"There are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence."
-- Saint Benedict
A common misunderstanding of Cistercian monks and nuns is the erroneous belief that they make a "vow of silence." In fact, no such vow has ever been part of Christian monastic life, Cistercian or otherwise. Theologically speaking, a vow is a sacred promise made to God, and therefore is regarded as both serious and binding. Like marriage vows, monastic vows are specific, intended for life, and relational in character: they govern how monks relate to each other and to God. Cistercian monastic vows include promises of obedience, stability, and conversion of life.
But to say there is no "vow of silence" is not to suggest that silence has no place in monastic life. Monks and nuns embrace silence, and most monasteries are places characterized by profound, restful quiet—so that even casual visitors are requested to refrain from unnecessary speech. But such absence of speech and laughter and other types of human-made noise is not about a vow so much as a charism (a gift) that monastics seek to cultivate in their lives—and to share with us non-monastics when we visit them.
Think of it this way: in marriage, a couple exchanges vows that give shape to the promises they make to one another (and God). The most well-known of such vows are immediately recognizable: "to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." Such vows promise a marriage shaped by fidelity and perseverance, regardless of the vicissitudes of life.
But what such vows do not, and cannot, regulate is the heart of each spouse. A commitment to "have and to hold . . . till death do us part" does not guarantee a happy marriage, sad to say. We can scrupulously observe all the external requirements of marriage-as-an-institution, but the resulting union could nevertheless be spiritually empty, devoid of love or warmth. As important as such vowed values like fidelity and perseverance are to a good marriage, the spirit of a truly loving bond—intimacy, warmth, friendship, trust, vulnerability, kindness --ultimately depends on the condition of the spouses' hearts, which can never be regulated by a vow.
The silence of a monastic is like the intimacy and vulnerability of a marriage. It emerges from a place deep within the heart of the nun or monk. True spiritual silence is far more than the mere absence of noise; just as true love is far more than the absence of hatred or fear. Silence, embraced for spiritual reasons, opens us up to the hidden presence of God in our lives. Such hidden presence is subtle, and cannot be well expressed in words—for words, even those printed on a page or computer screen, paradoxically signify the absence of silence. The silence of God can never fully be explained but must simply be experienced—rather like love within a good marriage, which can never be fully captured by words but can only be lived into by those fortunate enough to enjoy a thriving union.
It is only out of humility that I can write these words, for as a layperson, who am I to comment on the experience of monks or nuns? But I'm taking the risk of sharing these thoughts anyway, for I believe that the silence of monastics is a reminder to all people of faith—even those of us who do not live in a cloister—to make room in our lives for at least a modicum of silence, hopefully every day.But just as monks do not reduce restraint of speech to a vowed act, it would be equally futile to try to regulate our quiet in any kind of legalistic way.
Silence is an invitation, not an obligation. We are invited into intimacy with a hidden God. But such intimacy can only be gently cultivated, over time, in a willing heart and an open mind. The Supremes, and later Phil Collins, pointed out "you can't hurry love." Likewise, you can't force silence. All we can do is allow it.