In my last entry, I talked about a potential career path about which I had become skeptical, namely a career in academia. I remarked that should I give up on that path entirely, it would not be the first time that I had done so, and in this post I would like to talk about one of those previous careers which I did give up on entirely. I don’t aim to talk so much about why I decided to abandon it, but rather about one of the reasons why I was initially drawn to it and why the lessons I learned from this time of my life are still so valuable.
Perhaps it was my tendency to solitude or my frustration with the notion of happiness through materialism, but for some time I had my heart set on life as an ascetic. I was particularly enthralled by Trappist monks who followed the Rule of St. Benedict, characterized by a strong sense of discipline and devotion to labour and contemplation. Trappists strictly divide the day into eight canonical hours, each devoted to a distinct task, each of which would be carried out with a staunch sense of focus on that particular assignment – no distractions or superfluities.
One’s typical impression of an ascetic usually includes a hermit living entirely without amenities or “creature comforts,” and this is certainly true to some extent given their renunciation of private possessions or any goods deemed unnecessary by the abbot. This is not necessarily a renunciation of all things material or corporeal, but only those which might prevent one from carrying out their foremost task of devotion, labour, and contemplation. Furthermore, these tasks are often carried out in a communal manner and sees the monks taking their spiritual journey together. For example, meals are eaten together and consist of one Brother reading aloud to the rest for the sake of edification.
This communal life, however, is balanced by an emphasis on silence, a prime virtue in the Rule of St. Benedict, and the source of the most important lesson I learned from contemplating this type of lifestyle – a lesson I all too often forget. Chapter six of the Rule quotes from Psalm 39:
I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I will not sin with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.
In this light, there is always virtue in silence, even when one might have something good to say, perhaps for the humility that it enables in us when we can listen and absorb rather than constantly insert ourselves into confrontation. I won’t attempt any exegesis – I am not a theologian and never will be – but suffice it to say that the passage commands silence as a form of humility.
There is some further hint as to why silence is such a virtue a few lines down from the Psalm quotation. The excerpt reads,
…speaking and teaching belong to the mistress;
the disciple’s part is to be silent and to listen
And for this reason
if anything has to be asked of the Superior,
it should be asked
with all the humility and submission inspired be reverence.
Silence is thus an important basis for humility and listening, both of which lie at the core of our ability to learn and reflect. In silence, one keeps an open mind to the circumstances before them, and whatever questions one might have or whatever conclusions they might reach, at the very least, and attempt has been made to understand whatever is being confronted, be it a teaching or an entirely new situation or set of events.
I don’t believe that this idea demands complete deference to authority, but simply a respect to their position and an attempt to understand before getting to the questions and judgment. Thinking for oneself is critical, but you cannot critique what you don’t understand and what you have not thought deeply about. Silence is reflective of this sentiment and the will to learn and truly enrich one’s mind through deep thinking and humility.
Reflecting, as I do a lot lately, on my recent university experience, I came to the conclusion that it has been a very noisy four years. I talked too much, and those around me talked too damn much. I forgot those lessons about silence because I was too eager to insert myself into situations and clash over the big questions with my “knowledge,” recently acquired by a few hours in a giant lecture hall. There is nothing wrong with discussion, but it seems like I spent most of the past four years – though this probably goes back a bit further – talking past my colleagues and leaving them to return the favour. Not a whole lot of intellectual enrichment or stimulation came out of this. In fact, these confrontations were often so antagonistic that we could not so much as recommend a book to one another because we were all so self-assured that we knew all that we had to know.
This is the important lesson that I’ve only recently rediscovered and have tried to put into practice. Silence is the basis of humility and one’s capacity to learn, as I’ve said. Before you can be critical of something, you have to listen and understand it, which you cannot successfully accomplish unless you shut the fuck up for a moment or so.
At the end of their day, the Benedictines partake in Compline, a period of meditation before bed. David Steindl-Rast, a member of the OSB, says that this time is devoted to confronting the confusion and noise of the day and making sense of our place within the world. Rast writes (you can buy his great book “The Music of Silence here.) that we ask at this time,
What went wrong today? Where did I fail to meet the challenge? We usually find that things go wrong because we get caught up in some response or activity without having first stopped, looked, and proceeded with deliberate clarity.
In this sense, silence is not just symbolic but literal as well. Without distraction, it helps to reflect upon and give ourselves over to the day thatjust passed and understand its lessons. Once again, this is all but impossible when distracted by noise or confrontation. I’ve taken lately to trying to adapt this principle to my own modern life, which is usually as simple as turning off the phone, television, and computer, and taking time to think about the aforementioned questions or to read and enjoy some quietude. This usually helps to quell the frustrations build up during the day and maybe even provide some lessons for the day after. There is nothing complex or scientific about this process, though it is difficult to bring to fruition in this day and age and requires some discipline. Nonetheless, all that it requires is to understand that when we are silent, only then do we begin to learn and better ourselves in subsequent actions. Constant noise and bickering will simply get us nowhere.
Theodore Dalrymple, being his usual curmudgeonly but sensible self, captures this notion perfectly in a recent piece in the online magazine In Character, which can be read in its entirety here. Dalrymple writes,
More than the effect on concentration, however, I fear the effect of constant noise on the development of human inwardness. I find it difficult to believe that those who live in constant noise can ever reflect very deeply upon anything. Their taste for noise, that becomes almost a physiological need for them since they grow anxious without it, seems to me to bespeak a fear of being left alone with their own thoughts.
I am not for total silence; noise has it place. I am certainly not an enemy of music or talking (though my wife often tells me that I don’t do enough of the latter). But a world in which silence is neither obtainable nor desired will be a world of very shallow people.
Perhaps the idea of whether or not silence is required to think deeply is entirely subjective, but for me Dalrymple is right on the money. To know ourselves, we must look inward, and the noise only directs our attention back outward. So take a little time for silence; it’s lessons are profound and the outside world and all its lovely distractions will still be there when you’re done.
I first came upon this lesson through the Trappists, and even after I’ve long lost any faith in God, the lesson still matters and still enriches my life. Humility and reflection are universally and intrinsically worthwhile pursuits, no matter who you are. And in a noisy world, they all the more rewarding.
Anyway, that’s just my opinion, what the hell do I really know? I’ll leave the last word to Thomas Merton, who truly understood what it meant to be contemplative and how time to oneself was so vital.