Several years ago, I spent Christmas at Mount St. Scholastica, a women’s Benedictine monastery in Atchison, Kansas. The retired abbot from the men’s monastery down the road spent Christmas Eve there too because a severe snowstorm was predicted and the sisters didn’t want Father Owen to risk driving in steep snow to preside at their Christmas Day Mass. At one point, Father Owen sat talking with the other guests, then abruptly rose, excused himself, and went to his room.
Later he told me, “I can only take so much chit-chat.”
His words seemed odd to me at the time. Since then, I’ve spent considerable time in monasteries, including at the Abbey of Gethsemani outside of Louisville where a motto of the Trappist monks is “Silence Is Spoken Here.” I’ve come to agree with Thomas Merton’s observation, after spending time at California’s Our Lady of the Redwoods Monastery, that “So much talking goes on that is utterly useless.”
Pointing to the redwood trees, the sea and sky, Merton said, “It is in all this that you will find your answers. Here is where everything connects.”
Last month, I had the chance to experience firsthand how silence helps us to see how everything connects. I was one of eight “scholars in residence” at St. Columba’s, a retreat center tucked between the Pacific Ocean, Tamales Bay and the Inverness Mountain Ridge on the redwood-rich Point Reyes Peninsula of northern California.
One of the only requirements of the residency was to maintain silence. Morning and evening prayer both included 20-minute periods of silent meditation. Our meals were silent. Our walks around the grounds were to be in silence.
The contemplative residency was the brainchild of Rev. Vincent Pizzuto, a charismatic Episcopalian priest enamored of the Christian mystical tradition and dedicated to showing that one doesn’t have to live in a monastery to cultivate a deep interior life. As Father Vincent writes in his book 2018 book, Contemplating Christ: The Gospels and the Interior Life, Christ’s entry into time and history “has made mystics of us all.”
He goes on to say, “A spiritual truth to which our culture and society have so successfully numbed us, is that the contemplative life is not a luxury or a quaint pastime but a matter of grave spiritual, social, and now even planetary urgency.” Silence becomes the doorway through which we enter a deeper way of seeing and understanding.
Even for one who likes to practice what St. Benedict called “esteem for silence,” refraining from chit-chat throughout the day at first felt oppressive. I and my fellow residents found little ways of circumventing our vow of silence. I made hand signs to my husband who with me on the retreat, the way Trappist monks learned to communicate in the years when they were expected to keep strict silence.
Some of my colleagues would slink away to a remote corner of the retreat center parking lot to engage in brief conversations. My husband snuck in a quiet game of chess with his grandson, on Zoom.
After about a week, though, something changed. It felt as though we were no longer chasing silence. It was as though the silence had entered us. It felt as close and as natural as the air we breathed.
I first noticed the difference toward the end of our 10-day residency when a group of us piled into a car to drive to the Pacific coastline for a hike. Observing silence was optional on hikes, but in the car no one spoke. We chose not to. And it felt right.
Amazing thoughts rise up from the heart when you lower the volume of outer noise and tune in more closely to your inner stirrings. One of my fellow retreatants said she realized by the end of the residency that her job has been draining both her energy and creativity. She decided that when she returned home, she’d quit.
A word that kept surfacing for me throughout the week was “beloved.” It has always been hard for me to feel loved for simply who I am. I’ve always felt I needed to earn love, through my skills and achievements. Still, I could not have felt anything but “beloved” as a result of the hospitality and the many kindnesses shown to all of us by not only Father Vincent, but his entire staff as well as the members of the St. Columba Church congregation. I meditated many times on this passage from Father Vincent’s book:
“Unable to see Christ immanent in one’s own body, in material flesh, in creation itself, Christ remains a distant overlord rather than the Cosmic Christ whose life-giving energy pulsates through every living atom … It means that in Christ, heaven and earth interpenetrate the other. That all ground is holy ground. All water is holy water. All bread is Eucharist. All life — not merely human life — is sacred.”
Another change has come in the way I now look at my usual surroundings. In such a naturally beautiful setting as the Point Reyes peninsula, where there are towering redwoods, lush eucalyptuses and fragrant bay trees, as well as all manner of birds from quail to plovers, chickadees to egrets, many-colored wildflowers, and a landscape of mountains, hills, valley and ocean, it is easy attune your eyes to the constant slide show of beauty around you.
When I returned to the prairie landscape of Illinois where I live, I noticed my familiar surroundings with sharper attention. It was as though my eyes had been in training on those long silent walks in California and could now hone into beauty in more vivid detail here in Illinois.
It recalls another of Thomas Merton’s observations, that “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness.” We realize it, Merton says, by entering “a silence that is a fountain of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness, and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being.”
What I took home from my time at St. Columba’s was the realization that we require silence in the way that we need bread, we need water, we need love, we need prayer. As Father Vincent points out in “Contemplating Christ, contemplative prayer descends “from the head to heart, from knowing to unknowing, from words into flesh, from saying prayer to becoming prayer.”
Can we all make a space for silence within our busy lives? Will we allow silence to walk with us, like a brother or a friend?
To learn more about St. Columba and its many contemplative and artistic outreach programs, please visit https://www.stcolumbasinverness.org/