Trappist Father Martinus Cawley works quietly in the garden at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette. Signs posted around the abbey say, “Silence is deep as Eternity.” (Msgr. Chuck Lienert)
Trappist Father Martinus Cawley works quietly in the garden at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette. Signs posted around the abbey say, “Silence is deep as Eternity.” (Msgr. Chuck Lienert)
The Trappist monastery in Lafayette posts this Thomas Carlyle quote in several places around the grounds: “Silence is deep as Eternity.”

The monks are professionals at silence, but they and others in the church say that cultivating profound quiet would benefit everyone, especially in a time of ubiquitous mobile phones, internet, earbuds and social media chatter. Advocates of stillness often cite the 16th-century mystic, St. John of the Cross, who wrote, “Silence is God’s first language.”

We moderns tend to avoid the inner life by keeping ourselves entertained with sound and sights. We have come to the point that silence makes us anxious.

A quintessential biblical moment occurs in 1 Kings, when the prophet Elijah is called to stand before the Lord. Wind, earthquake and fire roar past, but God is in none of them. Instead, Elijah hears God’s “still small voice” in the silence that follows.

“Silence seems very countercultural,” said Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen of Mount Angel Abbey. “We live in a society in which noise is the norm. We are bombarded with noise.”

For Brother Louis and other monks, silence is a tool that helps them attend to inner realities. He said such a practice can make them more whole, more human. Quiet cultivates “interior health,” said Brother Louis, a physician.

Most monasteries follow what is called grand silence, which spans roughly sundown to sunup. Some extend quiet even further.

People living in the world may have a harder time finding silence. Brother Louis suggests that everyone find a prayer space in their dwellings, even if it’s created by closing the door. Churches, libraries, parks and even back yards can be silent refuges. But noise seems to intrude even in those places.

Visiting a monastery may be the surest route to silence.

“Monasteries seem to some people like relics from the middle ages,” Brother Louis said. “But the truth is, we need places of solitude and silence like monasteries more than ever before so we can find ourselves again. Silence cultivates a spiritual communion with God, which then allows for the proper ordering of our inner house, restoring order, peace and harmony from within. This, in turn, strengthens our communion with others through the restoration of relationships with people around us.”

Christian prayer and worship from their start have treasured sacred silence, said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland. The liturgical teachings of the Second Vatican Council advise full participation of the faithful in worship but also say that at times participation means a reverent quiet.

“If you can’t deal with silence, you are missing out on this great part of prayer communication with the Lord,” Msgr. O’Connor said, explaining that silence gives liturgy a rhythm of contemplation and prayerfulness.

“The liturgy is not one continuous noise and activity,” he said, discouraging liturgists from filling every void with song or talk.

“This idea that we’ve got to keep people entertained all the time, that we have to have music playing when there is no one speaking — it’s not part of the Roman rite,” Msgr. O’Connor said.

He lauded parishes that are warm and inviting, but suggested that five minutes of quiet before Mass and respectful silence after Mass will help people with their divine encounter. “It’s that balance between being a welcoming parish and being a prayerful parish,” he said.

Our Lady of Peace Retreat in Beaverton calls people to quiet with its very name.

“Silence means stillness in my soul,” said Franciscan Sister Mary Guadalupe Jumarang, superior at Our Lady of Peace. “That means the presence of God.”

Across the metro area in Milwaukie, the Franciscan Spiritual Center provides silence in a former convent adjacent to St. John the Baptist Church. In addition to rooms in the center for private silent retreats, staff regularly offer what is called a Franciscan Hermitage Experience, four days of silence at a site in the Columbia River Gorge. This month, the center has scheduled Advent Quiet Days.

“There is so much information, so much noise out there that we need places of silence and solitude to be able to listen to what nudges of the Spirit there might be in us,” said Rev. Larry Peacock, a Methodist minister and director of the Franciscan Spiritual Center. “Creativity, wonder and new ideas come amid silence.”

Peacock knows that everyone can’t always get to a monastery or retreat house. He suggests small, sweet moments of silence like turning off the car radio on a drive, or stepping out of the office to look at the sky.

“Without silence, we get overloaded, stressed,” Rev. Peacock said. “You can hold on to those quiet moments to get you through.”



edl@catholicsentinel.org