Why Silence?

Into Great Silence“Into Great Silence” is a gorgeous documentary on the lives of the Carthusian monks living at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in France.  To achieve a more accurate depiction of monastery life, there is no narrator, no background music, and only one interview throughout the entire two-and-a-half-hour-long movie.  The viewer sees the monks at prayer and at work in silence, while occasionally a bible verse will be presented as a rhythmic meditation on the call to silence.  The monks live and breathe the presence of God, and their lifestyle exudes an air of holiness.  It is a beautiful documentary of the contemplative life that is held to critical acclaim.  So what did I do when I watched it?

I dozed off.

There is something very irking about silence in my 21st century world, one in which I can listen to music anywhere and anytime, where entertainment is usually loud and on a screen, and I can talk to anyone I want instantly on my phone.  Even in the world of prayer, it’s hard to really be quiet.  Silence seems like such an absence.  How can we learn anything from silence if you can’t hear anything in silence?  It feels like being deaf.  Sometimes the way silence is valued is so mysterious and unfathomable.  It is a particularly troublesome concept for me, for my theology-of-the-body-inundated background recoils at the apparent lack of actions of love of neighbor.  I know in my head that silence must have powerful effects and is a holy way to pray, but it is one of those things that my heart finds difficult to accept.


I mentioned to a friend that I had watched “Into Great Silence” and my difficulties with paying attention and understanding its concepts.  She is much wiser than I, and said something that put everything right back into perspective.  She pointed me back to the paradox of it all, that silence really is for relationship, a much deeper relationship than what is built on simple, human words.  Silence doesn’t make sense to the world, but it does on a supernatural level.  When we are quiet, that is when relationship deepens the most, because we allow ourselves to simply BE in His presence.  The Carthusian statutes say this on silence:

Our supreme quest and goal is to find God in solitude and silence.  There, indeed, as man with his friend, do the Lord and his servant often speak together; there is the faithful soul frequently united with the Word of God; there is the bride made one with her Spouse; there is earth joined to heaven, the divine to the human.  (Book 2, Chapter 12)

Silence is indeed beautiful because it is a level of supernatural communion.  But because it is supernatural, it is also very difficult, and may seem pointless or dry.  From what I can tell, only those who practice the way of silence really understand its power.  The Carthusian statutes also admit this:

God has led his servant into solitude to speak to his heart; but he alone who listens in silence hears the whisper of the gentle breeze that reveals the presence of the Lord.  In the early stages of our Carthusian life, we may find silence a toilsome burden; however, if we are faithful, there will gradually be born within us of our silence something that will draw us on to still greater silence.  (Book 2, Chapter 14)

Spending time in silence might very well be like making ourselves deaf, but I think it’s important to remember that it is the deaf that Christ makes to hear.  It is He Who will transform our silence into intimacy.  We need not worry that we are not enough.

In the silence of the heart, You speak

And it is there that I will know You

And You will know me.


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