God in the Quiet

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Give me thy grace, good Lord,
To set the world at nought’,
To set my mind fast upon thee.
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths.
~ St. Thomas More, A Godly Meditation (1534)

Thomas More wrote the above when he was in the slammer—the Tower of London, to be exact, and pretty much cut off from the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, he was asking for God’s grace to focus more on Him, and to eschew the “blast of men’s mouths.” Blast of men’s mouths? I’m guessing the only mouthy blast More endured in the Tower was halitosis of his warden and a guard or two.

So, if Thomas More, awaiting trial and a death sentence in a jail cell can be concerned about noise and distraction, how much more so those of us in a world full of blasting mouths. No need to go to jail, though, to focus my mind on the things of God. All I have to do is hit the “off” switch—maybe a dozen times or more. Whatever it takes.

Allan Ripp brought this home to me in his WSJ article about BlackBerry and smart phones. Ripp wistfully recalls his Motorola flip phone days, before he succumbed and gave in to the smart phone juggernaut:

Being partially incommunicado had its virtues, until inevitably one too many clients sent an email with nothing more than a lone question mark—or five—the universal sign of “Where the hell are you and why haven’t you responded to this mother-of-all demands I sent all of 30 seconds ago?”

We all live this life these days, regardless of the devices we’ve incorporated into our lives. Cell phones, smart phones, tablets, or whatever (including blogs!), we’re rarely far from being connected and “on.”

Perhaps there are some who relish the connected life—probably the same folks who wear those Bluetooth things in their ears no matter where they go. But I’m guessing there are plenty of people like me who paused a moment when they heard the NPR story last week about the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia—thousands of square miles surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory completely devoid of cell phone service.

Yes. Completely. A veritable paradise of unconnectedness.

But then, you don’t need a federally enforced Quiet Zone for that. Just ask the monks.

St. Benedict wrote about silence in his Rule way back in the sixth century:

Let us do what the Prophet saith: “I said, I will take heed of my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I have set a guard to my mouth, I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence even from good things” (Ps 38[39]:2-3).

And the silence was supposed to go both ways in the monastery—i.e., the monks kept quiet themselves, but they also expected to coexist in quiet. In fact, keeping quiet was considered a matter of justice according to Benedict:

When the Work of God is finished, let all go out with the deepest silence, and let reverence be shown to God; that a brother who perhaps desireth to pray especially by himself is not prevented by another’s misconduct (52).

That the noisy world we ourselves inhabit hungers for this kind of calm and quiet is evident from the popularity of the 2005 film Into Great Silence, or even the more recent Of Gods and Men (2011). What is it about monks and their separateness that we find so fascinating?

Maybe we get a clue from the Carthusians and their Statutes:

The primary application of our vocation is to give ourselves to the silence and solitude of the cell. It is holy ground, the area where God and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends.

The silence and solitude aren’t ends in and of themselves and it’s not just to guard against being polluted by the outside world.

Instead, it’s about finding the space to have a relationship with the Almighty, and like any relationship, it requires focus on the other. No distractions. No beeps and buzzes and ring tones and vibrates. Just quiet and focus, and room for conversation with God.

Thomas More, a mover and shaker, and definitely a player, actually lived with the Carthusians of London for a few years during his law school days, so it’s no wonder he had a different perspective on what constitutes blasty mouths than we do. Despite his place in the world, he knew what really fed him and sustained him, and yet even in the solitude of his cell, it somehow escaped him.

In any case, I don’t need to go to jail to focus my mind on God. All I have to do is hit the “off” switch—maybe a dozen times or more. Whatever it takes.

image: Shutterstock 

Richard Becker

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Rick Becker is a Catholic convert, husband, and father of seven. He and his wife, Nancy, serve as Co-Directors of Religious Education at St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend, Indiana. Rick also teaches nursing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

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  • JMC

    How true this is. Years ago, when I used to have to wait in a quiet doctor’s office, or in a repair shop, or anywhere, for that matter, I used those quiet moments in my busy life for prayer. Then came the Muzak. Well, it was all easy-listening, “elevator music,” and kept at low volume, so I could tune it out and focus. But then came the ubiquitous TV. At first, they kept the volume low, so it became a matter of closing my eyes. But now they keep it loud so you can hear it over conversations, and it’s utterly impossible to tune it out. And it’s always those inane morning discussion shows, or those horrible daytime dramas that you can’t help but get caught up in. And my doctor’s office has quite a large waiting room, so when the TV first went in, I simply sat at the opposite end of the room with my back to it. But then they put in ANOTHER one, so now it’s impossible to get away from it. I rarely play music in my home now, and the TV is rarely on. Whether I want to pray, or simply read a book, it’s the only place I can find quiet to do so.

  • Michael Lichens

    Theodore Dalrymple, an atheist, talked about the need for silence and being free from distraction. http://incharacter.org/features/silence-please/

  • Rick Becker

    ‘The ubiquitous TV.’ So true. Sitting at the opposite end of the room is effective, but depending on the number of people in the room, you could also offer to turn it off if nobody is watching it. It’s funny to watch people’s expressions when you ask that–as if it’s heresy or something!

  • Mugger Malcolmridge

    Richard, I’m very much in agreement with you regarding the value of silence. But why listen to NPR?

  • catholicexchange

    Fair question. But we also had to say that you have the coolest screen name. Good work!

  • misterpoach

    Stop going to the doctor and pray you get better.

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