Sunday, June 8, 2008

Silence and Contemplation

I have to admit that, at first notice, something like the Rule of St. Benedict is more than a little challenging to people. In our modern times it seems foreign, even alien, to us. It is certainly not rooted in modern fashionable trends or emergent philosophies that seek to satisfy our every whim and fancy, trends and fancies that seem to be forever changing with the times.

The Rule, unchanged over the past 15 centuries, yet still fresh as though Benedict’s ink had just begun to dry, is a practical interpretation and guide to living our lives in a way that makes the most of the ideals taught by the life of Christ and modeled by his followers in those early centuries. At first this seems like a hard way[1] to travel but, as one makes their way along this journey, they begin discovering that the greatest difficulties involved are not contained in the Rule itself. They are, instead, resident in the mind and heart of the pilgrim that begins this journey.

Monasteries are generally quiet places. Some are quieter than others. The ninth step in Benedict’s ladder of humility is a call to silence.[2] In this media congested and philosophically coughing world it’s hard for most people to apportion brief episodes of silence into their day. It’s even more difficult for most people to imagine living a silent life, one devoid of the interruptions created by the intrusions of radios, televisions, cell phones, internet, and the general spontaneous conversations that so fill and condition our day to day lives.

Silence calls to us and then leads us deeper into itself. Silence is not merely a discipline that is exteriorly imposed upon us for the sake of discipline. It is much more a fruit that grows in the interior regions of a soul that has begun to move beyond all the exterior commotion that strives to interfere with and interrupt the deep communion with God that first draws us and then leads us into contemplation – a world of reality beyond words, a silent world that is experientially filled with the peaceful, transcendent, ungraspable reality that is God himself.

“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. … It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what it has affirmed.”[3]

To really know God is to admit that we really don’t know him. We admit that, even in our best and most earnest efforts to know him, he remains transcendent, out of our sight. We can describe his nature with practical theological terms that our minds are able to grasp. People are comfortable using images in talking about God and this does honor him. He, however, also invites us into experience beyond images, beyond words, deep within ourselves where all our finite notions and concepts of the Infinite avail little. “During contemplative prayer all created things and their works must be buried beneath the cloud of forgetting.”[4]

Admittedly, silence is a rare commodity outside monastic enclosures. It’s hard to be quiet or to find a quiet place in our noisy world. Be this as it may be, Benedict knew that we need silence as much as we need the air we breathe and the food we eat. Silence is as much a part of Benedictine life as prayer and work and rest and plays an integral and important role in Benedict’s school of spiritual development.

[1] Prologue 48
[2] RB 7:56-58
[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 1
[4] The Cloud of Unknowing, p. 53. Originally written in Middle English by an unknown mystic of the 14th Century, the author explains how all thoughts and concepts must be buried beneath a “cloud of forgetting,” while our love must rise toward God hidden in the “cloud of unknowing.”