March 21, July 21, November 20
Monastics should diligently cultivate silence at all times, but especially at night. Accordingly, this will always be the arrangement whether for fast days or for ordinary days. When there are two meals, all the monks will sit together immediately after rising from supper. Someone should read from the ‘Conferences’ or the ‘Lives’ of the Fathers or at any rate something else that will benefit the hearers, but not the Heptateuch or the Book of Kings, because it will not be good for those of weak understanding to hear these writings at that hour; they should be read at other times.
On fast days there is to be a short interval between Vespers and the reading of the ‘Conferences’, as we have indicated. Then let four or five pages be read, or as many as time permits. This reading period will allow for all to come together, in case any were engaged in assigned tasks. When all have assembled, they should pray Compline, and on leaving Compline, no on will be permitted to speak further. If anyone is found to transgress this rule of silence, they must be subjected to severe punishment, except on occasions when guests require attention or the abbot wishes to give someone a command, but even this is to be done with the utmost seriousness and proper restraint.
The request to embrace and to live in silence is consistent throughout the rule, whether this invitation is spoken or unspoken. It is faithful to the nature of silence that the request for silence not be regularly spoken. A community of silence allows silence to ‘speak’ and instruct through their lifestyle of silence. Words are only needed when necessary.
Chapter 42 uses words in its emphasis on silence. Here the words are needed because they instruct us in a way to live into a night that reverences silence uncovered by the night. At night life pauses; the activity of the day stops. At night, stillness rises with its invitation to embrace silence. Within the experience of external stillness, we can experience the nature of our internal silence.
This request is not just for monastics, be they monks or oblates. The value of silence is something known to people of all faiths or of no faith who cherish the contemplative roots of humanity.
To be attentive and consistent in the promotion and growth of silence in one’s life is to give our lives to silence. We do this because, as many have noted before us, silence is the language of God. Within stillness and silence divinity has its Being. Within stillness and silence, we experience our being in this Being. Silence then, embraces us into life; in it we become, bit by bit and ever more brightly, the silent glory of God.
In silence we encounter a rock-like inner stability that nothing and no-one else in life can provide. Silence is essential to our life. Without it we fray. Without it we harden. Without it we are unbalanced. Without it we cannot know the ways God moves in life. So, when silence is uncovered at night Benedict is eager that we do not miss the opportunity to experience it and to test where our internal life is in relation to it.
There are distractions of course. In this time of YouTube and tablet TV, sensory stimulation in the evening can still unsettle the mind. However, in the consistency of a communal routine the invitation to grow in resonance with the stillness and silence of the night is still there. All we need do is stop and notice it.
Meditation, too, is all about cultivating silence – an inner silence. A commitment to the mantra is a commitment to the giving of our lives to silence. The mantra becomes an agent of the transition of our interiority into silence. We simply allow divine love, in emerging stillness, to cultivate our attention in this silence. Contemplative attention grows in silence. A contemplative community, wherever it is found, must somehow serve this growth.
Where is silence in our lives? Do we value it? Are we secretly afraid of it? Is the TV always on, if so, why? Is the radio the ‘muzak’ of our lives, always on in the background? How often are our ears free of headphones and earbuds? Perhaps noise and sound are there to distract us from pain, our suffering. It’s like we self-medicate with noise. Silence is the reality in which our healing happens. In silence the God of silence frees us for life.
The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with our faces unveiled, seeing the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another, as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18, RNJB)