“The first requirement for prayer is silence. People of prayer are people of silence.”
–St. Mother Teresa
Something that may come as a surprise when visiting a monastery (even if it is expected) is the silence you encounter there. As a monastic virtue, silence is found in every monastery and monastic order, though to different degrees. It is so important that at certain times some orders will even use sign language or written notes for necessary communication. The Carthusians are an example of one of the strictest orders regarding silence; talking only happens during a weekly meeting, when necessary for work, and during a weekly walk (I recommend a unique film that was made about the Carthusians: Into Great Silence).
Silence isn’t something most people are used to and may even avoid. Many of us know the feeling of “awkward silence” or may have uttered the words “The silence is deafening” and yet the practice of silence is invaluable to aiding the spiritual life. It aids in keeping one from committing sins of the tongue and opening one to contemplation of God. However, silence is not an end in itself. St. Abba Pimen said it perfectly: “A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent, that is, he says nothing that is not profitable.”
Interior silence is the main goal of outer silence. Interior silence fosters prayer and enables one to hear God. It is the means to a deeper relationship with God—that which a Christian should be constantly striving after. A simple way to think of interior silence is to think of a close relationship you have with someone. In this relationship, when everything is good there is no awkward silence. Much is understood without being said; love is shared through a glance or gentle touch. Words are not needed. You and the other have a communion together; you see each other clearly and simply rest in one another’s presence. Interior silence should lead us to this kind of relationship with God; we simply rest in His presence (The Practice of the Presence of God is a good book on the subject).
So, how can those of us not living behind cloistered walls foster this virtue in our daily lives? As a mother of eight I know how difficult this can be. I am also an over thinker, fostering interior silence does not come easily to me either.
I find having more intimate moments with God is much like in married life once you start having children where spouses have to steal moments with one another whenever possible—we must do the same with God, taking advantage of whatever moments come. Too much background noise, talking, and thinking will make us miss the opportunities that come every day.
My husband and I do our best to make times of quiet for ourselves and encourage silence in our home throughout the day. We keep time spent watching television to a minimum (the same goes for music and the computer). My husband has been a commuter for much of his career and often in the car he will turn the radio off and pray. I take advantage of any moments of quiet during the day. This can be while washing dishes, laundry, or driving to the store to buy groceries.
Kids are naturally loud and rambunctious. Lent is one of the times of the year I encourage the kids to be quieter. This works with the older kids. We put the younger children to bed after prayers and I allow the older ones to stay up. They can do crafts, art, or read, but they need to keep reasonably quiet during this time before going to bed. Lent is also a time of extra effort of praying the Jesus Prayer and I give extra reminders to the kids to remember to pray throughout the day and try and keep the loudness down in order to pray more. With children, they need daily reminders but that’s what times like Lent are good for.
I can’t stress enough how important a retreat is. I wrote about a retreat I had and you can read about it here. Making a retreat a priority every year is a good practice to start and an excellent way to have silent time alone.
Fr. Nicholas Zachariadis, abbot at Holy Resurrection Monastery explained to me, “Silence is a great antidote to stress; as long as it is in healthy doses and not too forced. It is common in the Latin tradition for people to go on silent retreats. This isn’t something I encourage at my own monastery. I want visitors to enter into the normal life of the monks and participate in the daily routine when visiting. So there will be times of silence but also times of visiting and conversation.” He feels this is a better way for people to encounter silence; this will enable them to have a more natural retreat and then take those lessons home and incorporate them into their own routines.
At Holy Resurrection Monastery, when it isn’t silent time the monks have normal conversation. After meals while washing the dishes, you will hear the guys cracking jokes and telling stories. Normal conversation is a part of their day. Father Nicholas explained that too much forced silence isn’t good. A balance of silence and conversation is what he thinks is best for people who are not prepared for more silence.
I have learned to love quiet but I am also an over thinker. Sometimes I like the quiet because it enables me to think. I have learned that this is not inner silence and will not lead to prayer. Once in confession when explaining some overwhelming thoughts I was having, the priest told me to take time to listen to my favorite kind of music for five to ten minutes each day as an antidote for the constant negative thinking. This was not the kind of advice I expected but I realized why he was telling me this. For some, physical silence may be unnerving, for people like myself, inner silence is hard to learn. Thinking about God even, is not the same as praying. Just like thinking of your spouse—even good, loving thoughts, is not the same as engaging in a relationship with your spouse. We can be thinking of someone and ignoring them at the same time. This is very easy to do with God. Learning inner silence, a silencing of thoughts and distractions, will help to lead us to real prayer. Again, balance is necessary. Silence for the sake of silence is not what we are after. A quieting of our lives, minds, and hearts should aid us to a deeper relationship with God.
I have found this description of our relationship with God both beautiful and helpful:
“Have another look at the passage in The Little Prince by Antoine de-Saint-Exupery where the fox describes how the little prince should learn to tame him—he must be very patient, sit a little way off and look at him out of the corner of his eye and say nothing, for words cause misunderstandings. And every day he will sit a little closer and they will become friends. Put “God” in the place of the fox and you will see loving, chaste shyness, a diffidence which offers but does not prostitute itself: God does not accept a glib, smooth relationship, nor does he impose his presence—he offers it, but it can only be received on the same terms, those of a humble, loving heart, when two timidly, shyly seeking people reach to each other because of a deep mutual respect and because both recognize the holiness and the extraordinary beauty of reciprocal love.”—Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
We do not need to learn elaborate forms of prayer. We need to honestly, humbly, and lovingly approach God with a desire for communion with Him and He will respond. Focusing our inner attention on Him is something we can all learn to do. Our relationship with God isn’t just for Sundays or formal prayer times.
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we need our eyes to be opened to see that it is Christ our Lord who is always walking with us. The two disciples were too busy talking to each other about what happened to Jesus and too upset about what the meaning could be behind the women finding His tomb empty that they failed to recognize Jesus while He walked and talked with them ( Luke 24:13-35). We can reasonably make an effort to lessen the noise in our lives which can help us to have inner silence so we don’t also fail to see Jesus walking with us daily—in our own hearts, and the hearts of those around us.
Editor’s note: This is the third part in a weekly series, “Lessons from a Monastery,” focusing on bringing the lessons of monks and nuns to our everyday life for Lent and The Year of Consecrated Life. Check back at CE each Wednesday or sign up for our free, daily email newsletter.