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Gobsmacked by the Silence

I long ago gave up trying to combat the popular notion that monks are either benign curiosities or dangerous cultural misfits.  Being a monk, I naturally entertain a different perspective, but most people — including not a few Catholics even — cannot be convinced otherwise.

You can imagine my astonishment when I read Michael McGirr’s essay in the July 23rd Sunday Review of The New York Times.  Entitled Sink into the Silence of Summer, I presumed that it would provide suggestions on lovely vacations at the beach or in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  In fact, as the title advertised, it was about silence.

Well into the article McGirr finally gets to the real nub of the issue.  McGirr is dean of faith at Saint Kevin’s College in Melbourne, Australia, and each summer he and a colleague lead a group of student leaders for a few days of retreat at a Cistercian monastery.  I’m assuming that this is a Cistercian monastery of the Trappist persuasion, and the latter monks take the business of silence quite seriously.  By way of comparison, this offshoot of the Benedictine tradition tends to make us Benedictines look like chatter boxes, but I will leave to another occasion the relative merits of each group.  Anyway, the silence at the monastery in question is deafening, and McGirr describes it as a real jolt to the students.

IMG_4991Unused to such an auditory vacuum, year after year it’s been a wrenching experience for the students, and not just because of the absence of noise.  It’s in some ways a defiance of a world in which any and all noise has intrinsic self-importance.  To that end the prior and friend of the author, Bernie, provides the description that succinctly stops the students in their tracks.  McGirr sums up Bernie’s words thusly:  the monastery is “a ‘fridge magnet,’ something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might.”

“Listen” is the opening word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, and Benedict follows up on that command with a key qualification.  Benedict in fact does not invite his monks to listen indiscriminately and absentmindedly to any old thing that comes along.  Rather, he asks them to listen “with the ear of their heart to the teaching of the master.”  That suggests that monks should exercise a bit of quality control when it comes to listening.

I dare say that a lot of what people listen to these days is white noise, at best.  Some is a lot worse.  But at bottom, indiscriminate listening welcomes the wheat and the chaff, the junk and the treasure, the destructive and the nourishing.  Indiscriminate listening proclaims that all noise is uncritically good enough, in its own way.

IMG_4963More than anything else, I think, careful listening is an exercise in personal responsibility.  It involves a thoughtful reflection on what I hear and factors it into the direction I choose for my life.  It’s the sort of exercise that causes me to evaluate where I’m headed, what’s of value going forward, and what will nourish me as a thoughtful human being.

McGirr writes that the students and he are “gobsmacked” by the experience. “Gobsmacked” is a term that’s new to me, but I think that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to monks who make careful listening a part of their lives.  Therein lies the renewing power of silence.

Listening in silence to the teaching of the master does not render us monks mute or numb.  In fact, it awakens us to the wonderful possibilities within.  It reminds us that God has blessed us with talents and all sorts of other gifts.  Likewise God calls us to do great things with our lives.  How wonderful it is, then, to cast off passive listening and discover the power of God stirring within us.

If that’s what happened to Michael McGirr’s students on their visit to the monastery, then I’m not a bit surprised that they were gobsmacked.

IMG_0021_2Notes

+On August 8th we hosted the priests of the diocese of Saint Cloud for a social gathering and dinner at the monastery.

+On August 13th we hosted for vespers and dinner the sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery, our neighboring community in St. Joseph, MN.

+On August 13th our confrere Brother Lucian Lopez left for Notre Dame University, where this fall he will begin his studies for a Ph.D. in the history of science.  Happily I was able to burden Brother Lucian with a few of my books, which will prove more useful to him than to me at this stage of my life.  Among them was my copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary, which forever has been the Bible for medieval studies.  This copy has special significance for me, since I inherited it from our confrere Fr. Ivan Havener, who passed away unexpectedly nearly thirty years ago.  In true monastic fashion, in Brother Lucian it will serve the next generation of scholars in the monastery.

+August 15th is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and in honor of that feast I have selected images illustrative of that event in the life of Mary.  At top is The Crowning of the Virgin, ivory, ca. 1350-75, housed in the Louvre in Paris.  Second is the Dormition by Jaume Serra (ca. 1360, Barcelona), in the Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona.  Third is also a Dormition, by the Master of Cini (ca. 1330, Rimini), also housed in the Museum of Catalan Art.  Note how both of these show Jesus holding a miniature of Mary, meant to depicted her soul ascending into heaven.  The fourth photo shows The Coronation of the Virgin by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1370, Florence), housed in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  Below is another depiction of The Coronation of the Virgin, by Paoli Veneziano, ca. 1324.  It too is housed in the National Gallery in Washington.

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Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

Downton Abbey Revisited

I’m not surprised that a title like “Downton Abbey” caught my attention. After all, anything with “abbey” in it piques my curiosity. But I cannot imagine that everyone shares my interest; and so I (like not a few) have been mightily surprised by the ratings success of this series. Who could have imagined? Certainly not the major networks on commercial television.

At first glance Downton Abbey has little that should stir up such wide-spread fascination. After all, what could be more tedious than a show about a multi-generational household, and one in which people are constrained by the manners and customs of a bygone era? Leaving other things aside, just consider the constant changing of clothes, and the resulting mountain of laundry and dry cleaning. Who could possibly find that sort of thing at all interesting? But on that score Downton Abbey is stranger than fiction — or at least stranger than the fiction to which we have become accustomed.

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

I think that part of the public fascination with Downton Abbey has to do with its portrait of an age of privilege that scarcely any of our ancestors knew. Aside from those few of us who were pharoahs and empresses in a previous incarnation, most of us didn’t have ancestors that ranked even among the minor nobility. As for the ordinary people, the vast majority knew neither the security nor the relative luxury of working in a great house. And while we can point out the restrictions that constrained the servants, most of them would never have traded “life in service” for life on a peasant farm.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

But don’t envy the lords and ladies entirely, because their lot in life was not a constant round of peaches and cream, morning, noon and night. They were certainly in charge of things, but they did not enjoy the run of the place. They too lived by a code that regulated their behavior, even if it was a code with wider latitude. For nobles, too, there were things that people “simply did not do.”

In some respects Downton Abbey presents a way of life that we cannot begin to fathom for ourselves today. The thought of a hundred people living as an extended family under one roof is simply inconceivable. The thought that night after night a score of them would seat themselves together at meals, in formal dress, dining on a carefully scripted menu, is hard to believe. And the thought that scores of finely attired human beings served others with ballet-like precision strikes many of us as highly undemocratic, to say the least.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

But perhaps what we moderns find most difficult to accept is the whole business of community living that Downton Abbey parades before our eyes. Today we shrink back in horror from the thought that several generations of a family might live together, under the authority of a paterfamilias. Not only does it sound stuffy, but it places stifling restrictions on individual liberty and on our hopes to become whatever kind of person we might choose.

A second bit that puts us off is the intricate social structure that makes it all work. Whether members of the household liked it or not, they all showed up for meals together and on time. (Recall the scolding meted out to the Prince of Wales for being tardy for dinner in “The King’s Speech.”) Neither the Prince of Wales nor the lord of the manor came bounding down at all hours to order dinner a la carte. Both lords and ladies on one side, and servants on the other, sat down to dinner together, ate it together, and finished the meal together. Anything less simply was not done, and it would render the house chaotic. After all, it was a home, not a hotel or resort. All had to be aware of the mutual respect necessary to make it work, and good manners were the key ingredient for a successful, if not entirely happy, household.

Bylands Abbey

Bylands Abbey

Though most families no longer sit down to dinner together, it would be a mistake to assume that the old ways are dead and gone. In fact, there are pockets where such a communal way of life survives, and monasteries are among their number. No monastery provides the level of luxury that Downton Abbey provides; but the monastic regimen roughly parallels the sort that made the great houses of Europe well-oiled machines. For one thing, both monasteries and great houses are multi-generational households. It’s safe to say that in both cases youngsters and seniors can enjoy drastically different perspectives. Similarly, neither in a monastery nor at Downton can one treat the place like a boarding house or a residential hotel. Respect is due to one’s fellows, and appreciation is expected for those whose labors make daily life possible for all.

Bylands Abbey

Bylands Abbey

In short, life together demands the sacrifice of some personal liberties, as well as the adoption of a certain etiquette. And if these are skills that we may lack when we are clothed as a novice, they must become part of our skill set if we are to persevere to final vows. There really is no room for those who put themselves first, above everything and everybody else.

In a society in which increasing numbers live alone, the assumption is common that big households like Downton Abbey and monasteries are doomed to become fossils, and that community life will become extinct with them. But before we consign them to the boneyard, take a look at real estate trends in any major city, or even in small towns, for that matter. One feature of the construction landscape is a boom in retirement and assisted-living facilities. Some try to preserve a modicum of independent living, but anyone who moves in must adapt to a way of life that harks back to the great households that once bound generations and classes into one. In these modern “great houses” no one can be the lone wolf around whom the entire building revolves. Instead, one becomes very much a part of a community, and in that community respect and mutual deference are prized skills. You had better bring them with you, if you intend to flourish in such an environment. So while some of us enjoy the third season of Downton Abbey, it might be wise to glean a few tips on successful community living as we watch. Who knows — they just might come in handy someday when we have to move into our own great house!

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

Notes

+On February 1st I visited over dinner with members of the American Associaton of the Order of Malta, gathered in Naples, FL, for their winter retreat.

+The very name “Downton Abbey” is a reminder of the earlier history of such homes. Obviously a fictional abbey once stood at the center of this fictional estate; and it, like many a real abbey, got recycled into country homes and cottages across England. Even today you can see the fireplaces, stained glass windows and stonework of abbeys and priories incorporated into buildings of all sorts. Nothing went to waste, though sadly little remains of many monastic sites.

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

Still, not every monastery vanished entirely. While nearly all were pillaged and looted in the sixteenth century and beyond, a few survived in ruined form and have become hugely popular tourist attractions. Today many ruins stand as the centerpiece of gardens and parks, where they give testimony to spiritual values that some mistakenly assume have vanished. Those hauntingly beautiful skeletons still inspire, in ways that words can scarcely match.

In late January we celebrated the feast of the late eleventh-century founders of the Cistercian Order. They were reformed Benedictines and fore-runners of the seventeenth-century Trappists — the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. In today’s post I’ve included pictures of three of my favorite Cistercian monasteries, each of which I’ve had the chance to visit. Rievaulx and Fountains are in Yorkshire, and Tintern Abbey stands near the Welsh border. Tintern is only a few miles from the scriptorium in which scribe Donald Jackson created The Saint John’s Bible.

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