Dave Brenner, Word on Fire intern and seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago, recently returned from a silent retreat at a Trappist Monastery in France. He writes about his experience on today's post, commenting on the unexpected joy found in profound silence.
Last month I had an opportunity to go on a silent retreat with French Trappist monks. For those of you that don’t know your monk varieties (it’s ok, I didn’t), these guys are the Marines among monks. They strictly adhere to Benedict’s formula of ora et labora or “prayer and work” with additional restraints against talking. They rise before 4am each morning and are in their choir stalls chanting in French and Latin by 4:10am. Each day continues in predictable fashion with additional communal prayers at 6, 7:15, Mass at 8, and then again in the afternoon at 12pm, 4:10pm, 5:10pm, 7pm and 9pm. In between prayers, they either worked in the fields growing grapes, or baked bread or cleaned up after us. Their shaved heads, sandals, white albs and black tunics could have been right out of the Middle Ages. It would be a dramatic understatement to say that their life was predictable and monotonous from my viewpoint.
I add this detail so you can understand why I was perplexed on the first day when I saw a monk with his sleeves rolled up, holding a bottle of Dawn detergent and a sponge, diving head first into filthy trash bins to get them clean…while sporting a broad smile on his face? Or when a monk led us in prayer before lunch and he cracked some of the funniest ad lib culinary jokes I’ve ever heard. It turns out that these were emotionally connected, joyful men. I can’t pretend to understand how they receive the depths of their joy despite such austerity, but I had a couple experiences on retreat that started to untangle that paradox.
First, after a few days on this retreat I’m convinced that you encounter Christ more radically in silence. Silence disposes us to be real with ourselves – there is no incentive to be phony or to try to impress people when you can’t talk, Facebook or email. You realize it’s just you and your thoughts. Silence disposes us to listen – there is no means to drive your agenda when you can’t dictate objectives, strategies or next steps. You become part of someone else’s agenda. Silence also disposes us to confront the big questions – there’s no possibility of evading your deepest thoughts of meaning and purpose when you can’t turn on ESPN or jump online.
In this way, silence creates a fertile ground for spiritual insight: you’re asking the big questions, you’re open to listening, and you’re real with yourself. If you experience anything of Christ during this time, you’ll follow Him with eagerness and seek consolation in His guidance. Christ will fill those gaps of meaning in a way that secular pursuits never could. My own sense of profound fulfillment and joy on the retreat demonstrated Augustine’s truth, “you have made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
Second, I’m also convinced that silence oriented toward Christ is the most unifying of pursuits. I’ll illustrate with a brief story. On my third day, I sat at dinner in silence next to a middle-aged burly Frenchmen. As he filled my water glass, I was overcome with a sense of profound love for this man. Obviously, not in any sort of romantic sense. Not even in much of a sentimental sense. I just knew with complete and perfect certainty that if such a situation presented itself, I would follow Christ’s directive and lay my life down for this man. I had never spoken to him and I had never heard him speak, but I saw the way he prayed, the way he served others first at the dinner table and the way he smiled at his wife. I also realized that if we tried to talk, we would likely find the French/English communication barrier to be too substantial or I wouldn’t be able to relate to his life and vice versa and we would’ve left the conversation unconnected. It was precisely because of the silence not in spite of the silence that I loved him. It was because we shared a connection in Christ.
This revelation opened up a whole new way of thinking that is best articulated by Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk writing in the 50’s and 60’s. In writing about his vocation of silence and solitude he says,
“My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own…it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are….There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
The takeaway from this experience isn’t to become a monk but to leverage the wisdom from their vocation. Seek to simplify, be intentional about sources you choose for consolation and be honest when you’re seeking distraction, and literally, for Christ’s sake, introduce some silence into your life.
Dave Brenner is a seminarian at Mundelein Seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Next week, be sure to read the blog for Dave's further reflection on silence and spirituality.
In addition, if you are interested in attending a retreat at a Trappist monastery, please visit trappists.org for complete information about all the Trappists monasteries in the U.S.