Lessons from the silence of monks

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Returning to St Andrews means encountering familiar questions. “What did you do with your summer?” is reliably high on the list. We’re all keen to give an action-packed account of why we’re the busiest and most in-demand people in the world; even relaxation is presented as a tightly scheduled therapy. Amidst all our business, one thing seems increasingly alien: silence.

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Spending some time in a monastery – which I did – gives you some time to get to grips with the concept of silence. For a start, there’s a lot of it. Not only is the ‘Greater Silence’ kept from the end of Night Prayer until about 9am the following morning (well after Morning Prayer and breakfast, which is eaten together without talking), but silence is woven into the fabric of everyday life. From times of private prayer and meditation, to academic or manual work, the monks at the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, embrace silence as a gateway to deeper self-understanding and awareness of the presence of God.

It must be said that Mirfield is not exactly St Benedict’s vision on earth. At Pluscarden Abbey in Elgin – some way north of here – the day begins at 4.30am, with the first of seven chanted Latin offices (set prayers of the Church), some lasting well over an hour. Only 20 minutes per day is set aside for ‘recreation’, which roughly translates as ‘having a chat’, and even that tends to be used for discussing matters on the weightier end of the philosophical spectrum. And, of course, I didn’t go and stay with the Carthusians, an extraordinary group of Roman Catholic monks who spend almost the entirety of their day alone, secluded in individual hermitages, and in silence. The only talking they get for most of the week is – you guessed it – a bit of Latin sing-song.

Of course, many readers will happily draw a line under this and dismiss the above as lunacy. If you don’t happen to believe in God, most of the chanting and pondering might seem a bit redundant. But here’s what I think: silent monks have got a lesson for us all, whether we’re regular worshippers, undecided outsiders or convinced atheists. We all do a lot of talking each day, subscribing to our busy culture of constant action. Helped by Facebook and Snapchat, we spew out loads of noise all over the place, at the press of a button. Yet the tragedy of it all is that we’re actually communicating, on a human level, less and less.

The Desert Fathers, a group of 4th century Egyptian monks, had a wonderful saying: You must ‘die to the neighbour’ and never judge at all. Behind that rather complex idea is the simple notion of a new kind of communication. Rather than pasting our own perspective all over others and the world – which technology makes it so easy to do – we ought to allow ourselves to resonate with the communication of others. We ought to move deeper into ourselves to discover what responses we truly give, and cut out all of the superficial projections with which we pollute our speech. “What did you do with your summer?” becomes a rather redundant question; better would be “Who were you?”

That’s not easy of course. But, as I tucked into a hearty monastic breakfast, aware of the deafening noise of my spoon clinking on my cereal bowl, I found I had stumbled on the beginnings of a solution.

Photo: Taylor Carey

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