Nov. 10, 2021
photo above: Education Images
WN: Beautifully written: the deafening joy of silence . . .
I watched Of Gods and Men on a winter’s afternoon in Norfolk because a great Dominican friar and priest, namedTimothy Radcliffe, told me that it contained the answer to my questions about truth and silence. In Radcliffe’s book, Alive in God: A Christian Imagination, he asks if we have lost the sense of the transcendent. For all our connectivity and information, we find it hard to grasp meaning.
Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, the former Superior General of the Jesuits, believes that the most profound threat to our civilization is “the globalization of superficiality”, which is a consequence of the triviality of much communication in the social media.— Timothy Radcliffe, Alive in God.
The motto of the Dominican order is Veritas (truth). The thirteenth-century Dominican friar, Saint Thomas Aquinas, drew upon pagan philosophers and Islamic teaching as sources of truth. He believed in a community of truth: that truth is beauty and beauty is truth.
When I asked Timothy Radcliffe, in his study piled with books, if he had found truth, he told me: “I believe there are truths but I don’t know what they mean. I believe that God is good, but what does that mean?”
This seems to me the appeal of the cloisters at Sénanque. You can experience silence and truth even if you cannot rationalize or explain it. And I think I recognize in the monks what Radcliffe calls “the intimacy of silence with fellow brethren.” The loneliness of the monks’ lives is not loneliness at all. And their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are not confining but liberating.
…I had misread the community of silence. I thought that silence was the absence of a relationship, but in fact it was the opposite. I sit resolutely through a supper consisting of an avocado, a tomato, a leaf of lettuce, and heavily boiled zucchini and carrots, accompanied by piped music from “Greensleeves.” Someone pushes back their chair, but it is only to fetch bread for the tables. We wait for the last person in the room to finish their final carrot. I note it but am careful not to react. And then everyone rises as one and assumes a line into the kitchen, where plates are handed from one person to the next to be washed and dried. Imagine a family Christmas day of washing up. But all done in silence.
God speaks loudest in the silence.–retired Chaplain and great friend, Gerry Ayotte.
I slip into the back of the chapel, bow, cross myself, and sit on my oak bench. The monks take their places at the altar pews. Since I cannot follow closely the language or the liturgy I am content to absorb the Gregorian chants and even more the silences in between. The service is ancient, serious, penitent. There are no platitudes here, no topicality.
I am used to the megaphone of current affairs and the jumpiness of a pandemic. Here, these rumbling bass voices mingling with the tenors produce harmony both ancient and present. It is the sound of eternity. The monks are old enough to fear the effects of COVID but what should they fear, when they are poised between two worlds?
The lights of the chapel are switched off, but once again I am rooted to my bench. I, who have never been able to sit through meetings and have a shockingly short concentration span, want nothing more than this. Sitting in shadows and stillness, looking at a limestone wall, and the wooden image of the cross. Simplicity and silence.
My bedroom has also become dear to me. There is a breeze through the long open window and I look out at the wooded hillside and the stone. I have never known such concentrated stillness. I look up at Venus and then bow my head, the gesture that has already become natural.
…Yet the first sung note brings concentration and with it gladness. The predawn hours of a news program are coffee and adrenaline. Here they are contemplation. The lack of coffee and indeed of alcohol the night before already brings a quietness of mind. The lack of sleep encourages a spiritual alertness. I have never felt this equilibrium before. Attentive and yet still.
The monks are old enough to fear the effects of COVID but what should they fear, when they are poised between two worlds?
The service finishes at about 5:30 a.m. and I wonder about going back to bed. But dawn is rising and the rocks and woodland are becoming three-dimensional. I take the Saint Bernard route up the stony path I followed yesterday, and at the top of the hilly ridge, I watch the sun come up. A single cloud in the shape of a chariot is lit orange and yellow.
Please click on: Liberation of Silence