you are here for not
twelve hours and you say “i
want to write a book
about silence”: this
is not appropriate, it’s
not in the spirit.
This post is out of character for the poetry part of this site, because it’s in prose. But I feel moved, having just returned from a five day silent retreat, to share a little about my experience with others. I can honestly say that the time I spent at Emery House, a monastic retreat house about an hour north of Boston, was one of the most meaningful events of my life.
I write this with quite a bit of trepidation, knowing full well how paradoxical—absurd, even—it seems to be writing about silence. Obviously it would seem that the best way to “learn” about silence is just to shut up, so why spend a whole week just doing that? The question is legitimate. When you think of silence primarily as the absence of something (speech, conversation, interaction, connection), it doesn’t sound like something worth celebrating. What’s more, in an age and generation where so much ordinary social contact is mediated through devices and digital communication where talking isn’t even necessary, it may seem even less clear why it would be good to seek out silence. Surely, in this alienated age, the thing to be thirsting for is real communication, no? Even as we speak to one another less and less, we grow more and more distracted.
I want to be very upfront with people who don’t know me personally: I’m a Christian and Emery House is run by the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), an order of celibate monks in the Anglican (as opposed to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox) tradition. The experience of silence that I’ll be talking about here is therefore indelibly shaped by my particular faith (as well as the individual questions I embarked on this retreat with the intention of asking God).
At the same time, almost every religion on the planet that I’m aware of incorporates some kind of contemplative, meditative, or mystical component (some of which, like yoga and mindfulness, are practiced in some decidedly secular spheres). Even without acknowledging a higher power behind it all, it’s easy to lose oneself in silent contemplation of a starry night on a purely intellectual level. Rarely, even in that case, are the emotions and the deeper parts of the soul left untouched. My point is that no matter what you believe, silence probably has something to teach you. But I am getting ahead of myself.
“In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.
She asked, ‘Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.’
He says, ‘There’s nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
This is how Hallaj said, ‘I am God,’
and told the truth!”
One of the first things you learn on a silent retreat is that silence is more than not talking, a negative condition of the world. Within the first twenty-four hours of shutting up (I’m a very talkative person in my everyday life), your other senses become heightened. Because you aren’t thinking of things you need to say to people and have no expectation of people speaking to you, you become more and more deeply attuned to the sights and sounds and smells of the world around you.
of course silence is not merely absence
for it is never the same
i am learning that silence sounds different the longer
it is kept:
and the only word i’ve said
today is “so,” so
the medicine of
silence perhaps is starting
to help me arrive.
In the course of the week I was at Emery House, the only time I ever spoke (aside from a couple words a day by mistake) was during worship services, which were held four times a day (morning prayer at 7:30, the eucharist (holy communion) at 12:00, evening prayer at 6:00, and compline (night prayer) at 8:00. The services, all derived from scripture and the ancient words of Christian liturgies, involved a lot of chanting and a cappella singing, since there was no musical accompaniment in the simple Emery House chapel. Even when you were speaking, then, you had to concentrate on following the music, pausing when the monks paused (quite often), and not raising your voice above those of others. It seems intimidating when I describe it in the abstract, but because I was already fairly familiar with these services, I was able to get to a place where it was really exhilarating.
My voice, freed from the obligation to constantly respond to social stimuli, became an instrument almost solely to be used for communication with God. Besides worship and meals, the only things I had to do during the day were read, write, and take long walks. In the afternoons, I took long walks with books I was reading for fun (Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read). Without my phone, on walks I was forced to really look around me, taking in the different plants, the winding of the road and the sound of unseen snakes and frogs darting off into the grass at its sides. Ultimately I will admit that it was a much more difficult task to tame the stubborn restlessness of my mind, which usually has access to a phone to slake its curiosity about the world. In lieu of reading and scrolling and looking things up, I found myself becoming more and more attuned to the richness of individual moments and scenes. The woods, after all, are alive with God’s creatures going about their business, paying you little to no mind, particularly if you stay still. Before long, my sandals started coming off. New tactile thrills awaited my soles: dirt and mud and pine needles and and spiny dry grass and roots between my toes. It’s a risky matter, walking barefoot, but in my unhurried and well-cared for state of soul, it felt like a calling:
thinking about big
things so often depends on
small things, how they grow,
how a man can walk
barefoot through deep woods, reckless
as children are, free
to pepper God with
questions: bird calls and rustles
and mushrooms, a faith
that does not ask “what
about ticks?” going around
in boots, gravely:
faith worthy because
never worthy, safe because
never safe, Christ’s own.
Because of the silence, for five days I was able to exist at Emery House not as anyone’s friend nor as anyone’s son or relative. No one at the monastery knew I was in graduate school, no one knew about my experiences in South Africa or anywhere else. But unlike the anonymity of everyday life, I was under precisely zero pressure to impress upon people the kind of person I was. Beyond the need to conform to the minimum requirements of life at the monastery, the performative aspect of daily life was gone; at the same time, I was living profoundly unselfishly. I wasn’t thinking about pursuing my own fulfilment; instead I was focused, through the books on prayer I spent the mornings reading, on quieting my own mind in order to inwardly digest the word of God.
life is wondering
whether God is paying for
a meal: you’re anxious
until you see that
the bill is seven million
dollars; then you know
“The ‘righteous man’ is one who is learning more and more his own weakness, and is turning more and more to God, so that God is more and more free to carry out His will in him.”
—James O. S. Huntington, O.H.C.
This wasn’t my first introduction to the idea of contemplative prayer as a path to spiritual growth. But I can’t deny that before my retreat I did regard injunctions to “be still and know that I am God” with some suspicion. Part of the problem for me, looking back, was an idea—strongly rebutted in the books I read during my mornings—that prayer was a matter of thinking hard enough, of concentrating hard enough on whatever it was I wanted to focus on in order to hear the “still small voice” of God coming through, like a faraway radio transmission.
It was St. Theophan the Recluse (a badass name for a nineteenth century Russian saint, if I may say so) who first insisted in my reading on the idea that prayer is not a desperate attempt to establish contact so much as something radically different: a clearing of the mind, an inherently restful act, even. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the Spirit helps us in out weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
It’s true: I don’t know how to pray as I ought, because even when the words come easily, I don’t really understand what’s in my real best interest. And herein lies the true value of silence. Silence (both inward and outward) provides space for us as human beings to recenter ourselves and remember the most important truths about ourselves: that we are children of God, that we are beloved by him (and powerless to change this!), and that separation from these truths is the only thing worth fearing in this life. Centered in this, less fearful and anxious of the world outside, the Holy Spirit finds space to work inside us—and thus it’s really the Holy Spirit and not our own pious selves that prays on our behalf.
Now I am aware that some people reading this might find it indulgent. What I’m describing—an extended holiday from screens and communication in a stunning natural setting—might sound too much like an actual holiday for comfort. Of course, they might say, you felt a deep connection to God and the universe while you were there, but what about after you left? It’s easy to feel holy in a holy place; the tough part is applying it to the everyday frustration of life outside the cloister.
when you are well-fed
and undistracted and shut
up it is easy
to see that life is
God’s great adventure, but this
is a tall order.
i realized tonight during evening prayer that already
God seems to have provided answers to my questions,
but this clarity means nothing if it is not sustained.
not to love, but to keep loving,
not to stop, but to keep stopping,
not to listen, but to keep listening,
that’s the game.
It has already been difficult, in the week or so I’ve been back, to readjust to everyday life. It doesn’t come naturally to recall God as often in a place that isn’t a literal monastery. At the same time, the truths I reacquainted myself with at Emery House remain just as true everywhere. They are helping me, I hope, towards a life of less fear and more confidence (at some point soon I hope to write something about fear and how dangerous it is, but that’s an essay for another time).
I could also write more deeply about the things at Emery House I had more difficulty adjusting to. The practice of eating meals in silence, for example, was hard for me. The food (vegetarian for the whole week I was there, much of it sourced from the monks’ own garden) was absolutely delicious, but the monks eat in haste. Since I was often hungry from my long walks, but also didn’t want to hold anyone up—we prayed both before and after the meal, so it mattered when one finished—I often felt like I had to eat much more quickly than I would like. I’m sure plenty has been written about monastic mealtime practices, and I can understand to a certain extent the desire not to produce an atmosphere of feasting outside of actual feast days, but given how special I felt the food was, it remains somewhat jarring to me. As I re-examine my own relationship with food, perhaps I’ll strike upon some additional insight.
I came to Emery House with a lot of questions that had been burning through my gut over the past few months. I was frustrated because I thought the most important thing I had to do was discern God’s will for me, an arduous process that would involve a lot of thought-intensive, exhausting prayer and reading of the auspices. Thanks to St. Theophan, David Benner (author of Desiring God’s Will, a wonderful little book), and James O. S. Huntington, O.H.C., I came to understand that this was not the best use of my time: no individual decision I might make is more important than living my life in a way that strives to glorify God, a trite phrase that means existing at peace with myself and in the service of those around me.
I have a long, long, long way to go on that count. But a long way is just a bunch of little footsteps, after all.
it is God who waits
for us: awareness is all
that we are lacking
likewise, today was
pure bliss, except for the bird
who shat on my arm
while i was in the
hammock learning about
His presence and love.
light shone through the birch
leaves, obscuring the culprit;
so much for justice
Have you ever been on a silent retreat, or have you ever thought about going on one? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments, particularly if you’ve experienced something similar in a different faith tradition. I’ve always been struck by the profound affinity that exists among the different contemplative traditions of the world, and I’m fascinated to learn more.
Also, if you’d like to see more posts like this in the future (this is something quite new for me!), let me know that too!