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 38:2-3).
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.