prayers we had sung. These were gentle “ear worms” – they were songs and phrases too quiet to usually run through my head during normal times, but in the silence, they were the loudest things in my mind, and they were loud things of worship, compassion and love. And that was a powerful thing.

Also, besides these scripted words, the other three words I spoke during this time were: “Peace, yes, and thanks.”

Peace was spoken during every Eucharist, in the passing of the peace, and it was so meaningful to say these words to each other, both to the monks who I knew and would call by name as I said Peace, as they would say my name, but it was also meaningful to say Peace to all the strangers I was in silence with. By the time we were able to chat and learn each others names on Friday, I had said “Peace,” to each of these people at least once, if not three times. That is an unusual and strangely powerful and moving way to get to know people.

I also said “Yes” and “Thanks” when one of the monks, on his way back to the monastic enclosure at night, paused by where I was doing a puzzle and whispered, “Would you like an ice cream?” to which I responded, “yes,” and “thanks.” This, to me, is meaningful because it speaks to something far greater than the “rule” of keeping silence, and instead speaks to the POWER and intention of keeping silent. We were keeping silent in order to foster greater contemplation and connection with God (however the guests defined this for themselves), and we were doing that in community. And so in this gesture, the monk reached out to me in connection with me, somewhat as the brothers constantly reach out and affirm their community and connection with each other with small kindnesses and through the rotation of duties. As a temporary part of their community for a month, it was an offer that touched me as a token of community, of being seen and welcomed. So, while my “yes,” and “thanks,” were in one part just the childlike happiness of getting an ice cream treat (a nutty buddy) on a warm night, it was also me saying “yes,” and “thanks,” to the offering and welcome of community that the brothers were giving me during my stay there.

Four:  Closing Thoughts

So, those are my “big” thoughts about the silence and contemplation. In regards to what else I did, and how I used that time, much of that is personal. I will say that I had let myself be open to the experience being whatever it would be, and would have been quite happy to have just read, meditated, prayed and slept.  That would have been time well spent.  But, for whatever reason, the silence for me unlocked a burst of writing productivity, which was welcome after a few days of being relatively blocked, so while I did the above things, I spent most of my contemplative days writing, so I “spoke,” a lot during those days, I just spoke in writing.

I was also struck by the relative ease I felt in coming out of silence, especially since I came out of silence into the “noise” of the monastery. It would have been hard to be thrust in the midst of the outside world right away, but it felt right and good and normal to chat with the other guests and monks, to ask other people, “Did you have a good Silence?” The silence fostered, overall in all of us, a greater meaningfulness and intentionality and appreciation for the conversation we had.  I think the silence improved my ability to listen.

I don’t think three days of silence are necessarily for everyone, at least not right away, but I do recommend some sort of intentional silence in community. Even if it is only meeting up with a friend to read together in silence for a few hours, the experience of being silent, but not alone or lonely, is an important way to still and quiet the mind. It is what people practicing yoga and meditation find when they sit in silence together, as the monks do everyday during Diurnum, when we all sit for 10 minutes, just listening to the silence in whatever way we listen.

While I could barely hear myself in the noise of my internal turmoil during my periods of silent solitude while at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation or working for the Forest Service, at the monastery I was able to listen to the silence because I was in the company of others, with the routine and discipline of prayers and meals to keep me on track and connected.  My month at the monastery is one of the most important and trans-formative months that I have ever spent (for many more reasons than chronicled here or elsewhere in this blog), and the three contemplative days was the capstone to my time here.  It is an experience I plan to return to again and again.

My favorite quiet spot: this picture is looking toward the tree outside the chapel, in the rain.

My favorite quiet spot: this picture is looking toward the tree outside the chapel, in the rain.

This same cloisture is also pictured here, in a Wall Street Journal article about the contemplative days, which seem to be written in the same time as I was here, but the pictures seem to feature a monk that was gone on vacation while I was there, so maybe was from a previous time, or maybe the pictures were from a later time (I imagine it is acutually the latter).  Anyway, here is a photo of the cloister and three brothers, and here is a link to the WSJ article.

Three brothers in conversation. This one picture pretty much sums up all the warmth and love that I have for this place.