Monday, June 09, 2008

Shared Solitude

The following was first published in the December 2006 Touchstone, a Journal of Mere Christianity under the title

The Bonds of Silence.

Robert Hart +

An hour or so from moist and chilly Berkeley, our cars, filled to capacity with fugitives from secular turmoil, with luggage and sacramental appointments, traveled into the Napa Valley, amid mountains standing guard over the vineyards. Pine forests grow up the sides all the way to the top and clouds envelope the tallest of these, as if lending modesty to the peaks.

Our small caravan of priests, deacons and seminarians had already begun to create that informal fellowship best expressed with the good humor of jokes, the wittier the better. (Humor and meaningful conversation, rather than “male bonding,” makes friends of men).

Our cars drove uphill along the thin road that serves as an entrance to the Carmelite monastery. We were greeted inside the large main house by an elderly Irish monk. After being “signed in” we were taken to our rooms and left to prepare. In the early evening, in our cassocks, we made our way to a beautiful chapel where we sang Evening Prayer, and heard the first of several talks, meditations on the Desert Fathers.

We sat across from each other in two “choirs,” with the sound of the prayers, mostly the chanting of the old Prayer Book Psalter, echoing off the stone. Above us were great windows very high, near the ceiling, admitting the dying light of the ending day. Over the marble altar was a very stark crucifix, the Son of Man in His agonies looking down at us.

God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)


This was the beginning of the silence, silence broken only by the offices of prayer, the daily Mass, and the reading out loud, in turn one by one, of The Screwtape Letters during each meal. Otherwise, only a private confession would serve as a reason to speak. As the leader of our retreat pointed out, the purpose in coming together was to be alone. The shared solitude is itself a very old tradition, giving us time for prayer and meditation unlike the kind we attempt regularly during our busy lives in the world.

And the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus, and told him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught. And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while (Mark 6:30, 31).

The silence itself teaches and refreshes. Without words, without the need to speak — without the social pressure to direct our gaze constantly on what others place before us — we find freedom. In the silence we discover that we are resting not only from the cares, the business and turmoil, of the world. We rest as well from the amusements and entertainments, learning only in this way that these things too are a burden.

They, creating their own demands upon our time, shut out prayer as much as do the cares and anxieties of life. It is only in this silence, silence that is directed towards God, solitude that is protected by a community in which to be alone, that we finally see what a burden those entertaining forms of relaxation can be, what labor in themselves. But, for now, we lay that labor down and discover peace, blessed relief, in so doing.

We cannot find this kind of solitude nearly so well if we are alone. The presence of other men contemplating God, as they pray, meditate, or read, reinforces our attention and directs gaze heavenward. The presence of our brothers, and the respect we owe to their solitude, protects us from turning our own solitude into isolation, a time in which thoughts wander all too easily back to the duties and amusements that await us.

And, should we take the opportunity to examine ourselves and prepare for confession, we direct our gaze as well into our own hearts, our thoughts, words, and deeds. This we do before God, knowing that his light must shine into whatever place we had tried to hide away even from ourselves.

Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (John 3: 19).


The community silence increases charity. Here you see each man, like yourself, directing his attention to God, living in prayer and in the most serious and essential of reflections. Here, with him, you stick to contemplative prayer and the rhythm of corporate daily offices, silence in which you keep to the rule and do not speak, in charitable consideration because he needs this time as much as do you. To violate it is unthinkable.

When it must end, and you will speak at last, the next communication will be all the more profound. How many words we speak are no more than wasted, having no thought in them, an invasion of another’s time, a theft of his few brief hours in this world. For now we respect his silence, and will be glad to speak later, for we shall value words in a different way, no longer as obligatory.

Our charity builds also because for a few days we have, in solitude before God, been a community of men at prayer. We have begun each day together in the chapel, at Noon have held the Mass in the chapel, and at night have ended each day once again in the chapel with the familiar words of Compline, in the lit chapel with the darkness outside. In each of the offices of prayer we have chanted the familiar Psalms and other prayers in Cranmerian English to Gregorian notation:

“Our Father, who art in Heaven . . . My soul doth magnify the Lord . . . I believe in God, the Father Almighty . . .”

Surrounded as it is by the beauty of the monastery grounds, the sweet air from the vineyards, and the pines and mountains, the chapel itself becomes the place each man wants most to be. After an office is completed several minutes pass before we depart. We simply grow to like sitting there in the place of prayer, a room designed for worship and for celebration of the Blessed Sacrament, a place where that Presence is reserved.

Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves (Luke 10: 3).

It will not be like this when we return to our homes, and the silence is driven away by business, even, as in my case, the business of pastoring a church. We know we go from rest to battle. But, we may carry back into the battle the benefits of the retreat.

I am grateful to those who live in the religious orders and keep to the Rule of Saint Benedict. We can enter into their way of life only to a small degree, and only temporarily. But they do not hide it away and keep it a secret; they do not begrudge those who want to share a bit of it.

When we leave, they let us take some of that treasure where it can be adapted to the life we must live in the world. As much as it is a treasure, it is also an armament.


Albion Land said...

Reminds me of the first silent retreat I did, which sadly was not in the mountains of California but smack in the middle of London's East End, where the noise of traffic never ceased. Even so, there was this sense of not stepping on anyone else's silence, and of wrapping yourself in your own.

poetreader said...

Wonderful account. Thank Gpd there are still monasteries where corporate silence is valued.

However it brings to mind a question and frustration I've long had. Why is it so unusual to spend time together in silence? Why is it not a normal part of our worship together? Why do we have to fill up silent moments by doing something? If silence makes us uncomfortable, we abandon it. But isn't it just when the silence gets uncomfortable that the work begins to be done? The work, I mean, of self-examination, and of drawing near to a God we aren't worthy to approach. I could go on at length. I did, in fact, in a comment the internet swallowed up. I just need to comment that we need the silence together that the Liturgy once demanded and still has provision for, every time "Let us pray" is said, after every Scripture reading, and at varioys other times. We need regularly to keep silence beyond our comfort zone. And un the silence we will grow and find the deep presence of God.


Millo Shaw said...

"Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still."

T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday