GotHs + monks = [silent] party

by Stephanie McCullough

Last week before the GotH residents departed for Boston, I posted a blog about silence. It’s on my personal page, and it might be a nice reference/preamble before reading this one, if you so desire. Find it here.

Our monastic retreat was sadly cut short by Mother Nature. She decided that 3–4 feet of snow was insufficient for the area and brought an onslaught of another foot or two. We luckily got out in time and with only minor travel delays. As an aside, I’d never flown JetBlue and it was FANCY.

Despite struggles with weather, our time at the Emery House was positively delightful. Each of us had our own hermitage — an entire little house! — to ourselves. We experienced the rhythm of the Brothers’ lives, participating in all the daily offices (prayers, for you non-Episcopalians like me) and joining them for (always delicious) lunch and dinner. In addition, we had some time with each other to discuss the status and forward movement of our Grace-on-the-Hill community. Because of our GotH time, we didn’t have the chance to get the full experience of their silence.

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The Emery House chapel (clearly from a different season!)

To clarify, it’s not a total silence thing. During the day, they talk when needed for running the retreat center, planning, logistics, meetings, etc. At meals, music is played during speechless lunch/dinner, but breakfast is taken silently. Between compline, the last prayer of the day that begins at 8:00 PM, and about 9:00 AM, the Brothers of SSJE practice what’s called “the greater silence” in which they speak only in case of emergency. That may shatter a few Hollywood visions of silent monks. Before arrival, James’s only idea of monks came from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, so he spent a good deal of travel and talking time quoting it and debating on whether or not to ask the monks if they had seen it. (He eventually did — “Yes, ages ago.”)

Even with the program-mandated talking periods and discussions of weather/travel concerns, the time and space was hugely refreshing. Specifically, the silence was awesome.

Having one’s own little house and not having a laptop or cellphone, in addition to the frigid temperatures that kept us inside whenever possible, made for a heavy isolation. On the one hand that could seem stifling; on the other, it’s a space for rejuvenation. What I presume is most common — what I experienced — is a combination of both. Abbott discussed potential effects of real silence with us on the first evening. She said to be aware of and ready for emotions to bubble up. During some time with one of the monks, Brother James, we spoke extensively about silence. He described that emotional potential with an analogy of building a well. He explained when water is first hit, the pump is kept on for some time to draw water from any and all avenues underground. All of that first water is full of dirt and silt. If the a well builder hits water and immediately closes it up, the water stays dirty. By pumping it out, the good water is drawn into the well and will stay clean. Brother James said that occurs within silence; we tap into all these deep personal sources without the distraction of our worldly noise. This ruckus has been significantly augmented by our nearly ubiquitous tech-obsessions. It’s healthy to metaphorically pump out the long-buried grossness. Sometimes just letting it surface is enough, and other times we need to talk it through with a friend or therapist.

I did experience some of my own bubbling muck within the confines of my cute little hermitage. The calming atmosphere of the space was healing; I journaled furiously and found comfort in the promises of some Pslams. By the end, I had the confidence and tranquility to bring up those issues with relevant parties, and already my anxieties have been relieved.

One of the best things Brother James shared is how the monks consider silence to be not an absence of noise, but instead as a presence of something better. He likened entering silence to a return to an ongoing conversation. Brother James explained that though they take vows of celibacy, their jobs are about falling more in love with the Lord; they look forward to that intimate time. I think of how lovely it feels to just get be in the same room with my long-distance fiancé, and I wonder how it would be to feel that upon each return to my solitary quiet.

Brother James also explained the protection of silence. The monks are a small crew (3 or so at Emery House and about a dozen at the main monastery), and they spend many hours of each day in common space. He sees Brother Keith more often than his brother sees his wife, and the silence makes it simpler and more peaceful. It’s difficult to aggravate each other when quiet prevails.

In my own silent time, I noticed a peculiar, though seemingly predictable, shift in my intrusive songs. I have songs in my head at all times, something I somewhat explained in my initial blog on silence. While at SSJE, my songs took on a certain theme: they were all about God. I wasn’t listening to that music immediately before arrival, and I wasn’t spending all my time in prayer. Yet my head songs cycled just as furiously as ever between taizé chants, old hymns from growing up, St. Andrew’s choir songs, modern/experimental liturgical music, and others. It was bizarre. And also lovely.

It was a true bummer to return home a day early, but the 70 degree weather last Sunday eased the blow quite a bit. Since then I’ve found myself really enjoying my moments of silence, and I’m very aware of my tendency to fill its potential moments — particularly while driving. NPR is just too darn addictive.

My recommendation is to try out the additive presence of silence. Forget the noise of this life for a few minutes and hide your smartphone in a different room (or zipcode) if necessary. After the initial shock of cutting off our many forms of stimulation, you can settle into that daunting posture of reflection and/or seeking, whatever the subject(s) may be. I recently fretted about my rattling, chaotic brain within those periods of silence. I’ve since realized it is possible to slow down even the most rambunctious, cluttered mind. It takes time, but the rewards are glorious. Our monastic fun times taught me how the love of our mighty Creator can be particularly comforting in those settled, silent spaces.

Go in quiet peace, friends.

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