Abbey of Gethsemani December 1967
PRESENCE, SILENCE, COMMUNICATION
IN THE contemplative life we all face the question “What are we supposed to do?” One thing we can do is come together like this, as sisters and brothers in Christ, and let happen what has not happened before, this kind of searching retreat.
Certainly what we are doing now is what we’re supposed to do: getting together in a quiet place, where we can talk and think and pray. An important key word is presence. We want to be present to each other and then trust what happens. If you’ve just read my books, you don’t really know me, so you better get a look at the real thing. Presence is what counts. It’s important to realize that the Church itself is presence, and so is the contemplative life. Community is presence, not an institution. We’ve been banking on the ability to substitute institution for the reality of presence, and it simply won’t work.
There is a kind of Pentecost in miniature wherever there is Church. Pentecost means “new life,” and that means changes in our lives. But changes are not easy; new life is disturbing. The basic experience of religious in our time has been the struggle of knowing in their hearts that something is asked of them by God and yet somehow they are being prevented from doing it. It is true that a lot of young people who come to religious life feel they have to leave it in order to find God. For some this is probably true, even though for others it may be an illusion. All of us are trying to sort out things about our lives. It’s going to take a long time; the answers are not there.
Take the question of silence, for example, our specialty here at a Trappist monastery. Silence can be a great problem or a great grace. When it becomes too formalized, it ceases to be a source of grace and becomes a problem because it is no longer a helping presence. For too long the rule of silence was a means of being absent from one another. This sets up a contradiction, and people suffer from it. A community can’t exist on those terms. Contradictions are a part of life, but systematic frustration of cultural values is another matter. A person has to be able to get along without a lot of distracting things in the culture, naturally, but that doesn’t mean we should never be able to hear a symphony. We Trappists have a bad reputation for that kind of thing. Our silence tended to operate in that mechanical way. Also silence almost meant you had to pretend that no one else was present. You were silent because you were more or less excluding people.
When people come together, there is always some kind of presence, even the kind that can give a person an ulcer. What we have to do is arrange things in such a way that the presence is a positive and not a negative experience. This means we may have to talk more in order to learn how to be present in silence in a positive way. There has to be enough communication so that silence can be a grace. That kind of silence demands a deeper love, and until that much love is developed, there’s no point in pretending that the love is there when it isn’t. The justification of silence in our life is that we love one another enough to be silent together. Once we get into the depths of community life, we realize that there is a very special duty and grace in being silent together, but we don’t arrive at this by excluding others or treating them as objects. It happens gradually as we learn to love.
A friend of mine, a Dutch psychoanalyst [Joost A. Merloo], has a very fine manuscript on silence. He points out that we have to keep readjusting our understanding and practice of silence so that it can remain a definite value. We recognize that we have been misusing it, but we see also that we need to keep it for its real value, we need to renew it. We renew our silence, not by going around talking to people endlessly or by giving up our way of life, but by letting the quiet be impregnated with presence and with light. Then it’s life-giving.
Our being is silent, but our existence is noisy. Our actions tend to be noisy, but when they stop, there is a ground of silence which is always there. Our job as contemplatives is to be in contact with that ground and to communicate from that level, and not just to be in contact with a stream of activities which are constantly moving. We have to keep silence alive for other people, as well as for ourselves—because no one else is doing it. We may think people don’t care about this, but in fact they care about it very much. Silence is greatly symbolic in our time. Even though there’s talk about contemplative life and its values not making much sense to people today, or not being of much interest to them, this is not true. Many people are looking to contemplation and meditation for meaning. You’ve heard of the Beatles, I’m sure. What are they doing now [in 1967]? They are seeing a yogi for instruction in meditation.
The world is full of people who are looking for meditation and silence, and most of them are not Catholic. This is true in Russia and in the Iron Curtain countries. We had a postulant here, a Hungarian refugee, who was a seminarian. A friend of his, a Communist in Yugoslavia, an engineer and a world chess champion, had been brought up with no religion whatever. But he was assiduously practicing yoga because he felt the need of some kind of interior silence. Probably the biggest religious revival in the world is going to happen in Russia, because Russian scientists are very interested in the question of religion and God, much more so than a lot of people in Christian countries.
In other words, people recognize these values; they know such values ought to be. Time and again people come here, often of no particular faith, who are sensitive to the fact that here is a place of silence and a place, presumably, where silence is understood and valued. Therefore, it is terribly important for us to be clear about our silence. The last thing we should do is get rid of it. We just need to balance things in a better way, allowing necessary talk but also providing time for people to be alone and quiet when they need it.
This same manuscript [by Merloo] also speaks of “modulations” of silence, various degrees and kinds and levels of silence. Real silence is not isolation. People who live in silence can and do communicate. Silence can carry many different messages; it can be a powerful form of communication. Deep contemplative silence communicates prayer. There’s a great difference between the silence of a hermitage and the silence of a community at prayer. From the latter, you get the support of people who love (provided they are awake, of course! Otherwise, the sleep or inertia communicates itself in a dead silence). Therefore, the need is for a true silence which is alive and which carries a loving presence. So genuine silence is not automatic. Neither is noise. The tyranny of noise always has a will behind it. When there’s a racket, some person is usually causing it, not the birds or the wind. I visited New York once since entering the monastery, and [in 1964] I went back up around Columbia University and into Harlem. The volume of noise was incredible. It included all-night shootings; two classes of black Muslims were having a kind of war, shooting each other from the roofs. But that was minor compared to the buses on Lenox Avenue, which made an incredible roar. It was like having a jet plane go through your room.
We have to realize that sometimes human beings deliberately create noise. People with frustrated wills come together to make noise that causes others to suffer while they themselves do not suffer. This is one way for a frustrated person to “get even.” We have to resist this. There is a note of supreme injustice in noisemaking: the noise made by one person can compel another person to listen. This applies to chitchat as well as to industrial noises.
Since noise is increasing in all directions, the psychology of silence has taken on a special meaning. We are already so adapted to an abundance of screeching sounds that we are surprised when stillness suddenly envelops us. Not that this happens very often! We begin to see that the whole question of our relation to the world, both positive and negative, centers in something like silence. So our service to the world might simply be to keep a place where there is no noise, where people can be silent together. This is an immense service if only because it enables people to believe such a thing is still possible. Think of the despair of people who have given up all hope of ever having a real silence where they can simply be alone quietly. To come to a place where silence exists, to realize there are people who are content to listen and to live in silence impresses people today who are not at all impressed by mere words.
It isn’t that words or preaching is bad. It’s just that people don’t want to hear any more words. In our mechanical age, all words have become alike, they’ve all been reduced to the level of the commercial. To say “God is love” is like saying “Eat Wheaties.” Things come through on the same wavelength. There’s no difference, except perhaps in the attitude that is adopted: people know they are expected to look pious when God is mentioned, but not when cereal is! Silence, on the other hand, really does speak to people.
Another aspect of silence is its relation to buildings. No builder today seems to be concerned with the problem of preserving the quiet of the household. The walls of buildings are getting thinner all the time. Ceilings and certain types of new appliances often conduct sounds and noises much better than in the past. Some of our modern buildings are acoustical disasters. Noise pollution has become a major problem in the technological age. Each neighbor knows what the other neighbor does, and neighbors think through a multiplicity of auditory leaks. A friend told me she found herself saying “Bless you” to a sneeze coming through the wall of the next apartment.
The other side of this, of course, is that it’s considered a luxury not to be subject to that kind of thing. But should it be a luxury? Buildings could easily be more soundproof. But it’s cheaper for them not to be, there’s a bigger profit in paper-thin walls. We have to protest this by exercising our right to maintain silence. Our silence is a protest against making people live in buildings that are thrown together with only profit in mind.
Each of these aspects of noise and silence is worth considering. Genuine silence is the fruit of maturity, a blending of many positive and negative aspects. While silence is a form of presence, we must also recognize that presence has to include the notion of distance, the concepts of dignity and reserve. Presence doesn’t happen just by people being merged and thrown together. You have to have enough distance to be yourself, composed and at ease. A concentration camp, by contrast, is exactly the opposite of this: officials there try to destroy all distinction between persons, to reduce people to a common lot, to depersonalize as much as possible. This they do by pressing people to the limit, depriving them of food and sleep, and allowing no time for thought or rest until they completely submit. This is what it means to have no distance, no dignity or space in which to be one’s own person.
In the contemplative life, too, people must have some distance and time in order to collect themselves. Silence serves this purpose. In the process of becoming an individual, a final separation of personal entities takes place, allowing the mature person to give up infantile magical ties with others and with reality. What are these magical ties? The infant lives in a symbiotic relationship with its mother; while the child is being gestated, the two form but one organism. A magical tie is a kind of symbiotic relationship. It means people get too emotionally involved with each other and then the relationship is no longer really personal. We have all seen situations where people get too wound up in each other, like two parts of one organism. They constantly respond to each other. It’s not particularly bad, but it’s immature and childish and prevents personhood. It’s a sort of magical relationship in which one person surrenders to another, losing distance, and even identity to some extent.
We need to keep a certain distance in order to preserve our identity. A real person has some reserve, some limit, which is good. Reserve or privacy may be described as a subtle psychic vacuum around a person. It is not mere shyness or retreat, nor is it defiance, withdrawal, or introversion. Words like dignity, privacy, reserve, self-respect, distinction, integrity, and diffidence signify the mature state of a psychic entity that can no longer be easily swayed. Even more, they mean that people recognize the necessity and value of a certain distance between human beings, and that they accept this distance in a spirit of stable self-confidence.
Our religious institutes exist to help form human beings, people who are complete persons. This is our work and our duty, to the human race as well as to God. Our monasteries should be producing people who are fully developed human beings and even saints. A saint is more than a fully developed human being. Actually, there’s no such thing as a perfectly finished human product in this life. That is often a problem to people who come to see us: they expect a finished product. This is not our fault, it is not the fault of religious orders, nor the fault of our rules. It is the fault of our culture, our background, our history, and our sin.
I once met a Muslim who was an authentic Algerian Sufi. Sufis are Muslims who emphasize the mystical side of religion. This man is a true spiritual master, a very simple person who knows no English and lives in a little back street in Morocco. He has disciples and helps them to advance in the spiritual life. I have seldom met anyone who I thought was closer to being a finished product than this man. He is about eighty-five years old. When he was here a year ago, a lot of us went for a walk with him. When we got to the steep hills, he ran up ahead of everybody. He just kicked his slippers off, picked them up in his hand, and went right up the side of the hill.
This Sufi was invited by Temple University to talk to the students of comparative religion in this country. He visited a lot of centers, not giving formal talks but just enjoying getting together with interested people. He met with a group of about fifteen monks here, and it was amazing how well he understood them. They would ask questions and he would give answers that went far beyond the questions; he would answer what the person really wanted to know. His response was fitted to the person, not in general. That is how true spiritual masters teach.
Do you think people coming to the monastery today can reach the degree of spiritual maturity you’ve talked about?
Definitely. That’s the point of our getting together here, to think about how this can happen. But it’s very hard in our culture. Still, with the grace of God there is plenty of hope. We probably won’t be able to do this work in a simple way, as some of these people from the Eastern cultures do. They follow a traditional formula and just work hard at it. But for us, there is a whole new thing we have to take note of. We have to keep our traditional values but see them in a new context, in the light of people’s experience today. What those now coming to us want is basically the same as what everybody has always wanted: God. Sometimes God is made out to be a great problem. We are told that people have no concept of what God is. But God is not a concept. A person may have no idea of God at all and be completely struck between the eyes by grace. What matters is being spontaneously open to the reality of God.
Would you please say more about the reserve you mentioned?
The study of silence and the idea of dignity and reserve have acquired a new meaning in an age when psychology can become coercive in its policies. Even technology can pry into private lives. We are living in an electronic world where it is possible that a person may have no privacy at all. I am against reducing silence to muteness, against depriving individuals of their right to a many-voiced silence, their right to hear both on the level of grace and on the level of nature. When there’s real silence, we’re able to hear. And we all need to hear.
God wants to know the divine goodness in us. This is a deep truth, this desire on the part of God to become self-aware in our own awareness. That’s why contemplation is for everyone. The purpose of contemplation is not just that we may become aware of God or truths about God, but that God may see the Trinity reflected in each of us, in our own particular identity. It’s not necessary to talk to God in order to develop this awareness, although we do this sometimes, for example, in the liturgy, and that’s fine. But it’s not essential. Are we going to say “I love you”? The more we talk, the more foolish it sounds.
This is where silence comes in. We listen to the depth of our own being, and out of this listening comes a rich silence, the silence of God, which just says “God” or “I am.” Now, this is something!
I don’t understand why, in all the discussion about God now going on, people are putting aside this fundamental aspect of our life. The claim is made that modern people cannot have an experience of being, that being is not relevant to them. I don’t see that. It seems to me that one of the most basic experiences of anyone who gets down into any kind of depth is the breakthrough realization that I am. This is quite normal for any youngster of eight or nine. There’s a point in your life where maybe you’re just playing around and all of a sudden it hits you between the eyes that you really are. This is a true grasp of what being is. It isn’t that you understand a definition of being. You are simply overwhelmed by the fact of being. This is the place where God’s reality is going to break through. I become aware of my own reality, and then God’s reality turns out to be the ground of mine. The door is there. And now they’re telling us this is impossible. Do you have difficulty with this?
It seems to me this breakthrough happens in prayer. I remember, as a child, standing on a hill with everything spread out before me, and suddenly something inside just seemed to burst and I knew there was a union someplace.
Exactly. Wordsworth wrote poems about it. This feeling or intuition comes up everywhere in literature. It’s so basic, it is one of the fundamental things God has given us. Perhaps the reason a lot of people don’t feel it is that they just don’t have time. They never seem able to stop long enough to allow anything to break through. It certainly is not something inaccessible to the human race.
It doesn’t stop there, either. After “I am” there is “I am loved.”
Yes, and love is not just a sentiment. Love is being itself. It’s like a spring coming up out of the ground of our own depths. “I am gift.” All that I am is something that’s given, and given freely. Being doesn’t cost anything. There’s no price tag, no strings attached. It’s simply given.
That’s when we know we’re dependent on God and that God is our life.
Exactly. Then we can respond with a complete yes. But this basic sense of our own being can be blocked, maybe by a refusal to take things in terms of gift, or by our not wanting to have to say thanks to anybody. Or maybe we want to have life on our own terms, as if it were not a gift but my due. This attitude goes back to a legalism which is terrible, precisely because, instead of making it possible to accept life as a gift, welling up from within, I make it something that’s coming to me, something I’m owed. “I’ve fulfilled everything. Where’s the pay? Where’s my merit?”
There’s a classic Zen story about this. An old master went from India to China to see the emperor, who was already a Buddhist. The emperor said to the Zen master: “I have built temples, put up pagodas, and started monasteries. What is my reward?” And the master replied: “You don’t get any. There’s no reward for you.” The emperor was all shook up, thought about it, and after a while realized what was meant: If you need something else as a reward, your giving is a fiction.
John Wu, a wonderful fellow, a convert, and a former Catholic ambassador to the Vatican, has written a lot of books and has taught at Seton Hall College for a long time. After translating the Gospel of Saint John into Chinese, he became acquainted with the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila. To his amazement he discovered that she had a lot of ideas very much like those of the old Chinese Taoist philosophers. Dr. Wu really understands this idea of no merit. He went to see Pius XII and got into a disagreement with him because Pius XII said, “Oh, Dr. Wu, you with your wife and your beautiful children! All these are the reward of your virtues.” And Wu said, “No, no. No reward!” “Yes, it’s the reward.” “No, no reward!” Dr. Wu has a very good book on the interior life called The Interior Carmel, which is just full of this kind of insight.
There’s another Zen story about a fellow who wanted to be a hermit. A rich lady gave him a hermitage at the end of her property. After he had been there about ten years, his benefactor wanted to see if he had made any progress, so she sent down a woman of easy morals to visit him. The woman went to the hermitage, the fellow looked at her blankly, and she went away. When the benefactor went to see him, she said, “I understand someone came to see you. What happened?” He answered, “Nothing.” “Did you feel anything?” “I felt like a stone.” “Well, you can get out of here,” she said, “you’re a fake.” “What do you mean? I’m a virtuous man.” But she said, “Didn’t you feel any compassion?” The man was caught on the old ascetic ideal of “You can’t faze me, I feel nothing.” Just the old ego.
How can we foster this compassion in our lives, feel more for people who are suffering? Do you think we need the daily news in order to be more aware?
We do need to have some access to information about our world, some good magazines and papers. Of course, if you watch TV and read papers constantly, you lose perspective, things get muddied. Anyone who is in the business will tell you that. Political commentators know that if you get immersed in too much news analysis you no longer see anything clearly. It’s essential to our life that we have and keep a special perspective. So there’s a need to have selected sources available in our communities. No one should have to read them. But anybody who wants to should have access to them.
Another reason why we need to have some of these things available is that if you’re not able to get the news, you can get an exaggerated feeling about how terribly important it is to find out what’s going on. When I came to Gethsemani it was just the opposite. The country went to war and the community didn’t know it for a week. Pearl Harbor happened on a Sunday and current news items were announced early on Sunday, so it was not until a whole week later that we heard about it. Now, if we had non-commercial TV, I could see its being available all the time. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with TV, it’s just a matter of how it’s used.
Marshall McLuhan is a person you need to know about. His thought is not always easy to follow, but he’s saying that the era of print has come to an end. Before the printing press, we lived in an oral culture in which everything was the spoken word. The invention of print had a great effect on people. It tended to isolate them, whereas the living word implies speakers and hearers. With a book, you can just open it and disappear behind the pages. In classical monastic times, reading did not isolate, because it was done aloud. It was a long time before people just sat and read silently. Saint Ambrose was an exception; he was remarkable for reading silently.
McLuhan points out that now we have masses and masses of printed paper coming out, so much so that people have given up reading. Twenty-eight thousand books are published every year in this country, not counting magazines, papers, catalogues, manuals, and other things. This has a great negative effect on people. The mentality of someone nourished on printed words is different from the person who learns in a predominantly oral culture. TV helps to develop this oral culture, it influences the way people think. Young people who have grown up on TV are apt to be much more intuitive about things that a reading person may not even be aware of, because TV has so much immediacy. Of course, there’s a lot of junk on TV, too. McLuhan doesn’t seem to take that into account.
I think this explains why young people coming into our life can have such a hard time, because it’s so diametrically opposed to this kind of impressionistic culture.
In one way, though, we’re closer to them, because books aren’t essential to us, either. Monastic life is largely oral, even though from the beginning there was some insistence on learning how to read. We’ve always primarily had a culture of the living word, rather than of writing. The way to live our life is transmitted to us mostly by direct speech. The fact is, of course, that both oral and written communication are necessary. Tapes are part of this, too. Commercial movies can be pretty awful, but there are movies—some may be a bit offbeat or underground—that are worthwhile. Even with a small portable camera some artistic and interesting things can be done. With all of this, it’s just a question of balance. Seminars can also be a great help to people like us, something like what we’re doing here, no heavy planned agendas, no workshops, but just meeting and gathering together to share experiences. All kinds of possibilities open up in this way.
Before we fold up these sessions we really ought to do a little dreaming out loud. Maybe we could set up some kind of center, nothing official about it, where people like us could come and meet. Maybe invite interesting persons and pick up leads on all sorts of new things. We’d have to be very careful not to turn it into just another summer school or just another workshop. This is a non-workshop, we should be anti-workshop. None of this lecture business. Just keep it on an informal basis, nothing prepared, just let things surface. It would be a place where contemplative religious could meet with people in different fields for some account of firsthand experiences, also a place where we could do some purifying of the air. If we could be in dialogue with people looking for meaningful spiritual experience, that could be a good thing, too.
Copyright © 1992 by the Merton Legacy Trust