July 21, 2010...9:44 am

Great Silence

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Making the shift from normal life into a Benedictine monastery is shocking. It’s frightening. It stuns. I’d driven four and half hours from my parent’s home to get to the monastery last week, music on, a couple of sermons talking at me. And then I pushed through those thick wooden doors. I’d expected the quiet; I’d even longed for it. But the shock of monastic life is exactly that. Its reality is scary in the way that being thrown into another culture is scary. It felt like everyone around me was speaking a language I’d never heard before.

I’ve always considered myself a bit of a contemplative. Though I’m an extrovert through and through, I’ve had my secret side: the writer. That writer girl hid in the closet with a pillow as a 7th grader and journaled long, detailed entries about boys and my miserable teeth. I’ve always gone through phases: weeks of intense people time and then a social checking out, a commitment to reading one novel in two days.

But as much as I’m happy alone and excited to shut my mouth and watch, being at a monastery is difficult. I suddenly feel like I’ve been transported back to an ancient life. My new friend Barbara (who I met during my stay last week) told me she always feels uneasy for the first 24 hours. After that, she can settle into the rhythm of an ancient way of living.

Last week at the monastery, we ate dinner in silence, we worshipped as the church has worshipped for centuries: reciting prayers, chanting Psalms, reflecting on scripture.  And we did as all Benedictines do after their evening prayers (a service known as Compline), we entered the Great Silence: exactly what its name says it is. From Compline to Morning Worship the next day, the air is sacred and noiseless.

In that quiet, I walked last Wednesday night from the chapel to my room where pages from what I’d been writing were spread all over the floor around the desk. It was 8 o’clock and I had an evening to spend.

Sometimes I imagine what life was like for families before the invention of the radio, when they gathered after dinner and talked or read or did whatever small needlework that could be done by candle light. Last Wednesday night, I worked. I wrote and revised and reread on my seriously cozy monastic guest bed. And then I turned out the light at 10 o’clock.

There’s a lack of ease in silence. That’s why we change the song when conversation gets slow in the car, why we run on the treadmill with buds in our ears, why we long for a soundtrack to our lives. Lying in that bed, in a hallway of silence, in a building of silence, I felt the fear in me settle, felt the freedom gather in its place.

Was two days of it enough? No. If I were a real monk, it would take me decades to smooth out the part of me that needs to talk so I’ll be heard, so I’ll be seen, appreciated. It would take decades to work through those kinks in me that scream for entertainment, that longing to sit on the couch and be amused by the talking screen. I’ve seen the depth in those old monks, bent over their walkers. They’ve learned slowly, deliberately, how to live at peace with the sound their brains make when everything else is turned off. They know how to work and how to rest and they’ve learned it through silence.

What I need to know now is how to foster that silence in my life of noise. Tomorrow I’ll wake to a toddler crying at 5:30, still adjusting to Pacific Time. I’ll build train tracks and August will make Percy and Thomas talk to each other in toddler language and those wooden trains will crash and zoom and choochoo. I’ll listen to NPR while I spread peanut butter and jelly. I’ll talk on the phone. I’ll watch Dinosaur Train. I’ll play in the sand at the park. I’ll catch up with my husband when he gets home. I’ll throw the latest Netflix in and watch it with my man.

Is two days of the Great Silence enough? No. So, then, what does it mean? What does it really look like to practice silence when you’re a mom? When you’re a woman? When you’re a human living in 2010? That’s what I’m pondering this morning. Let me know if you have an answer…or even just a hope.

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  • i am not an extrovert
    though i crave time alone.
    i struggle with quieting
    my inner self-
    the one that needs the quiet
    but fears it.

    thanks for the things you share, micha!

  • so, I’m new to your site, well, since last week, and I am really enjoying hearing your thoughts on life. I am a lot like you in that I love being social and busy for a few weeks then find I have an intense need for calm and quiet and alone time. I struggle with the noise level at my house with two young children and with the tv, and all of the other things we have buzzing around in 2010. I think it’s making us all a little nuts in a way we don’t even realize! However, the idea of monastic silence does feel a bit scary to me, which sounds strange. Anyway, it’s all worth thinking about and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

  • I ran across a quote from Nietzsche recently, “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.” I think that applies to our haste away from silence, to cover it up. In silence we are left alone with ourselves, and we don’t like what we find there. And in silence there is less between us and God and the possibility intimidates us. And so we use noise, entertainment, and so many other things to cover up our shame. It seems that a first step towards silence would be to be able to live honestly with ourselves and with God.

  • I try to be really greatful for the few fleeting times of silence in my week as a mom who works part time. I try to accept this season that is far more loud and busy than I’d prefer but fleeting too. I may wake up one day to more silence than I prefer. Thanks, Michah for helping me appreciate and even seek out more those moments!

  • [...] Young Life during my free time. I was grumpy that I can’t turn off the needs around me so I can chant some Psalms with a room full of monastics. I didn’t really have anybody to complain to. August does not feel sorry for my back pain in the [...]

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