You always notice it at mealtime. There are no casual conversations. No jokes. No comments about the weather or the latest sports scores. There are no angry words spoken either. No passionate theological debates though I am sure that there are significant differences among us. No word comes from anyone’s mouth except for a few announcements made before the meal by our host Kathe followed by a prayer. There is just silence from the dozen or so of us. Silence except for the clinking of silverware against the plates and bowls. Silence except for some quiet background music that comes from a small CD player.
This is not the silence that sometimes accompanies a couple who have been fighting with one another before they enter a restaurant; a bitterness, a resentment, an “I better not say anything because I can’t trust myself” silence as they sit across from one another and act out the ritual of a loving couple out on a date. Or the silence of a grieving family who are eating because they must but whose thoughts, minds, and hearts are somewhere else.
No, this silence is not filled with negative emotions. This is not the silence that leads someone to want to shout: “What’s happening here?” This silence is different. This is a quiet silence not a noisy silence. This is a silence that has not been imposed on us but freely chosen by us.
You see we are all housemates at least for a few days at the Bethlehem Retreat House which is located on the grounds of the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist Monastery in Piffard, New York. A sign in the wall says, “Silence and Solitude,” and that is what all of us have come seeking. I don’t know anything about those others who share mealtime with me. I don’t know why they have come, what they are seeking, what they are experiencing, I don’t even know if they speak my language. One young man left after only one day – maybe that had been his plan all along – but the size of his suitcase suggested a longer visit had been planned. Now and again, I would like to ask those around me who they are and why they have come, but I know that their story is none of my business. It is between them and God. I hope they find what they seek.
I have been here for about a day and a half. It is the fourth time that I have come to a monastery for a silent retreat. Genesee is new to me, but the silence is not. The first time I went on a weeklong silent retreat, I almost left after a few days. I started making up excuses to myself for why I had to go home. I seemed to be losing myself without my spoken words, and I was afraid of what would be left of me when all the words were gone. Is that what a stroke victim feels like whose words will not come back to them?
I know that my loss of words is only temporary and self-imposed. They will return to me as a gift when I leave at the end of the week. One thing of which I am sure – the world is missing nothing when my mouth is shut. Many of the words I speak are inane rather than profound, sarcastic rather than soothing, banal rather than extraordinary. I have often regretted something that I have said; I have rarely regretted keeping quiet.
One of the reasons that I am keeping silence this week is that I have heard enough of my own words; I have had my fill of my own brand of wisdom. I am seeking something rarer and deeper than the voice of Jim Bane; I am seeking the voice of God. I yearn to hear God’s perspective. By being quiet, I hope to remove some barriers and give God a larger space in my life to move around and talk with me.
People expect me to be witty and always have something clever to say. And I usually give them what they want. But even in those times, I know that the value of my verbal contributions are limited. Most of what I say is forgotten almost before it leaves my mouth. And it should be.
My temporary housemates have no clue how clever and witty I really am. They expect nothing of me at mealtimes except to keep my mouth shut. I am giving them what they want. It is a great relief for all of us. I am freed of the burden to speak and they are freed of the burden of listening to me. It is an arrangement that benefits everyone. As our information sheet says, “If you are breaking the silence, you are taking it away from others.” I don’t want to take away anything from anyone while I am here.
St. Benedict (who 1500 years ago wrote the guidelines for monks to follow) said that “so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive is their talk.” I often wonder if I am a mature believer (I doubt it) so I will keep silence this week. I will not speak so I can be in a better position to listen.
I have always liked the passage from James that says: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” I have always liked it, yet so rarely followed it. What a great formula for building community.
What about you? You probably have a number of folks in mind who you wish would choose silence and be unable to speak to you for a few days. But is it time for you to give your mouth a rest, to lay down the burden of speaking, and to free others of the load of listening to you? Is it time for you to take a silent retreat?