How to nurture inner silence

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Abbot Christopher V12

Image: Abbot Christopher takes part in an assembly of Catholic school students at St. Mary’s College in Twickenham, near London, in September 2010

SILENCE IS OFTEN CONSIDERED AWKWARD: Witness the embarrassed silence of people at a party not sure what to say next, or of a group of strangers stuck in an elevator. These awkward silences disturb us. On the other hand there is a silence that consoles us: the silence of a sleeping child, the stillness of mountains, or the tranquility of a church.

Stop the noises in your head
The challenge for people today is to find positive silence in the city, the setting in which most people now live. Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is to help people find positive silence inside themselves. In the quest for sanctuary people often find the biggest obstacles are inside themselves. These obstacles are of different kinds and at different levels, but the first one that people most commonly encounter is what we can call “noises inside my head.” That is not the “voices inside my head” of a delirious or insane person; it is the simpler phenomenon of thoughts racing in all directions at once.

At Worth [Abbey, in West Sussex, south of London] we have many people who come on retreat for the first time, and we invite them to spend some time in silence. At one level that is what they crave and why they have come. So they are often shocked to discover that no sooner have they removed the daily routine, set aside the television, and found a place of silence than their head fills up with trivial thoughts: “I wonder what’s for supper.” “I need to book an appointment with the dentist.” “I need to write to my cousin.” People discover, to their shame and embarrassment, that the busyness of life has got right inside their heads and they can’t get it out. To empty our heads of all thoughts, words, and images is almost impossible; yet somehow these distressing internal noises need to become gentle internal sounds.

Build a background of silence
To help us address the challenge of the “noises in my head,” I want to look at how we try to avoid silence and then at how we can choose to build times of silence into our lives. The five men in [the BBC TV program] The Monastery found silence the hardest aspect of the monastic life to handle and, in some ways, they never really came to grips with it. In the monastic tradition there is a basic background of silence: Where people today commonly have background music, monks have background silence.

Further steps toward silence

ONLINE This popular site offers a new meditation every day, which always includes a “Prayer Guide” with advice on how to be still in mind and body.

Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert by Archbishop Rowan Williams is a short introduction to monastic prayer, drawing heavily on the tradition of the desert fathers.

In some monasteries (Trappist ones, for example) the norm is that the silence is broken only in order to communicate during work or receive guests. In Benedictine monasteries we have special times of recreation and conversation while our work often involves pastoral activity such as teaching, running retreats, or parish work. All monasteries promote background silence: . . . the “Greater Silence” from about 9 p.m. until about 8 a.m. so that the nighttime silence is especially profound. The monastic routine involves not only this general background silence but also two periods of half an hour, morning and evening, set aside for meditation. 

This degree of physical silence is a great help in fostering inner silence; Saint Benedict knew this and it motivated his desire to create exterior silence. But this silence is not an end in itself; it is there to let inner silence grow in the monk so that the inner life might flourish. A gardening analogy may help here: If you have not been used to silence, the first things you notice when you enter into it are the distractions inside yourself—the weeds. Even when you pull them up and throw them away, they grow back again quickly and you wonder why you bothered. But you need to keep weeding in order to let the flowers grow. The flowers in this case are the words from God that can grow if you have cleared a space for them. The trouble is that the flowers grow more slowly than the weeds, and so we give up.

The five men in The Monastery found that being truly silent was something that took time to achieve. Their first instinct was to fill the silence with something: conversation or music were the common ways of drowning out the silence. After 10 days, however, they achieved a breakthrough in their understanding: They started to see that the silence was offering them something they now wanted to receive. So in a moment of drama combined with comedy, they spontaneously handed over their mobile phones and their Walkmans. I had purposely not confiscated these items when they had arrived because I wanted them to be free adults who could learn to make new choices. I wanted them to gain a new perspective and to learn for themselves how to use the silence.

Frame your day in silence
There are two classic moments for enjoying silence: the early morning and nighttime. You can build a time of silence into your morning or night routine. A real help here is to have a physical sanctuary area somewhere in your living space. That need not be elaborate and can be as simple as a candle, a picture, and a favorite text. Or it can be expanded to include a corner of a room with a cushion or a corner of a room with space for all the family. The discipline of going to a place is a real help in finding sanctuary, as is the presence of beautiful objects, either natural or artistic. For a single person or a couple without children, going to this space can be built into a routine relatively easily. It simply requires a deep obedience to the choices you are making about your rhythm of life. . . .

Perhaps the surest way to help you build silence into your life is to go on retreat for a day or more to experience the possibility of silence in depth. That motivates people to go home and adjust their lifestyle. People today need a strong motivation to break the grip of busyness. Experiencing a retreat can provide the impetus needed to begin the process of escaping from that stranglehold.

By now you may be asking yourself how long you have to spend in silence for it to “count” as building silence into your life. . . . There is a custom in many religious groups to advise half-hour periods of meditation every morning, and again in the evening if at all possible. That is, in my view, a good place to arrive at, but for most people it is not a good place to start.

I suggest beginning with five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening; the second period is important, however brief, to set up a rhythm across the day, holding the day framed in silence. You may think that five minutes is not long at all. But if you are going to spend five minutes in real interior silence it may well take you a further five minutes to reach the place of quiet, to get comfortable, and to clear your mind. In other words, five minutes of real silence needs 10 minutes in all. Once five minutes of silence is not difficult, you can expand it.

During those five minutes you will need some way of remaining focused. So the final question is: What do I do in the silence? . . . What do I do with the noises in my head? How can I be silent internally as well as externally?

For Benedict, distractions inside my head are actually noises inside my heart: They are the result of the natural human condition—the condition of not having a pure heart. Purity of heart is the goal toward which he is leading his monks, and he is wholly realistic about the difficulty of attaining this. To work toward purity of heart, silence is needed. 

This article is reprinted from Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life (Liturgical Press). Copyright Christopher Jamison, 2006. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Reprinted with permission. Permission for electronic and Canadian use granted by Orion Publishing Group, London.
Abbot Christopher Jamison, O.S.B.Abbot Christopher Jamison, O.S.B. was abbot of Worth Abbey in England during the filming of two British reality TV programs The Monastery and The Big Silence.




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