Porticos of Silence: Whitterings, September 2006

“There should be in the soul halls of space, avenues of leisure and porticos of silence where God waits.”
The Rt. Rev’d Jeremy Taylor, D.D.

This summer I read in succession Walden by Henry David Thoreau, The writings of the Desert Fathers and Plato’s Republic. One of the things that struck me was that all of them complained in almost identical terms about the noise and confusion of modern life. Thoreau warns those who seek truth not to venture into Concord Massachusetts, Saint Anthony and Saint Jerome warn seekers of truth not to go to Alexandria and Socrates warns students of philosophy to avoid Athens. All claim that those in the cities lack silence and that by lacking silence they lacked truth.

The Abbot Nilus said, “Invulnerable from the arrows of the enemy is he who loves quiet: but he who mixeth with the crowd has often wounds.”
The Saying of the Fathers, Book II, xi.

Well it is not only the cities that lack silence but also the country. There seems to be noise everywhere today: motorcycles, airplanes, snow or leaf blowers, traffic, lawnmowers, speedboats. People in many of the houses I visit also surround themselves with intentional noise in the form of radios and televisions blaring. When I walk down to the lakeside to read during the summer the noise of the trucks, the lawnmowers and especially the motorcycles drive me back into the house in fairly short order. In the winter I am stuck inside because of the cold and in the summer because of the noise.

“All the troubles of life come upon us because we refuse to sit quietly for a while each day in our rooms.”
Blaise Pascal

I have become more and more sensitive to noise as the years pass to the point that I often feel like a complete neurotic. I have air filters going 24hrs a day to provide white noise so that I do not hear the traffic, especially the trucks and motorcycles. I dream of a remote parish with a Rectory up a long desolate road far away from fly zones.

My addiction to silence has led me to imagine that I may have a monastic vocation and that one day after my filial responsibilities are ended I would become a Cowley Father, a Mirfield Father, a Holy Cross Father or a Benedictine. However I have discovered another problem. Noise seems to have penetrated the monasteries as well. As some of you may know I am a monastery junky. I usually visit two or three new monasteries every year. However it has become apparent that it is becoming more difficult to find a monastery that possesses the deep reverberating silence that seems to have a life of it’s own. Mind you monasteries are certainly quieter than most places but not quieter than the old Benedictines I would stay with in the north of Scotland on the edge of the world.

Many of Anglican religious house are actually in cities and those that are not do not seem to keep the greater silence let alone the lesser silence. On group of Anglican sisters I know is perhaps the most talkative groups I have come across in years.

I believe that part of the reason for this has to do with the loss of true monastic vocation by many of the religious communities today (and two Superiors of Anglican monastic communities agree with me on this). Many of the modern day monks and nuns seem worldly and their monastic vocation seems to be an extension of their own personal spiritual journey and personal identity than the submersion and submission of their individuality to the collective identity of the community. This abandonment of the self to silence, not just outer silence but inner silence, is the hallmark of true monastic life. The entire community is formed and transformed by the communal adherence to the listening for the voice of God.

In other words I have yet to find an Anglican religious community that treasurers silence enough for me to consider joining it. It seems as the only way to find the great depth of silence these days is to convert to Roman Catholicism and join the Trappists or try the arduous work of becoming a Carthusian. Then again one could become an Orthodox hermit in Siberia.

What troubles me is that few seem to be concerned about the loss of this great resource for the church. If anything the silence of the true monastic community is the very heart of the faith, the womb of Christ incarnate. It is in this silence that He is heard as the prophet Ezekiel experienced on the mountain and as the Psalmists reminds us, “Be still and know that I am God.” The deep silence of the active listening for the voice of God is the ground from which He proceeds. This is true for each one of us but also collectively as a church. If we become too preoccupied with ministry and administration at the cost of true worship and silence we will lose our way as disciples. The loss of this depth of silence is not just unfortunate but fatal to the church.

The Original Sound

I asked an old monk, “How long have you been here?”
“Forever,” he answered.
I smiled. “Fifty years, Father?”
“Did you know St. Benedict?”
“We are novices together.”
“Did you know Jesus?”
“He and I converse every day.”
I threw away my silly smile, fell to my knees, and clutched his hand. “Father,” I whispered, “Did you hear the original sound?”
“I am listening to the original sound.”

Tales of a Magic Monastery, Theophane the Monk