Et al. presents: A study in silence
“But there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” ― Thomas Merton
About two weeks ago, the headphone jack on my iPhone stopped working. This was an immediate source of consternation for me because I often use my phone to add a pleasing soundtrack to my walks and travels. Worse still, I was headed back to my hometown in Pennsylvania in a few short days, and what was a typically short hour-and-a-half bus ride suddenly looked interminable. But then it got me thinking, and my angst quickly transmogrified into intrigue. Could this stroke of misfortune in fact be an opportunity for growth?
A bus ride without the distraction of music was a new frontier for me. And you know what? It wasn’t so bad. I got acquainted with the friendly woman sitting next to me. I spent most of the ride reading--something I can rarely stay focused long enough to do. I even spent some time enjoying the way the setting sun was hitting the headrest in front of me.
I realized during my trip that music helps drive our focus inward. This can be very useful at times. It can help us focus, relax or just block out that guy snoring a few rows away. But these benefits come at a cost: they require us to sacrifice engagement with the world around us.
I haven’t fixed my phone yet, and I’m not sure if I ever will. When the music stopped playing, I found something in the silence it left behind – and I don’t think I’m quite ready to let that go. Below, you’ll find a post I wrote last year about my trip to a monastery, and what it taught me about the benefits of silence. I thought it would accompany my brief thoughts above very well. Please enjoy.
Ian Dougal was waiting at the bus stop, as “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” as he had promised when we spoke on the phone earlier that day. He and his wife Martha had volunteered to pick me up and bring me a few miles out of town to my lodging at The Abbey of the Genesee, a monastery in upstate New York. After a short drive, we pulled into the driveway of a guest house down the road from the abbey grounds.
I was soon given my room. It was exactly what I expected: small, clean and efficient. There was a bed nestled in the corner, with a warm blanket folded at the foot. A small desk was pushed against the adjacent wall. Besides a simple wooden cross hanging in front of the desk, the walls were bare. A small window lent view of a willow tree and a quaint pond.
I dropped my bags and sat on the corner of the bed. I felt strange. It didn’t take long to figure out why: it was quiet. Not just quiet, but silent. I shifted my weight and the creak of the bed frame seemed to echo through the whole building. The silence swallowed me whole. I was suddenly and acutely aware of my ears as they thirstily gulped for stimulus.
A few months earlier, I was giving a presentation in my college writing class related to Thomas Merton. Merton was an influential Trappist monk who published over 70 books on topics like spirituality, social justice and quiet pacifism. Earlier that semester, I had read his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. At the end of my presentation, my professor joked that “anyone who visits a monastery over spring break will get extra credit!” Obviously, he was joking--but the seed had been planted. A few weeks later, I was buying the bus tickets and feeling uncharacteristically adventurous. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I figured there were worse ways to spend spring break.
So there I sat on the corner of the bed, feeling weirded out by how loud my breathing was. The next five days went simultaneously slow-mo-slow and Speed Racer-quick. I filled my time as best I could with long walks, a hefty stack of books and visits to the abbey. It was a calm and peaceful time. And through it all, the silence endured.
The Abbey asks its guests to maintain silence as persistently as possible. This resulted in an unusual, almost surreal environment--especially when visiting from a place like New York City. But as weird as it might feel, silence can be a great thing. I’ve already mentioned how silence is useful for improving genuine, intentional communication in our friendships.
But it’s also a good in itself. According to Saint Benedict of Nursia (widely considered the founder of western monasticism), speech disturbs a monk’s quietude and receptivity to spiritual guidance. Many Catholic monks believe that God speaks to us out of the silence. In 1 Kings 19, the LORD speaks to Elijah not through wind, earthquake or fire, but instead through a “thin silence.”
Being left alone with our thoughts can be scary. But it can also be empowering, especially when we direct our attention towards good things. It’s remarkable how quick we are to avoid silence. Some of us surround ourselves with friends. Others are glued to their televisions or computers or headphones. Whatever method, the cause is clear: silence makes us uncomfortable.
I say, good. Life isn’t about feeling comfortable--it’s about pushing the boundaries of our comfort zones, and sometimes stepping outside of them. It isn’t always easy, and it’s almost never fun, but it brings deeper fulfillment and growth than simple “fun” ever could.
So why not give silence a chance to speak? You just might hear something.
Questions for further pondering:
1. What are some ways you find peace?
2. Why do you think we’re so afraid of silence?
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!