Silence is crucial to contemplative life, but this doesn’t mean only monks and nuns should foster it. In a sense, we are all contemplatives; every single one of us has a deeply hardwired capacity – a longing, even – for encounter with God. We may not realize it, we may not always respond, but it is there. Or to put it more specifically, He is there, in our inmost being. Whatever longings we experience, and whatever they are for (for family, for material goods, for health, for holidays, for a better job, for early retirement, etc), they are just opaque expressions of the longing we are made for, the ultimate longing for eternal communion with our Creator. Yes, we are all searching.
In ‘Simplicity – The Heart of Prayer’, Georges Lefebvre writes: “We can try to analyse what we are but there is something in us beyond analysis. We should simply live with it as a grace and a gift. We cannot doubt God’s presence and we know that His presence changes something deep in us… We cannot leave God out of our self awareness. If we truly live in the Lord’s presence, we will be able to discern the signs of it, however secret and silent they might be… We should trust God totally. We exist only by our relationship with Him in whom we trust. This relationship is at the heart of our truest and most personal being.”
This longing for Him is at the very heart of contemplative life. Contemplation is not about being on our own, about shutting ourselves off from encounter; only those who do not understand about true prayer will form this worldly view. No, we contemplatives have taken that hardwired longing and made it our life’s work to encounter Him. It is about being with Another in all we do, sharing our life with God. Our journey is to develop a real, living relationship with our Creator. Emmanuel: God is with us!
Silence is one of the inestimable treasures of the contemplative life, because it is the gateway into ongoing encounter with God. It is also the pathway to finding ourselves, to getting to know ourselves, who we really are; and this is one of the reasons we tend to flee from silence whenever it makes an appearance in our life. After all, we do not want to know ourselves, not really… for what might we find in our characters? Are we ready to face our own truth? So, we hide. There are countless means of filling silence: TV, radio, internet, podcasts, music, etc. Any noise, whatever it is, as long as it fills in the gaps. We close silence down as though it is a threat, yet in truth it is an extraordinary channel of healing and self-knowledge.
In terms of faith, silence creates a space for us to begin listening, to begin to learn the posture of prayer, which is a posture of attentiveness and openness. Without silence, it is not possible to develop this sacred space inside of ourselves.
We look at creation as blossoming from silence. The Word of God has silence as it’s home and, in 1 Kings, there is a beautiful passage describing our Creator in terms of gentleness, silence, a different view of God who in the Old Testament was seen as a God of war and thunder: “The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (1 Kings 19:11).
God is in this gentle whisper, yet we won’t hear a whisper if we always have the TV on.
The habitual practice of using social media invites us to to comment on things, anything, by ‘liking’, leaving an emoji, disagreeing, leaving our viewpoint below a posting, whatever it is. It is important to remember that none of this is bad in itself, none is sinful. But it has become habitual. Whilst it doesn’t always create sound, it is still a kind of noise. It disturbs the waters of silence, because it draws us away from any kind of interior life. On a habitual level, the mobile phone becomes our own little world, and blocks out our internal channel to God. We see the effect of a smart phone on those who walk around oblivious of everything around them. Sometimes, it seems that they have opted out of the extraordinary life which is unfolding before their eyes; they are in another place.
In our life as monks, we seek to treasure the present moment. In every moment, there is a new invitation to come to God, to align ourselves with His will. This we cannot do if the internet, TV or radio is our constant companion. We must be absolutely clear: it simply cannot work alongside these things, because they are such potent distractions. Not only do they cut off our road to silence, but they give us a perfect excuse to never bother with the interior life and, conveniently, to never face ourselves fully, as we are, warts and all. It is partly because of this that much of the world is so unhappy and unfulfilled, behind the glossy, technological shop frontage of the 21st century.
Not talking is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to silence. In the monastery, we keep silence at certain times and in particular places. But it is also about the way we look at each other, the way we push a chair in at our refectory place, the way we close a door, the way we walk around the house. All of this is the birth place of silence, the birthing chamber of the presence of God in our daily lives.
We may look at someone in a noisy way. For example, if there has been a dispute, we can glare at someone, grimace, scowl, or downright ignore them by not looking at all. None of this is good. It disturbs the waters of peace; it is a form of noise. We may do the opposite, and try to pull everyone we see into conversation; this has the same effect, because it draws us out of silence. Stomping up stairs is not fostering peace in the house, neither is it courteous to those we live with.
Having a TV on throughout the day is also noise, even if the sound is muted. We are drawn to it, rather than to inner recollection. Do we not turn the TV off when someone special comes into the room who has something to tell us, or whom we have something to say? It should be the same as we enter into ourselves to commune with our Creator, who comes to us in a gentle whisper.
Much of the world sees silence as emptiness. Contemplative Christians should see something different. For us, silence is a place (not a destination but a place, all the same) where encounter can flourish. This is so important because our encounter with God develops a relationship with Him, and this relationship is the beginning of heaven, it is the unfolding of God’s incomprehensible gift of everlasting joy, which is to know Him, to live within His courts, as His children. In this place of encounter, we come face to face with our own weaknesses. Silence, then, represents the opposite of emptiness: through it, we attain the very purpose of our existence, which is to develop a real, living relationship with our Creator.
It should be said that not all silence is peaceful. When we find stillness, we may sometimes come into contact with aspects of our character that are otherwise so easily concealed in the undergrowth of 21st century living. It can be that, the more we attain to contemplative prayer, the more keenly we sense our own brokenness, our own limitations, and many people do not like this. Jesus Himself probably didn’t like it when, in the silence of the garden of Gethsemane, He encountered the Father in that pivotal moment of anguish before He was arrested. Silence does not mean a perpetual state of bliss. Yet it is important to remember the inspiring words of St Paul (in today’s second reading at Mass): “…to stop me from getting too proud I was given a thorn in my flesh… and [God] said: ‘My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.’ So I shall be happy to make my weakness my special boast so that the power of Christ may stay over me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). These words are game-changers. They are written for us, for all those who are trying to find communion with God.
Similarly, St Rafael Arnaiz Baron, a Cistercian saint of the 20th century, wrote: “The soul that longs for heaven is a soul that sees its own weakness; the man who seeks the fountain of Christ is the one who is thirsty…”
It is not too melodramatic to imagine that, if all the Christians in the world defined their faith and life-axis as a real, urgent, living relationship with Jesus Christ, the world would be a very different place. Perhaps then, we would take as much care of our souls as we do of our bodies? This is the meaning of what was said at the opening ‘we are all contemplatives’. Prayer is encounter, and there are as many ways to pray as there are people. Our liturgy with its forms and customs is a signpost to prayer, but no written prayer is a magical secret knock into His presence. For much of the world, prayers are ‘things we recite’, but this is absurd. It is like saying that a car is ‘a thing to sit in’: saying so, we have missed the whole purpose of a car. Prayer is a real, urgent, living relationship with God, and we do not know which direction it will take us in. Like any conversation, it cannot be mapped out and planned. We shall be forced to surrender to the wonder of the story, to leave behind our current notions of God, of prayer, and of ‘saying prayers’. Surely, it is the same when we begin to develop a friendship with someone: that person unfolds and we know increasingly more about them; and what we know of them changes us, too, it impacts on us, because we love that person. Perhaps that friend also holds up a mirror, and we see ourselves in the way we respond to love… this experience can be beautiful, humbling, sometimes painful, and is full – if only we allow it to be – of self-realization and self-growth. Such relationships change us, force us to look at things differently. It is the same when we pray, because in that space we are developing the Friendship of all friendships.
We treasure our liturgy and, as Cistercians, we do ‘say prayers’. This is what people see when they come into our Church and hear us singing the psalms at the Divine Office. But every last word we recite is a community-based expression of that longing in our heart, that hardwired need for communion with God. Even our singing of the psalms is infused with silence, as we pause for about three seconds betwixt each verse. This is an historic monastic practice called the ‘mediant pause’, which is a kind of invitation to receive God into the liturgy we are singing. For those who hear this pause for the first time, it may seem unnecessary, an emptiness, but the silence is far from that. Rather, it is a kind of guest house for God in our community life.
We are not in charge of that silence; it is not a place where we hold court. No, it is God whom we meet in that silence, and we surrender to Him, opening ourselves to the work of the Spirit. Again, it is the same in friendship: we would get very little out of friendship with such a selfish attitude. Instead, we willingly become in a sense ‘vulnerable’ to that friend, we open ourselves, and only through this process will it begin to change us for the better.
The mediant pause is a caricature of our life as Cistercians. Every moment is built for encounter with Him, and our daily life is filled with a return to that quiet place in our hearts, that place of recollection and silence and re-conversion.