March 11, 2009

About silence


For six of the eight days I spent at Southern Monastery, I observed silence. I did not speak. Those who know me in real life -- I'm a talkative extrovert -- may find that hard to believe. The silence was both easier than I thought would be, and harder.

I'm used to silence on the days I work at home. I never turn on a television set or a radio. I'm not someone who likes background music. So my house -- although it's crowded in the evenings and filled with live music on weekends -- is mostly silent during the day, when I'm writing or grading papers or reading. When I was in my room at the monastery, writing or reading, or taking walks around the grounds, or sitting in the church, the quiet seemed completely normal.

What felt strange was staying silent when I came into contact with people -- in the hallways, at meals, in the gardens. Especially the meals. It felt odd to sit at a table with other retreatants and exchange nothing more than a smile. At first, it caused me to eat incredibly fast. Talking is what normally slows me down. So I'd go to lunch, get a tray full of food, and be done in about five minutes flat. By the end of the week, the quiet in the dining room was beginning to feel normal, and I was able to relax and drink a cup of hot tea after my meal. Most of the retreatants looked down at their plates when they were eating, and I had the distinct feeling, as I'd gaze around the room, that I was the lone extrovert in a sea of introverts. Or perhaps they were all thinking deep thoughts.

Silence meant that my thoughts were not interrupted. I can remember the days of trying to write in a houseful of small children, and being at a monastery was the opposite of that. Even meals or snacks or walks didn't break my concentration. I've never been able to focus so intently on my writing. I was meditating three times each day, and going to some of the services in the church, but in the silence, I was able to move from meditation to writing to prayer and back again without any distractions. It's hard to describe the intensity of spending so much time with myself, with no one else to take care of.

The other people at the retreat house had come for a structured retreat -- with talks given by a retreat leader in the big conference room, a set schedule of things to do. There were about forty of them altogether, moving quietly along the hallways or eating at the tables in the dining room, or joining the monks for prayer in the church. But then, on Sunday, that particular scheduled retreat was over, and everyone went home. Everyone.

Late afternoon, when I padded down to the kitchen in sweatpants and a t-shirt to refill my tea mug, I noticed that the silence in the building had a different quality to it. No footsteps. No coughing. No clink of mugs. The housekeeping staff, who normally could be found near the kitchen, had gone home. The God-love-you Woman, who ran the little office near the entrance and was so helpful that she'd brought a quart of soy milk for me to have on my cereal, had locked her door and gone home. The parking lot outside the retreat house was empty.

When I went to Compline at the end of the day, the big church held about forty monks. And me. Everyone else was gone. As tradition dictates, Compline was held in the darkness. I could just make out the outlines of the monks in their cream robes as they sang and chanted, but I suspect that in my red fleece and dark jeans, I was invisible. When the church bell rang for the last time, the monks disappeared into their enclosure, on the far side of the church. These hours after Compline are called the Great Silence, and for most of the monks, whose day starts at 3:30 am, the Great Silence means bedtime.

As I walked back into the dark retreat house, I was alone. From my window, I could see the dark shape of the church looming over me, with its high, arched windows and the cross held up to the sky. The wind was howling -- snow was still falling -- and I could hear what sounded to me like coyotes. I felt like I had strayed into a Gothic novel, or perhaps a spooky episode of the Simpsons.

I stayed up and wrote as long as I could, and then slept until the church bells rang, just outside my window, for Vigils at 4 a.m. I didn't get dressed and go to prayer, but stayed in bed, listening to the wind push its way through cracks in the inefficient windows. Despite the haunting darkness, my thoughts were calm and comforting, not like the demon thoughts I often have during February. Perhaps it was all those monks just on the other side of the stone wall, praying.


heidi said...

That sounds both cool and spooky!

Not sure how i'd do with a week of silence.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

I was trying to imagine not talking for six days, particularly around people and through meals. I can't imagine succeeding without being able to pantomime at least.

It sounds like you had a really cool week.

Rana said...

Mmm. I'm sitting here enjoying the silence.

My experience with silence is similar to yours - I spend much of each day alone, without music, and the only conversation being that between me and the cat. So silence doesn't bother me.

But when I'm around people I like to talk!

Michelle said...

Back from 30 days in silence, I can relate. I can still move from writing to a walk and back again without disturbing my concentration. (Though the arrival of the kids home is another story...)

Arvind said...

Man you're prolific!! It was just a few days back that I checked out your blog, and you've already got a dozen more posts after that?? :-O

I loved this post. The description of the entire experience was just beautiful! I'm also very comfortable with long silences when alone, but very talkative with others around. When I used to believe in re-incarnation, I would think I must've been a monk in an earlier life.

jo(e) said...

Arvind: Oh, I'm usually pretty consistent -- I post once each day. But I was offline for the week at the monastery and there's this weird time lag -- I'm writing about what I did LAST WEEK. So I'm trying to catch up.

Whenever I'm at a monastery, I always think, "I could be a monk ...."

Jennifer said...

Have you ever read Virgin Time by Patricia Hampl? (Or have I asked you this already?) I always think of it when you write of your monastery time, and the last time I re-read it I thought of some of your posts.

jo(e) said...

Jennifer: I haven't ... I'll have to put in on my list of books to read.

Patricia said...

I live not too far--more north and west--from the monastery but have never visited it, although I'm well aware of its existence. Your photos and words have given me fresh eyes for my part of the world. The red earth that's so familiar to me, sadly to the point of invisibility, does seem through your eyes wonderous and strange. Thank you for helping me to see anew the beauty that surrounds me daily. Come back and visit us here when it's hot as hell, lush, humid, and alive with all sorts of critters, big and small. And, those might have been coyotes you heard. In the last few years they've moved into our neck of the woods and give all appearances of liking it enough to stick around for a while.

Lomagirl said...

The bliss of not having anyone interrupt your thoughts. It's been a long time since I've had that- usually bits and pieces in the car- but I don't think that really counts.

niobe said...

I guess I find silence far too easy. I talk to people because, well, because I have to, but it always takes a fair amount of energy and conscious thought.

It shouldn't be, but it's always faintly surprising to learn that everyone isn't just like me.

julieunplugged said...

Your post soothes me. I would love that. Unplugging (ironically my blog name, yet not my lifestyle!) is hard for me and yet seems essential somehow.

I love your writing.

Cloudscome said...

Since I've been home recouperaating from two surgeries in the past two months I have spent a lot of time home alone in the quiet. There have been some really horrible bits but there are also some things I really love about it. The lack of pressure, the silence, the absence of other's needing me for multiple things all the time. I am trying to make this a retreat of sorts. Your posts have inspired me to focus more on that in the next couple weeks as I get better and it gets easier. I am going to work towards a real retreat at a convent too. Silence + community is very healing.