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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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