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On Being Silent

On Being Silent
~Abbot John Klassen, OSB, 2002
[Adapted from a talk given at a conference of his seminary where his Benedictine community resides and serves.]

In its most basic sense, silence means “not talking”, or abstaining from unnecessary noise, turning off TV’s, radios, etc.  But while not taking is the necessary pre-condition for silence, we all know that silence is more than that.  Silence is a means to an end for a monk.  Anyone who cares about God cares about silence.  No one can meet God without silence. 

Silence is a self-emptying, creating room, bench-space, for the Holy Spirit to toil.  Silence removes obstacles that prevent us from hearing God.  God speaks to us in silence.  As the psalmist says, “be still and know that I am God”.  If we do not have silence in our lives, God will call and call, but always get a busy signal.  God will not always use 2” x 4” therapy – sometimes that voice will be the still, small voice that Elijah hears.  Only silence will reduce the background noise enough to allow our detectors to pick up the signal. 

You cannot hear God or meet God, so the ancient monastics said, because the world is noise, people talk and hammer, and advertise and shout slogans that demand your attention.  So you go out into the wilderness, to a forest or oasis where you can easily live, where water may be found, a little food easy to grow, a little shelter easy to build, not too far from human habitations so that you can walk over to the neighboring church on Sunday morning for Eucharist but far enough so that you are off the beaten path to avoid tourists.  Then you will be undisturbed. 

You will not need to work long hours to keep your body nourished.  Your other needs are few or nothing, unless you fall ill’ a blanket, a Bible, and another book or two; a knife, a few materials to occupy your hands, to make baskets, or ropes and a pen/ink to copy manuscripts.  Then you will have time to be quiet, and hours of time to be alone with God, time to praise God in the psalms and in silence.

This was the monastic ideal; the soul alone before its Maker.  But, in fact, the ancient monastics found out that it is not so simple.  They found out that people walked out in the desert to pray and ended up as madmen, or thieves, or suicides.

“A man goes out expecting peace and quiet and his expectation is shattered.  But, he might be deafened by demons that seemed to howl into the night. 

He goes expecting to find God and escape the self.  But, in solitude he finds that the self swells up larger than ever, ‘till it fills all the space that should have gone to God. 

He expects to escape passion and lust because he will never see an object of desire.  But, shapes of beautiful women or other sexually desirable creatures float through his subconscious and consciousness. 

He expects to escape greed because all he has is a little patch of vegetables.  But, he finds that his stomach growls through the day and is harder to forget than at home. 

He expects that the joy of God will flood his heart as God fills his cave and his heart.  But he finds, especially at noontime, a melancholy, a sadness or depression that lays him low.” 

So writes Own Chadwick of the monastic dilemma. 

It is precisely this set of phenomena that led, over time, to Benedict’s wisdom of living in Community.  Benedict is deeply respectful of the eremitical way of life but he is not just thinking of using community as a means to that end.  The needs and demands of community temper our silence, and shape and focus our search for God in contemplation.  Monastic silence is golden because it is a precious distillation of sustained fidelity to grace.  Silence is not a cheap grace and it is not easily achieved.  Silence is acquired by personal discipline, not an external asset whose absence is bewailed and blamed on others.  



Silence in the Rule of St Benedict

Chapter Six of Benedict’s Rule is devoted to silence.  Compared with the two long chapters of the Master, this little treatise of eight verses is a good example of how Benedict takes material from Master and shapes it to his purposes.  He gives a quotation from Psalm 39, briefly commented upon, and two quotes from Proverbs: to avoid bad words entirely, and good words as much as possible.  It is so laconic, that it seems that Benedict is trying to model the teaching.  It is significant that Benedict uses the Latin word “taciturnitas” rather than “silentium”.  Taciturnity, or restraint of speech, refers more directly to human noise or conversation that Benedict is trying to limit, not environmental noise.  Ambrose Wathen points out that taciturn means more than physical silence.  It refers to a person who is sufficiently serene and wise that his words arise out of silence and his silence itself speak eloquently.  Such a person will not use words to mask an inner emptiness, nor will he be silent when a good word is needed. 


One of the great desert sayings sums up this attitude: “A brother asked a boy monk: ‘Is it good to speak or to keep silence?’ The said to him, ‘If the words are idle, leave them unsaid.  If good, find room for them and speak them.  But event if the words are good, do not prolong what you say but cut it short: And you will have peace of mind.’”

Benedict’s concluding comment on avoiding crude jokes (“scurrilatates”) is probably best understood in light of the level of obscenity of much of ancient comedy.  It was probably a notch down from the old Benny Hill programs. 

In Chapter Seven on humility, the ninth, tenth, and eleventh steps deal with silence.  Obedience and patience are humility in action;  [Read that again! – my comment]  silence is humility in word.  Benedict comments that in the face of our infidelity God is silent as a loving Father.  “This you did and I said nothing.” Later at the ninth step, a monk controls his tongue and remains silent, not speaking unless asked a question and does so out of love for silence.  As Scripture says, “in a flood of words you will not avoid sinning, and a talkative man goes about aimlessly on the earth.”

The tenth step of humility again cautions about being too quick to laugh.  It is frivolity that is being condemned, not a good sense of humor.  At the eleventh step Benedict holds that a monk speaks gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising his voice.  “A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.” 

 Michael Casey comments that these steps describe a higher level of integration in monastic life.  After much learning and insight we discover the need to be silent.  We don’t expect these steps to be realized in the early years of monastic life.  As Casey writes, “This means short-circuiting the need to express oneself, to communicate, to feel in a state of relatedness to others, to recreate.  It means standing more intensely alone, not yielding to the attraction of a moment’s relaxation, but keeping intact the creative tension that mindfulness and a purposeful existence involve.” 

In chapter thirty-eight, “On the reader for the week,” Benedict asks for silence during table reading: Let there be complete silence.  No whispering, no speaking – only the reader’s voice should be heard.  Since the reading at table was scripture, one is silent in order to hear the Word of God. 

Chapter forty-two is the next big chapter on silence, Silence After Compline.  “Monks should diligently cultivate silence at all times, but especially at night.”  In the evening, they should pray Compline, and on leaving Compline, no one will be permitted to speak further.  The only exception is when guests require attention or the Abbott wishes to give someone a command.  But otherwise, after Compline: silence.  This used to be called The Great Silence.  It was this silence that was broken only by the praise of God in the early morning. 

Chapter forty-three comments that those who come late to prayer should not stand outside and end up engaging in idle chatter.  Not that Benedict has a bias here – If you are late, come any way.  Benedict resists catastrophic thinking.  And he does so, I think because he knows that the commitment to come for that little piece is the beginning of change – It is conversatio [convertion] – it is the little step.

Finally, Benedict knows monks and in Chapter fifty-two he writes:  “After the Work of God, all should leave in complete silence and with reverence for God, so that a brother who may wish to pray alone will not be disturbed by the insensitivity of another.”  One is silence for the sake of spiritual life of one’s brothers.  This is not a matter of pickiness or a silly rule – but trying to ensure that prayer is possible for others. 

Because our honorarium has changed – we no longer go to bed within an hour of evening prayer – our practice of silence has changed.  But our Customary [policy/habit/standard practice] still states:  “Quiet should generally be observed in the rooms and corridors of the monastery, but especially at night after evening prayer.”  We used to say, “After ten o’clock, no words.”




On Being Silent in our Culture

We know all about the external threats to silence – our mass pop culture abhors silence.  It is a “consumption economy”, that is, an economy that generates enormous quantities of consumer goods that are used only a short while.  Such an economy has to generate a climate of hyperactivity, of sensual over-stimulation in order that more goods may be consumed.  Silence is our culture produces the withdrawal D.T.’s in many. 

As Albert Borgmann points out in his Crossing the Post-Modern Divide, Max and Engels saw this a long time ago: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.  All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.” 

Our monastery, because of the close proximity to pop culture, not just because of the students we work with, but the radio/TV signals, the Internet that pulses into our midst, is vulnerable to the loss of silence, the incapacity for sustained silence.  If we do not hear the freeway, the radio, or other stuff in the background, we feel something is very wrong. 

But if our analysis of silence stops here, it would be superficial indeed.  For it is not only external silence we desire, but that deep internal silence where we can be aware of the voice/presence of God.  We know that stuff that goes through our heads and hearts during the one-minute pauses in church:

  • The task we have procrastinated on or simply forgot;
  • The throw-away comment by a conferee that somehow hits a vulnerable spot – suddenly we are aware of the wound;
  • The unresolved anger we feel toward someone, anger that blocks all peace of mind and heart;
  • Anxiety about tomorrow’s or today’s work;
  • Boredom – “God, how long will this go on…?”

The discipline of silence will help us to let go of this stuff – to take these experiences as nods to our subconscious and not let them rule us.  “I only have to be one place in the universe, and that is right here.”  Or if we are nervous or afraid, silence will help us turn it into an expression of faith:  “Lord, You light the path in front of me, and You are a shield behind me.”  Each of us needs to work to build significant periods of silence in out life each day.



The Relationship Between Silence and Contemplative Prayer

Our culture prizes articulate, verbal speech.  Picturing a monk who has moved far into contemplative prayer, Benedict insists that his remaining in contemplation is of greater benefit to himself and others than any words he might utter.  The Cistercian, Michael Casey, comments, “Contemplation occurs in a nonverbal zone of the human spirit.  Insofar as contemplative prayer has content, it does not translate easily into words and concepts; only images of evocations can be used to partially disclose its reality.  The Word is beyond words.  Contemplation brings us so close to God that God ceases to be a clear object of consciousness.”  With wry humor, he continues, “A monk whose life is given fully to contemplation has no inclination to write a book on contemplation (as I have done).”

The experience of mystics and contemplatives from across religious traditions agrees that the further one moves along the road of silence and contemplation, the more incommunicable the mystery of God becomes, the more complex the relationship and the more difficult it becomes to speak about silence leads to more silence.  The traditions are also eloquent about God’s silence in these times. 

Another story from the desert tradition on the need for silence:  “This story was told in the desert.  There were three friends, earnest men, who became monks.  One of them chose to make peace between men engaged in controversy, as it is written: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’  The second chose to visit the sick.  The third chose to be quiet in solitude.  Then the first, struggling with quarrelling opponents, found that he heal everyone.  Worn out, he came to the second who was ministering to the sick, and found him flagging in spirit, and unable to fulfill his purpose.  And the two agreed, and went away to see the third who had become a hermit, and told him their troubles.  They asked him to tell them what progress he had made. 

He was silent for a little, and poured water into a cup.  Then he said: ‘ Look at the water.’  And it was cloudy.  After a little he said again: ‘Now look, see how clear the water has become.’  And when they leant over the water, they saw their faces as in a glass.  Then he said to them: ‘So it is with the man who lives among men.  He does not see his own sins because of the turmoil.  But when he is at rest, especially in the desert, then he sees his sins.’”  In community we need to be aware of silence – that we are monks – that when we think of the archetype of a monk, one of the qualities is the capacity for silence, where lots of activities go on, but in relative quiet. 



Some Practical Considerations

 The following are some specific considerations – I am sure you can think of others:

  • Learning to sit still in choir may be a matter of stretching or loosening up before we get there.  Otherwise the tension in our bodies will insist on release one we are sitting in a choir stall.  This is not easy to be aware of – working at a computer for an extended period of time tends to leave us wired  unless we consciously stretch periodically.  I realize that some of our backs will stay in one position for a given length of time. 
  • Silence is an immediate preparation for our community prayer.  There is great value in coming to choir 5-10 minutes early, to sit in silence, emptying oneself, head and heart, to be available for the Work of God.  Especially in the middle and at the end of the day, I know what I carry within myself – it takes an effort to quiet down.  This practice of giving ourselves some time to get ready to pray gives a positive witness to the value we place on our prayer together.  We are not just dragging ourselves into church at the last possible minute, perhaps by accident missing the hymn and part of a psalm.  Our life is about prayer, about giving God enough space in our hearts so that He can transform them.
  • Always be aware of your stereo, radio or TV [or computer!] and how far the sound is traveling down the corridor.  Each one of us has to practice silence each day.  “A brother went to Abba Moses to ask a word. And the old man said to him, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
  • When you meet someone in the hallway, street, etc, use a slight hand gesture to acknowledge their presence or greet them quietly.  However, to walk past someone and not acknowledge the person in any way is incredibly hurtful.
  • The problem with setting down concrete expectations regarding silence for each one of us can be forgetful and break silence.  These guidelines should not become an occasion for correcting each other in a nasty, judgmental way.  Rather, as Benedict says, we should encourage each other gently. 
  • I hope that silence is of such significance that we do it well in liturgy.  Our Liturgy of the Hours has a finely tuned relationship between singing, speaking and silence.  However, our Liturgy of the Eucharist could use some work.  To celebrants and musicians, we have a significant responsibility to build in appropriate silent pauses in the opening rite, after the response psalm, after the homily on Sunday and after Communion. 




  • It is silence that ultimately allows us to know ourselves, to come to understand what we care about, where our treasure is.  Silence purifies the Word we hear.  Otherwise, we may simply be echoing the echo of our interior noise.  Silence is essential for prophetic insight.
  • If we find ourselves constantly worrying about something it is a signal to us that we need to take action or surrender to that which we cannot control. 
  • If we find ourselves, our interior filled with anger, it tells us that we really need to look at this, and develop the skills to handle anger in a more effective manner. 
  • If silence is a sign of an uncluttered interior, it relates directly to an uncluttered external world, to simplicity and to the good of order.
  • Each one of us knows the healing, regenerative power of silence.
  • There is a balance between silence and speaking, between solitude and our need for community, for that deep space which God can fill and our need to laugh, and shout for joy with others.
  • With respect to TV [& internet] ask yourself the question:  “Am I on automatic pilot or is this program really better than the practice of lectio [time in God’s Word] other reading or silence?”
  • The practice of silence is one way that we attend to the work of stability, of staying with the spiritual work in our lives, of staying with the issues, or not giving in to noise and distraction and never really being available for God. 


Silence is truly one of the places where we can do the work of reflection and integration in our spiritual lives.  In the last conference I tried to show the role of conversation in the work of integration.  Silence complements our conversation in the work of conversation.  The fertility of silence allows for the Holy Spirit to be at work. 


© 2002 by St John’s Abbey, MN 56321-2015, all rights reserved / Rev. 04/23/2005 12:45:30 / http://www.osb.org/oblate/46/klasssilent.html


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