How Silence Works: Emailed Conversations With Four Trappist Monks

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Niccolo and Donkey
How Silence Works: Emailed Conversations With Four Trappist Monks

The Awl

Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston

June 1, 2012


About two months ago I started reaching out by email to a group of people whose lives I wanted to know about and understand: The Trappist monks of Oka Abbey, in Quebec. Oka Abbey is the oldest Trappist monastery in North America. A century ago, it was a powerhouse; but in recent decades, the community had dwindled to a fraction of what it used to be . After leaving the Abbey to a heritage group, to be preserved as an historical site, the remaining monks relocated to a smaller retreat in the mountains north of Montreal.

Even if you're not Catholic, you may have heard of the Trappists. They’re the monks that make those impeccably crafted beers. And the Trappist monks of Oka created a cheese worth drooling over that’s still widely sold today (though now it's made by a Quebec dairy company). The Trappists are known for one other thing as well: they're the only Western-based monastic order that still actively practices the “vow” of silence. (I put quotes there because neither the Rule of St. Benedict nor the practice of the Order actually contains a specific vow of silence. As I understand it, it’s an edict, a practice that’s a part of their lives that the monks happily follow.) It was this element of their lives, their dedication to the enshrinement of silence, that drew me to them. Not really knowing how one goes about approaching monks, I located list of monasteries in addition to the former Oka group and started emailing. It took a few weeks of very slow introductions to find the right people, but I ended up in conversation with four monks, two in America and two in Canada.

I was nervous; a lapsed Catholic who chased his ideals into a long education, I have a weakness to people who devote themselves more than I ever did to higher pursuits. But I found the group to be more than usually friendly, loathe to judge, voluble in writing and full of enthusiasm to correspond. They’d write me in the spare time they had between their daily work and daily prayer, most seeming pleased. Most asked that I respect their privacy, so their names have been removed here. This conversation was culled from four different interviews conducted using the same starting questions.

Could you walk me through a day in your life? What's the hour-to-hour schedule of someone who lives in a Trappist monastery?

Father A:

• We rise at 3:45 each morning.
• At 4:00 a.m.: Vigils. This is the night prayer, including a hymn, psalms and readings from the Bible and from a Father of the Church or renowned spiritual writer.
• 5:00 a.m.: we may have breakfast or take the time for private prayer, spiritual reading.
• 6:45 a.m.: Lauds, the Morning Prayer. Shorter than Vigils, but also consisting of psalms, hymn and prayer. This takes about half an hour. The time left is for reading, walking outside, etc.
• 8:15 a.m.: This is time for the daily Eucharist. (On Sundays, it’s at 10:00).
• 9:15 a.m.: We go to work until 11:30. There is here half an hour to clean up and be ready for the next prayer.
• noon: The prayer of SEXT (from the Latin: sextus, 6th) It is a short kind of Prayer-Break so to speak! And Lunch follows at about 12:20.
• After Lunch, we may have a siesta or do whatever we like until the next prayer at
• 1:40 p.m.: the Prayer of NONE (9th) it lasts maybe 15 minutes and we go back to work until 4:15 p.m.
• 5:00 p.m. Dinner. Free time. During the Free Time, we may read, meditate on the Scripture, study, anything that may help us in growing in our spiritual life, and even some other relaxing things for we must avoid strain or anxiety and tension.
• 6:00 p.m.: Vespers. Like Lauds, about half an hour. And free time.
• 7:30 p.m.: Compline: the last prayer of the day. It means “accomplishment or achievement” so we are ready to finish our daily schedule and go to bed!
• 8:00 p.m.: We retire for the night. (And believe me; we (at least me ) sleep).

Father B: After communion, we sit there a few minutes and the quiet is intense. Coughing stops, nose-blowing stops, throat clearing—it all stops. The silence is palpable and is, I believe a real communion. A recent retreat master told us it seemed that we were out of time and in the eternity of the sacrament we had just received. The same thing happens when we have Eucharistic Adoration on Sunday afternoons. No group of human beings can agree when it comes to ideas or words; we may arrive at consensus on isolated issues through a lot of work and compromise. But in the silence of adoration, we can arrive at a deep communion when we share the same faith. Sometimes I think silence is one way of not letting our differences define who we are for one another.

What do you feel like silence adds to your actions? Does it make them easier to complete? More satisfying? There's a concept in Buddhist philosophy that the highest art you can attain is to fill your everyday moments with the full presence of yourself, and thus transform them into meditative acts. Is that a statement you'd agree with?

Father B: In my daily work the habit of silence (I've been here 35 years) helps me to focus, even to put aside pre-occupying worries while I concentrate on a particular responsibility. That can be preparing the community's meal, typing the entries for our website, hearing confessions, preparing a class for the novitiate, chanting the psalms at community prayers when I have a cold, whatever. But I have learned that I started out with certain powers of concentration, so I may not be too accurate here; I grew up in NYC and it's second nature to me to block out background noise. But I can say that the habit of silence keeps me from seeking additional noise. I'm not uneasy when it's very quiet or when I'm totally alone. But I don't find silence making tasks easier to complete.

The silence does make me aware of my inner workings, however, what we call in the monastery, "self-knowledge." I can't pretend that I'm always a nice guy, always patient, always calm and receptive. I have to admit that I can be abrupt, cold to offenders, or would often prefer efficiency to the messiness of other people's moods. Silence seems to keep me from idealizing myself.
I've become very attuned to the sound of bird-song, the wind, water running through the pipes, identifying unseen monks by the sound of their footsteps—just paying attention to my surroundings.

Are all your actions done in total silence? How do monks coordinate work? There must be a small amount of words that are absolutely necessary to get through a day?

Father B: No, not all work is done in silence, though we try to keep a silent atmosphere whatever we do, even common work. We talk to convey necessary information; the point is to get to the point and stick to the point and the capacity for that varies from person to person. The ideal isn't to see who keeps the strictest silence but for all to help maintain a silent atmosphere.

This says on one level that silence is in our lives to create an ambience of recollection so I'll remember and honor God's presence. On another level, silence reminds me that the misuse of words, the abuse of language can also be the sinful abuse of people; silence for us means not talking , more than not making noise… On yet another level, silence means listening. We follow the Rule of St. Benedict and the first word of that Rule is "Listen." That's the great ethical element of silence: to check my words and listen to another point of view. I'll never have any real peace should my sense of well-being depend on soundless peace. When I can learn the patience of receiving, in an unthreatened way, what I'd rather not hear, then I can have a real measure of peace in any situation.

Father D: Monasteries value silence a lot. We have in the order, to this effect, a sign language written into a book that details meanings of signs to be used when monks need to communicate. It is still being used, increasingly less used though. This fact underscores our value for silence because it enables us easily to turn our attention actively to God and sense his presence among us and in the whole world. It is as if we are talking to God and have less time for other talks. We do not make a vow of silence, however, as people seem to believe. Silence is an aid and not an end in itself. It aids prayer, communal and private, and seeks to reduce distractions. Silence aids deeper meditation and contemplation.

Father C ( first language is French ) : The first advantage contemplation and silence bring to me is the serenity, the calm and peace of mind. When there is lot of noise or movement around you, it’s tough to take notice of what you’re going through. That’s why so many people come here, to our retreat house to find silence and peace and be able to put their lives in order. It’s the same thing for the monks.

How do you feel about the world around you? Do you feel like grappling with the world in all its complexity would be difficult?

Father B: Actually, to keep a small community going, we have to grapple with everything everyone else does: taxes, spending, planning for the future, vocation "recruitment", maintenance, local politics AND things other people don't have to juggle. Environmental sustainability is an important value to this community; I'm up to my neck in business with the USDA to make ourselves better stewards on our land. The networking with local resource-people is endless; it's also a great privilege and grace. And whatever we do to stimulate better use of our resources can contribute to the wellbeing of developing cultures who do not have the resources of the USA.

Father A: If by “complexity” you mean the extraordinary diversification of forms of experience and the myriad ways they meet and interact in the course of living life, all of this is inexpressibly beautiful and it would be hard to see how it could be a challenge to anyone's faith. Probably, by “complexity” you mean rather the perplexing, self-defeating… binds we get ourselves into individually and collectively because of the influence of sin. It is sin that makes the world complicated, and sin comes from us. But if sin comes from in us, then a monk, living in silence and solitude, is sitting in the eye of the storm.

My own impression is that life in the world provides many diversions which guard a person from really engaging the battle with sin, and can even render him quite insensible of its existence. Such a person is not so much engaging the complexity of the world as becoming numb to it. In the cloister, on the other hand, you engage the Adversary face to face. It is hard for me to imagine where in the world a person more directly engages “the world in all its complexity” than battling with the very source of evil in one's own heart in the solitude and silence of the cloister.

As regards “grappling” with the world, in its present state, I will frankly confide to you two very personal vulnerabilities which would make living outside the cloister very difficult for me. First is my impression of the general formlessness of life in America today. So many people today live without a coherent language, symbol system, tradition, or rituals to give concrete expression to what they believe and so speak of seeking “happiness,” “contentment, “light,” “fulfillment”… The abstract formlessness of how Americans talk about matters of ultimate concern wearies me deeply.

The other is the loneliness that characterizes life in America today. Mother Theresa, visiting the U.S. for the first time in the 70s, said she had never seen poverty like what she saw here and she meant the loneliness of Americans. The breakdown and relinquishment of shared value systems and traditions, has left individuals adrift in a private search for God and meaning. This is a terribly lonely way to live. In America, loneliness can become like the blueness of the sky. After a while, people don't think about it anymore.

Out of curiosity, do the monks in the cloister watch the daily news? Are you interested in cultural changes in the world?

Father A: The motivation is to focus our hearts and attention on the Truth of God that resides at the center of our being and is supremely Simple. (While living at Walden, a visitor one day asked Henry David Thoreau did he read the story in the paper about the man in Concord who committed suicide. “I don't need to read the story”, he answered, “I understand the principle.”) We do not watch television and so would not have access to the daily news, but do keep informed about important developments such as the financial crisis, by means of newspapers.

I wonder if a lot of the cultural complexity you refer to seems interesting to people because they have lost so much consciousness of [their] ancestors and the long view afforded by a knowledge of history. If you don't know history, everything today can seem quite novel. But in the larger context of the story of human history, much of what fascinates, today, is quite redundant. There is, for example, nothing “new” about the “New Atheism.” You see it heralded as complicating our world in a challenging and refreshing way, but its claims were much more intelligently pressed in the past and rejected by our ancestors. It is astonishing to me that, after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, and China, people can speak of the experiment with radical secularism as if it were “breaking news.” Been there, done that.

Father B: I worry and pray about world poverty, overpopulation, consumerism, the moral bankruptcy of laissez-faire capitalism, the polarized, simplistic "thinking" in our country; about the public face and stupid blunders of the Catholic Church, about politicians who capitalize on religion; about veterans, war refugees, migrant workers; about people in jail (I used to do intervention work in the Criminal Justice System and in the inner city) and people with no meaning in their lives. I didn't come here to get out of the real world but to get perspective on the real world.

I still believe that intentional community, communal ownership and a community of goods is a viable human endeavor, but I look for no utopia. My faith could not survive without engaging the concretely realities of human experience. My faith is forged in that collision. I find the here-and-now of vital importance, but not ultimate importance. It's important because it is ephemeral; this moment is here and gone. How I respond to it is the vital question. Do I respond to it from my deepest values? that's the important thing for me and the reality of my faith.

Father C: I don’t read the newspapers for I get all the information I need on the Internet. The only stuff I read is McLean’s. But the news I [have is] a source for my prayer. There are so many bad things happening every day, so many people in dire difficulties… But there [are] also wonderful episodes of courage, of mercy and brotherly help and love. There is almost not a single day where there is not one more human dead, in our country… You see, being linked to the outside could be helpful for one’s spiritual life, as it can be very harmful! But I think I’m doing it the right way, with God’s help and guidance.

After a certain length of time, does it simply become natural to be so silent? Or does it always remain something that you have to be very mindful of? And do you consider it as a beneficial practice for all people? Or something attached to your faith? A form of sacrifice of words?

Father A: I would say that silence has become natural for me. This is not the case with most communities of monks. In community, we tend to struggle with silence. A human being is a social creature, and we find that, while maintaining silence alone is natural and a blessing, cultivating silence in a group is hard and a discipline we have to commit to over and over again.

I would not speak of the “sacrifice of words” except in relatively rare instances when a passion moves me to speak and I struggle to hold my tongue. The silence which is my natural habitat is not created by forcibly sacrificing anything. When a man and woman meet and fall in love they begin to talk. They talk and talk and talk all day long and can't wait to meet again to talk some more. They talk for hours together, and never tire of talking and so talk late into the night, until they become intimate—and then they don't talk anymore. Neither would describe intimacy as “the sacrifice of words” and a monk is not inclined to speak about his intimacy with God in this way. Is silence beneficial for all people? I would say the cultivation of silence is indispensable to being human. People sometimes talk as if they were “looking for silence,” as if silence had gone away or they had misplaced it somewhere. But it is hardly something they could have misplaced. Silence is the infinite horizon against which is set every word they have ever spoken, and they can't find it? Not to worry—it will find them.
Niccolo and Donkey
President Camacho
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