Afraid To Be Still?

‘Germans Flock to See Silent Monks’. This newspaper headlines caught my imagination because today monks hardly ever make the news except for the wrong reasons! ‘Into Great Silence’ is the first movie ever, about life inside the Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the legendary Carthusian Order – a very strict religious family – in the French Alps.

In this movie there is no music except the chants in the monastery, no interviews, no commentaries, no extra material.

“I think they simply do it because they choose to… become close to God,” says the film’s director Philip Groening. “It’s a very simple concept, the concept is God himself, is pure happiness, the closer you move to that, the happier you are.”

It seems ironic to talk about silence in a culture where the ability for creating noise is phenomenal and unparalleled…car horns, drilling, mowing, radios, ringing cell phones, air-conditioning racket, loud background music at restaurants and malls, youth who just plug earphones in their ears and live in their own ipod world… What a rumpus! Environment experts predict that in the 21st century we will bear a shortage of water and silence!

Some hunters at the Amazon forests in Brazil were traveling by foot when suddenly the natives, who were carrying their gear, sat down and stopped. They simply refused to keep going on! When confronted, their answer was enlightening. “Sirs, we do not mean to be disrespectful but we need to take time for our spirits to catch up with our bodies.”

As Thomas Merton once wrote, “When we live superficially, when we are always outside ourselves, never quite “with” ourselves, always divided and pulled in many directions by conflicting plans and projects, we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be worthless and without meaning in our lives: “Why spend your money on what is not food and your earnings on what never satisfies?” (Isaiah 55:2).

We need to stop and be silent. Only in this way we can start enjoying ourselves and our God.

Obviously silence is not just an exterior reality. It is basically an inner attitude as Abba Poemen rightly points out: “A man may seem silent, but if in his heart he condemns others, he is talking ceaselessly. Yet there may be someone else who talks from morning until night, who, because he says nothing unprofitable, is truly silent.”

However this inner attitude becomes reachable only if we to learn how to regularly bring ourselves to a standstill and be quiet. Our Master did it. Many time he just isolated himself to enjoy the presence of His Father. He did it also with and for his apostles. “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).

Silence is the injunction God asked whenever He wanted to do marvelous things. When the people of God came to cross the Red Sea, God said to His people, “The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent” (Exodus 14:14). And in his farewell address, Samuel gave his people this advice, “Stand still and see this great thing the Lord is about to do before your eyes” (1 Samuel 12:16).

The advantages of acquiring inner silence are enormous. Abba Nilus said, “The arrows of the enemy cannot touch one who loves quietness; but he who moves about in a crowd will often be wounded.”

Silence helps us to focus on what is essential in life, it strengthens our inner self, it alerts the ears of the heart to discover God’s plans for us. It enhances patience. It opens our mind to meditation and meditation chases away interior perplexities and gives way to inner peace.

Our biggest enemy, perhaps, in this area are the many small things that we have to do. The moment we sit down to be silent…. thousand things spring up to our attention that needs to be done urgently… pick up the dry cleaning, return a phone call, take the chicken out of the freezer, jot down an idea…

St. John of the Ladder inspired countless people to entertain living a deep Christian life. And this is what he has to say on this. “A small hair worries the eye and a small care destroys silence, for silence means the laying aside of all thoughts not bearing on the work of salvation, and renunciation of all cares, even for matters of good report. Nor will a man who has attained true silence worry about his body for He Who promised to care for it is not false….”

A brother in Scetis went to ask for a word from Abba Moses and the old man said to him, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

We need slowly to build a small cell within ourselves where we can retire daily to acquire our mental sanity! And when we are in our small cell, let us close the inner doors and shut out everything and everyone. At that moment we are being intimate with Him. And intimacy demands privacy!

Let us be somewhat silent-er this Passion Week…


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.