When people think of Benedictine monks, they often equate us with prayer, chant and silence. Most people can understand the prayer and chant part, but for many, the idea of a life of silence is unthinkable. First, let’s correct a common myth about us. Namely, you should know that we Benedictine monks DON’T take a vow of silence. It is true that we have lots of designated times for silence (such as breakfast and dinner, communal prayer time in the Church, walking in the hallways, and the Grand Silence from about 10:00 p.m. to after breakfast the next day). Still, there are ample times to speak outside of those. We are not some kind of social introverts or misfits who can’t function in the world. We can speak just like everyone else, but we do make it our special effort to cultivate more silence in our lives than the average person.
St. Benedict understood that silence is an essential element of monastic life. He outlined this throughout his Rule, but most especially in chapter six. Modern monks like to point out that first word in the Rule is to “Listen”, which can’t be done while talking! God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we should use them in that order. This emphasis on silence is so that we can learn to listen to God more acutely. God speaks to us in the Bible, but also in the depths of our heart and, as we begin to tune into him, we learn to be attentive to his presence in others.
This kind of sensitivity and awareness makes it easier to pray at all times. So a monk seeks to practice a considerable degree of silence and recollection. In Benedictine life, there are times of silence (especially during the night) and there are places, such as a monk’s cell (his room), the library, the reading room, the cloister and the church, where he will be able to discover the solitude which is typical of monastic life.
It can seem a busy life, but it is a measured life; and to balance hard work a monk needs time and space to be on his own. More than that, a monk lives off silence, and a sign of a vocation to the monastic life is the ability to take to it and create it. The earliest monks went into the desert so that their lives could be dominated by this sense of God. In the Bible, the desert is the place where God met his people and made them his own. It is also the place where Christ was tempted, and a monk has to face up to everything in himself which would try to stand in the place where God belongs. People may sometimes feel lonely and for them silence is harsh, but instead of running away, a monk tries to find the silent place in his heart where he can find God. There is a world of difference between loneliness and solitude with God.
Silence also helps build up a healthy community life in the monastery. What binds us together as a human fellowship is the knowledge that we are each trying to answer to God’s call to seek Him. Listening to each other helps us understand and support each other. It is a way of learning reverence for God’s presence in every other human being.
So, while we monks don’t take the VOW of silence, we still seek to cultivate silence as part of our daily lives. It’s incredibly healthy and spiritually beneficial. Most importantly, St. Benedict wrote that it is in this “School of the Lord’s Service” that we are called to “Listen” and grow closer to God.