By Breanna Mekuly
On developing our interior lives, Sister Joan Chittister explains the Benedictine practice of silence. “Silence lays us open to possibilities, to people, to ideas we would have otherwise forever scorned,” she says in her book The Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life. When we begin to quiet ourselves and listen to the world around us, we begin to see the needs and the struggles of the world. Silence allows us to rest from our own “noise within—our desires that plague us, our worries that deplete us, our thoughts that agitate us—that we must calm.” When we rest from the continual interior dialogue, we allow space for God to work within us.
But silence is so challenging! We live in a world of instant gratification with so much at the touch of a screen. Our consumeristic culture is over-saturated with distractions: advertisements, pictures, words, colors and more all designed to grab our attention.
The kind of silence Sister Joan describes is not just closing one’s mouth and refusing to talk all day. It especially is not a silence that allows us to ignore those in need in order to keep quiet. Rather, this is a silence of distractions, a suppression of things that keep us from recognizing the sacred all around us. It is a silence that allows us to have “respect for others, a sense of place, a spirit of peace.” This type of Benedictine silence encourages thoughtful communication in which one is open to listening and pondering rather than rushed to speak.
Silence like this can be difficult in this age of technology. Think about the last time you sat alone waiting for something, like in a doctor’s office or a salon or even waiting in line at the grocery store. How easy it is to pull out our smart phones and busy ourselves looking something random on the internet or texting someone for fun or checking Instagram. How easy it is to distract ourselves! And how often we do it! But why? Why is it uncomfortable to sit somewhere just staring into space rather than appearing to be busy? Why do we have to physically go to a different location in order to take a retreat, to silence the distractions, to take time to listen to God and the world around us?
Sister Joan suggests that those who are dedicated to meaningful engagement, a common vision (evolving from Scripture and needs of the era), and dedication are enough to create a Monastery of the Heart, a community of people seeking God. This sort of community can support and hold one another accountable to silence.
For example, I lived with the Erie Benedictine Sisters for a few weeks this summer. Before living with them, my days had no regularity. I worked odd hours and so slept odd hours. If it were nice out, I spent time outside. If it were cold or rainy, I watched random TV shows to pass the time away until I went to work again. The only consistency was that each day I ate and I walked my dog. But even the time of doing these things depended on my work schedule.
With the sisters, I had a set regular schedule to follow. Emerged in the monastic way of life, my day was organized around prayer, communal meals, communal work, and personal downtime. I love it.
And I love it mostly because the unnecessary distractions that had once occupied my free time are mostly gone. Where I once watched shows to pass the time, I now read. Or go for a long walk outside. Or sit with an older Sister and ask her to tell me the details of her life. That is to say, my life seems to be feeling more meaningful. Like I have something to do with my time, something that is worthwhile, most of the time at least.
I do still struggle. I struggle with the silence because when getting rid of the distractions, I also find myself at a loss for what to do. But here I am finally beginning to find time for “retreat, reflection, Sabbath, and soul-space,” as Sister Joan says, that “are the essence of the monastic spirit.”
Breanna Mekuly is currently interning for Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. Before working with Sister Joan, Breanna graduated in 2014 from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a masters in theological studies and an emphasis in biomedical ethics. She then worked as a university minister at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, WI. Later this summer, Mekuly will be moving to Indiana to live, pray and work with a group of sisters who raise chickens, bees and alpacas on an organic farm.