The Sounds of Silence

The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

Paul Simon is said to have conceived his famously poetic ballad in the middle of the night, in his bathroom, with the lights out and tap water running.

No wonder he had to closet himself like that in order to create. It’s about the only way to get away from the modern world’s ceaseless cacophony of noise, piped-in music and ubiquitous babble.

Even paradise is noisy.

In Vieques, for instance, roosters cock-a-doodle-doo through the night and dogs bark round-the-clock.

On Cape Cod, April brings the first crocuses, the first openings of shops and restaurants and the first arrivals of tourist mobs lugging their floofloovers and tartookas, their pantookas, their dafflers and wuzzles.

I served my writing apprenticeship in the City Rooms of daily newspapers, so I’m no stranger to noise. I learned how to block out chatter, shouting and cursing while putting together a news story accurately and succinctly (well, at least succinctly).

But wherever I go, I can’t seem to escape the latest madness-inducing caterwauling – the vapid pop music that saturates stores, shopping malls, airports and almost every other public space. I am forced to endure the wailing of panties-less Miley Cyrus even while I pump gasoline!

To seek a higher, truer -- and quieter -- paradise, I have been on retreat this week at St. Joseph’s Abbey, the Trappist monastery in Spencer, MA.

This monastery is Cistercian of the Strict Observance, the order founded in the 12th Century that was home to the late, famed, Catholic monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton.

In fact, I titled my second novel – Silently in the Dark -- after a quote from Merton’s The Monastic Journey:

“Monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark, and by their vital presence purify the air.

  At St. Joseph’s Abbey, Trappist monks listen for the “still, small voice.”
At St. Joseph’s Abbey, Trappist monks listen for the “still, small voice.”

Silence is supreme here from the time the monks rise near three in the morning to begin their prayer and work day.

They speak only when necessary and not at all from 8pm to 8am – the period known as the 

“Grand Silence.” Meals are eaten together, but in silence. Visiting guests, like me, follow the regimen.

What’s the point of all this hush? To give God a chance to get a word in.

It can be puzzling at first, because if we read Psalm 29, it seems that we can’t escape the voice of God:

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire ...

The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh ...

The voice of the Lord makes the oaks to whirl and strips the forests bare ...

The God of glory thunders ...

It seems that the voice of God is earth-shatteringly loud.

And can be – if you listen for it in silence.

The prophet Elijah, for example, sought God in windstorm and earthquake and fire – all the places that the people of his time expected God would occupy. But Elijah heard God only as a “still, small voice.”

In Psalm 46, the Creator himself advises us to, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

For the Trappists, the quiet helps them maintain near-constant focus on God, whose language is silence. In silence, the monks listen for the voice of God.

In joining them this week, I sit quietly and try to rid my mind of its incessant interior monolog, and I turn my full attention to the present moment.

I am alone with my own measured breathing … the sharp knocking of hot water pipes … the drone of a passing airplane … the soft padding of monks’ sandals along cloister corridors … early Spring birdsong outside the window … the muffled flitter of a moth’s wing against a lampshade.

These are the sounds of life around me. I cannot help but hear them.

But what I listen for are the inner sounds of silence. The ones words can’t capture.

And in doing that, I share in a small way the monk’s quiet, lifelong quest -- a finite creature stretching inwardly to discover the infinite.

In my next blog, "Yellow Brick Road"


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 11:01:42 -0400