Enter Into the Great and Disturbing Silence

I just finished watching a fascinating documentary, called “Into Great Silence”. This movie is about the Carthusian monks, who are considered the strictest order within the Catholic Church.  The Carthusian monks seek God in solitude on three levels: separation from the world, life in his cell, and inner solitude or ‘solitude of the heart.”

In the monastery, every monk lives in a room or a “cell” as they are called. There he spends the larger part of his day alone. These monks are extreme hermits where virtually no visitor’s are allowed.  That is why it is especially valuable and unique that they allowed themselves to be filmed for this extraordinary documentary.

The monk’s lives are lived in a world of silence. Of course, since they have a vow of silence, the documentary was in complete silence.  No talking and no narration.  The only noise are the occasional chiming of the bells or the Gregorian chants that take place during their time in the chapel.

When you sit there and watch this completely silent movie, it draws you into their world. I felt the silence encompass me.  The level of silence that the monks experience is something we don’t often have in our “modern” world.

On one level, it was a pleasant experience to feel quiet, still and silent.  Yet on another level it was at times disturbing and uncomfortable.  For the “modern” Christian, silence is disturbing. In our culture we are accustomed to the many noises in our life.  Traffic, television, radio, conversation…it all contributes to the constant cacophony of noise and distraction.

Many of us would find it difficult, next to impossible, to ever escape the noise.  And you don’t have to be living within the city just to experience noise.  Even in the supposed quiet suburbs there is a constant clatter of noise. The New York Times quotes a study that illustrates that point ,

Acoustical engineers have found that suburbia is nearly as noisy as urban centers:

Their findings, delivered on June 8 in Salt Lake City at the 153rd biannual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, indicate that the noise level in the average suburb is approaching the noise level in the average city. “The level of noise in the urban and rural areas we tested remained pretty consistent with the 1970 E.P.A. figures” — about 59 decibels in the city and 43 in the country, Mr. Szymanski said. But in the suburbs, the average ambient noise level was 56 decibels — a whisper less than the average noise level in the average city, and 7 decibels higher than it was in 1970. According to a Census Bureau survey, noise is the #1 “neighborhood complaint,” ahead of crime, odors and poor public services.

Although, this report is only focused on the sounds that fill the air, I think that there are other “noises” that permeate all around us in addition to just the “audio” noise.

These other noises in our culture are much more subtle and insidious. These “noises” don’t jar you out of bed in the middle of the night. They don’t cause you to cover your ears. They are the noises of busyness, pursuit of wealth and pleasure.  These “cultural” noises distract us and anesthetize us to the realities around us.

What often happens is that we use all of these noises around us to buffet and protect ourselves from the pains and realities of our life. We allow our busyness to numb us to the hurts. We distract ourselves with pleasure from movies, the internet and music to drown out the relational brokenness, pain and loss. We allow ourselves to run from one activity to another, so that we don’t have the time to think or feel.  When we constantly surround ourselves with these noises we also mute and drown out God’s voice.

Silence is an important spiritual discipline.  Perhaps many of us will never go to the extreme of taking a vow of silence and living in a monastery.  But it is important that we remain still and quiet before the Lord at times during our day and that we receive God’s encouragement for us – “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  Perhaps we may be still and silent early in the morning or we may take time to reflect at night before bed.  We might spend time alone in the car – with the radio off.  Perhaps a quiet lunch in the park some weekday afternoon.  It doesn’t necessarily matter where or when, but do what you can to block out the noise that attempts to invade your life.  Be still.  Meditate on God’s Word.  Listen.  Let God speak to you and into your life.

Watching a 2 1/2 hour documentary on monks might just be a start as you prepare yourself for times of silence.  Watch “Into Great Silence”. Watch it alone.  Watch it while being still and in silence. And enter into the world of the monastery and the life of solitude and silence.

About Bill Reichart
  • http://thewaterspout.wordpress.com Hooser

    But does our culture really need more individualism, silence, and navel gazing? I think out problem is that we rebel against community. Our triune God is by nature a community. Utter silence seems to reflect a distant and uninvolved God. Surely there is a time to everything, but I remain a skeptic of whether silence is really what we need now. Why can’t we celebrate noise? The noise of young children playing? The noise of a band practice? The noise of a summer barbecue?

    Hoosers last blog post..Recent Books

  • David Dunham

    very interesting Bill! A Great reminder that Christians can lose focus in the midst of culture. We forget who God is and who we are in comparison to Him. We would do well to remember the Psalm, “Be still and know that I am God!”

    Good word brother. I may have to force myself to do this…but I think I’ll give it a shot!

  • David Dunham

    Hooser,

    I think your concerns are legitimate, but I hardly think the solution is to throw out all solitude! Jesus certainly spent time in solitude “He got alone to pray!” The point isn’t just “being alone,” at least not for the Christian…but being alone with God and holy thoughts!

  • http://www.provocativechurch.com Bill Reichart

    Good comments everyone. I am not saying that we should emulate the monastic extreme. But I know that my world is filled with noise. Of course some of it good. My kids laughing. The birds singing. The rustling of leaves. An evening conversation over coffee. All good. But I know that my life has a lot of unnecessary noise that often distracts and drowns out the voice of God. I can use noise to avoid God. And that is not a good thing. Silence is a discipline, and I think in our culture, and particularly my life, it is helpful to exercise that discipline occasionally.

    Bill Reicharts last blog post..Enter Into the Great and Disturbing Silence

  • Mink

    Perhaps we could make a semantic distinction between “sound” and “noise” here. I suspect the monks have far more reverence for and awareness of sound and hearing than those of us immersed in a noisy world. By taking away a lot of auditory clutter, they’ve made it easier to hear and appreciate the sounds that nourish humans and bear God’s grace.

    By evacuating from the world of “noise” they have put themselves in a posture to do an act of worship that many of us cannot – to come in stillness before God constantly, as individuals but also as a committed Christian community. We are upheld in ways we will not know until heaven by the faithful and sacrificial prayers of the seemingly extreme monastics.

    They work to balance the far greater number of us at the other extreme – we who no longer talk to fellow train commuters but isolate ourselves with our iPod, and who have the radio playing in the car at all times, and who spend our time in nature mowing or jet-skiing in it rather than listening to it.

    @Hooser: We who are noise-immersed manage to navel-gaze and disconnect from others far more than any monks I’ve spent time with. I’ve known plenty of noise-o-philes who were sardonic jerks. I suspect the noise/silence issue does not wholly determine a person’s level of self-absorption. Furthermore, monasteries exist to prevent unhealthy individualism, and cultivate individual growth and healing through Christ and His Church. Every society needs more community of the type they model.

    Into Great Silence provoked me to remember and re-acknowledge the value of silence – of the way it allows a unique way of vital connection with God, and the way it heals us from the burden that constant noise (self-inflicted or out of our control) lays on our bodies, minds and souls, and of the way it allows us to return to sound with greater alertness and appreciation of what a gift sound is.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/featured/podcast-22-pop-cultures-startling-lack-of-restraint-viol Richard Clark

    Bill, I tried this today but fell asleep within 10 minutes.

  • Alan Noble

    Rich,

    I bet it was some pretty restful silence!

  • http://www.provocativechurch.com Bill Reichart

    Rich,

    LOL, It helps to stay awake if you don’t close your eyes and lay under the covers. :-)

    Bill Reicharts last blog post..Christian College Students Don’t Know Christianity

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Ah, back from a week and a half in New Mexico and ready to nitpick!

    I’d just like to point out that silence and stillness have no intrinsic tie to one another. In fact, so loose is the tie that we might even say that they have nothing to do with each other. The stillness of heart that we prize as believers is an internal condition unrelated to either stillness of body or stillness of mouth. Presumably, even these monks wouldn’t presume that such stillness refers to a stillness of the mind—for meditation necessarily entails a certain fleetness of the mind (excepting perhaps transcendental meditation, which bears striking little resemblance to Christian meditation).

    It any case, a biblical stillness of mind seems rather to point to a liberation from worry—and not to simply taking care of one’s anxieties so that they no longer afflict, but to finding a true and honest Sabbath rest in one’s identity in Christ.

    As far as Jesus heading off to mountaintops, I may be wrong, but we are not told his motivation for doing so (save for the insinuation once or twice that he was hiding himself from the zealotry of those who did not understand his plan). And so it seems a bit presumptuous (and perhaps blasphemous) to give him a motivation. Of course, I could be mistaken and we could be given a motive for his separation, but without that motive, we can’t really use his mountain solitudes as an example to us.

    As far as monks go, their segregation from the world, their vows of silence, and their monastic living do not seem so very compatible with the church as we see it revealed in Scripture—a body well engaged in the world and culture about it.

    @Mink – One person’s sound is another’s noise. And vice versa. And still, sound or noise, none of this has to do with biblical stillness.

    As far as monasteries providing community, I suppose they do provide a particular brand of community—but its a decisively narrow brand. And it does little for the benefit of the greater body of Christ. It’s like taking denominationalism (something that is already an embarrassment to the church) to an unhealthy extreme.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • http://www.provocativechurch.com Bill Reichart

    @Dane,

    Great to have you back! CAPC hasn’t been the same without you brother.

    Again I don’t this post to be misunderstood as an endorsement of monasticism. I think there are a lot of problems and concerns with a separate and merely personal pious life. But I was using these monks as a springboard for something that I am lacking in my modern life – solitude and stillness.

    I purposefully allow noise and busyness in my life to avoid God. And that is a problem. I would disagree with you in this statement.
    “The stillness of heart that we prize as believers is an internal condition unrelated to either stillness of body or stillness of mouth.”

    I think that view (separate the soul from the body) is more of a Platonic notion and not a biblical one.

    What we do with our body is not irrelevant to our soul. If the body was irrelevant than the bodily resurrection would be as well, as well as our future resurrection.

    Bill Reicharts last blog post..Christian College Students Don’t Know Christianity

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Bill – Thanks for the warm welcome back! I think we may be taking past each other because I wasn’t talking about any such Platonic division. I was merely saying that what Scripture means by the idiom of stillness doesn’t relate to either kinetic stillness or even quietude. In truth, it doesn’t relate to stillness in any normal sense (hence it being idiom). Instead, stillness (in this biblical sense) conveys the idea of rest in Christ.

    And since rest in Christ is a state in which we ideally find ourselves at all times (whether in solitude or in company, whether in silence or cacophony, whether in action or inaction), it cannot be related to the state of our circumstance. And we shouldn’t look to molding our circumstances to try to assist what is ultimately wrought by grace in faith.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • Alan Noble

    I have nothing to add to this conversation except: “yay for the Dane coming home”!

    I was about to contact the authorities.

    “Yes officer, well at a webzine I write for we have a regular commenter who has not been on for a week and a half. Needless to say we are concerned. Either he has found another site or he has been kidnapped. We suspect the latter.”

    Next time please leave a comment clearly outlining your itinerary and a contact number in case we need some emergency nitpicking or general intellectual shenanigans.

    No but seriously, it was weird when you were gone.

  • http://www.provocativechurch.com Bill Reichart

    @Dane. Your point is received and I agree with it. Resting in Christ is a work of His grace. That is more substantial than “cosmetic” stillness or rest that we may try to manufacture.

    Bill Reicharts last blog post..Christian College Students Don’t Know Christianity

  • http://www.provocativechurch.com Bill Reichart

    BTW, what is the CAPC record for comments? Are we anywhere close to breaking it?

    Bill Reicharts last blog post..Christian College Students Don’t Know Christianity

  • http://www.provocativechurch.com Bill Reichart

    Oh wait, “Is this Website Sin?” has 24 comments…hmmm I better just “sit down, shut up and remain silent”

    Bill Reicharts last blog post..Christian College Students Don’t Know Christianity

  • David Dunham

    I think a couple of posts are up in the 30s!

  • Alan Noble

    Scott’s post on the Failure of Christian Hip-Hop has 71 comments.

  • http://www.provocativechurch.com Bill Reichart

    @Alan Dang! that’s a lot. Never mind my earlier question. A post about Monks isn’t going to reach 71 comments, unless they were Monk Rappers or something like that.

    Bill Reicharts last blog post..Christian College Students Don’t Know Christianity

  • Matt

    Good article, though the film sounds a little boring, at least for lack of description. Watching 2 1/2 hours of silent monks…doing what?

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Matt – It’s not as bad as it sounds. They mostly just swordfight and play cards (Solitaire and Texas Hold ‘Em seem to be favourites but there was one scene in which the Abbess and a few others were playing Bang!).

    Other than that, they doing shadow puppets, carve pumpkins, set up slot car racing, and appear to use model train construction as a means of meditation. Oh, and Bill wasn’t totally right about it. They do break silence over the credits. Apparently, their vows of silence are only for a term and then they expire, giving the monks a couple days to speak before going back into silence—so the film-makers waited for a couple of these terms to end (they happened to coincide with each other) and the arranged those monks to do some karaoke over the closing credits. They’re better than you’d think.

    It wasn’t the best two hours I’d ever spent, but it was entertaining in its own right. Except for when the ditchdigger killed the otter. That was just disturbing.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • Carissa Smith

    I really love reading about monasticism and visiting monasteries, but, oddly, I couldn’t finish this film. Monastics usually follow either the via affirmativa (in my view, much more incarnational and involved in the beauty God has placed in the world) or the via negativa (more ascetic and silence-focused, and reminding me more of Eastern spirituality/philosophy). These two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive–obviously, some degree of silence is necessary to appreciate the beauty of the world. Maybe the film was just too “via negativa” for me. Or maybe I just like talk-y movies too much.

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