Trappist Signs: Holy Silence & Holy Language

There are people in the world who have never had any verbal interactions of any kind and yet still consider each other friends. For some, this means a social media “friend” he or she has never interacted with and may even live in another country. For others who have lost or never had the ability to hear, a happy conversation with a friend can be carried out in utter silence. It might be difficult for the rest of us to even remember the last time we shared a comfortable silence with a friend or family member instead of filling it up with idle words. In Catholic religious communities, particularly those who follow the Rule of St Benedict, mandatory silence is common and is considered another means to holiness and to sanctify one’s day. A fascinating form of sign language specific to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, arose out of dissonance between pious devotion to daily times of silence and a nagging necessity for communication in certain situations. This holy little language is still used by some of the older members of Trappist communities. In the midst of a rat race world of nonstop communication, Catholics have in our heritage certain means not of avoiding community and language but of sanctifying it.

This heritage of monastic silence and sign language reaches deep into the Church’s history. St Benedict’s three great silences — in a Church, at meals, and at night after the Office — were the standard by at least the 9th century. Monks then began using signs to communicate in certain unavoidable situations not long after. However, only a few lists of “official” or allowed sign language from before the 12th century remain. The Judeo-Christian idea of holy silence, however, extends even 600 years before the birth of Jesus when Habakkuk claimed, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20). Sign language is a natural product of the need for communicating within a community while still preserving that ancient and holy practice of silence.

Monastic sign language, much like the sign language with which most of us are familiar, is based on symbolic gestures involving the hands and face to communicate basic concepts. A Catholic who regularly attends Mass already knows at least one. Tapping one’s chest with a closed fist means, “Forgive me” or “Pardon me.” Pressing one’s thumb under the chin can mean “Alright. That’s it.” or “Enough.” Pressing one’s index fingers together to create the shape of a triangle means “Finish[ed].” Spreading the fingers of one’s hand and sweeping them across one’s cheek means “Pretty” or “Beautiful.” To sign “God,” touch the thumbs of both hands to the opposite palm while touching both index fingers to point upward in a triangle to indicate the Blessed Trinity. “Soul” is indicated by making a semi C-shape with the index finger pointing upward, touching the hand to one’s forehead, and then extending the hand upward. If a friend or interlocutor asks how one’s day is going, a brief touch of the cheek is “good” and a rub of the nose is “bad.” Touch one hand to the chin, and extend the hand forward keeping the fingers extended and joined with the back still facing the other person to say “thank you.” He or she returns the gesture to say “you’re welcome.”

The argument one might make against monastic sign language, however, is that the monks were still being disobedient by communicating when they should be mindful that “the Lord is in his holy temple,” meaning he is in the divine presence and should remain recollected. After all, humans have a basic need of communication and consecrated religious live with another predicated on the very idea of community and the communal nature of the Church. Indeed, it’s still communication but more deliberate, thoughtful, and involves more of one’s body, which is properly Catholic. The point of the silence is to avoid the devil’s temptations to idle chatter and to pursue proper detachment from sin and the world. Therein is a lesson even for the laity and those of us in a marriage vocation.

An idle tongue is the ugly sister of idle hands. A thing is only self-expressive so long as it’s properly used according to its order and purpose. A plane is only self-expressive as long as it can fly through the air. It becomes disordered or “out of order” if it loses that ability. So silence and speech have their proper order and only become disordered and evil when we don’t use them according to their natural purpose. Some of these signs are still present in modern monastic communities and are even shared with secular sign language. In this way, a monk or nun may remain properly involved yet properly detached.

Despite the constant and sometimes overwhelming bombardment of communities — and especially families— from the world’s cacophony, Catholics have a rich and unique tradition to uphold in which we don’t isolate but insulate our souls. Temptation to idle hands and idle speech isn’t exclusive to religious monasteries, and the lessons from holy silence and holy communication aren’t just fruitful for monks and nuns. Intentionally sharing a comfortable silence with a close friend or a spouse or listening attentively to an excited child instead of speaking over or shushing him or her are just a few ways the rest of us in other vocations can practice this devotion. As St Paul says, test everything and keep what’s good.

Further Reading:

Barakat, R. “The Cistercian Sign Language: A Study in Non-verbal Communication. Cistercian Study Series, 7. Kalamazoo, Mich. : Cistercian Publications, 1975.

Bragg, L. ‘Visual-Kinetic Communication In Europe Before 1600: A Survey Of Sign Lexicons And Finger Alphabets Prior To The Rise Of Deaf Education’. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 2, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 1-25.

Bruce, Scott G. Silence And Sign Language In Medieval Monasticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Quay, S. ‘Signs of Silence: Two Examples of Trappist Sign Language in the Far East’. Cîteaux: Commentarii Cistercienses. 52, no. 3-4 (2001): 211-230

image: Daniel Tibi / Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Burgess

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Jonathan Burgess holds a BA in English Language and Literature and currently studies creative nonfiction writing in Converse College’s MFA program. His work has appeared in O Dark Thirty, Blood & Thunder, and Catholic Exchange. He lives in upstate South Carolina with his wife and four children.

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  • From. Dan Hesko

    A religious sister once told me that everything began to unravel when they took reading at meals away.
    I remember in seminary reading at dinner, it was wonderful, you could eat in peace and be at peace. I’m sure it was good for digestion too.

  • Antonia

    Excellent post. Why did the heirarchy in the West try to make things easier for people? For example they’ve destroyed Ascension Thursday.

    Just this week I read that a Westerner attended mass in Indonesia on what we Australians used to call “Ascension Thursday”.

    That great feast has been down-graded. Why?

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