In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise
By George Prochnik
Hardcover, 352 pages
List price: $26
Listening for the Unknown
On my second night in the monastery, I heard the silence. I was inside the church: a beautiful, vast chamber of limestone blocks that resemble lumpy oatmeal and were quarried from the Iowan earth by the monks themselves in the mid-nineteenth century. The monks had finished compline, the last of the day's seven prayer services, and had filed off into the inner recesses of the monastery, where they would observe the Great Silence, speaking to no one until after mass the next morning. The last of the monks to leave had switched off the lights above the choir, and then the light over the lectern. Though the section of visitors' pews where I sat still had a little illumination, the body of the church was now in total blackness except for the faint flickering of a votive candle suspended high in the distance against the far wall. For the first quarter hour, a few worshippers remained on the benches around me.
Although I sat very quietly, I found my mind busy and loud. Mostly I was reflecting on the service I had just heard, which Brother Alberic, my gracious liaison to the world of the monastery, had described as a kind of lullaby. Compline is lovely, and I was frustrated that I had not been able to find it more profound. These weren't my prayers. I yearned only for more quiet. My thoughts were noisy enough that I half expected to see them break out of my skull and begin dancing a musical number up and down the wooden benches.
Soon the other worshippers departed and I was left alone. For a moment or two, my experience was of literal silence. Then, all at once, there came a ting, a tic, another tic, a tap, and a clang. The sounds came from all around the enormous dark church. They ranged from the verge of inaudibility to the violence of hammer blows; discrete chips of sound and reverberatory gonnngs. Out of nowhere, I was treated to a concert by the sound of heat in the pipes. It was a grand, slightly menacing sound that I had been oblivious to not only during the prayer service but afterward in the din of my mental dithering. And it was worth that long opening pause. The ever-changing sonic punctuation of this empty space — which had first seemed soundless — gave me a tingling sense of elevation. This is it, I told myself. Silence made everything resonate.
And yet . . . Later that night when I retreated to my room, and my euphoria had subsided, I wondered why I had been affected so powerfully. Objectively, the only thing that had happened, after all, was that I had heard the metal of the pipes expanding and contracting as they heated and cooled. Why should that experience have made me feel that I was "hearing the silence"? Why did I feel at that lonely hour that I had found what I was looking for when I came to the monastery?
What brought me to the New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, was the desire to learn from people who had made a lifelong commitment to devout silence. Trappist monks, a branch of the Cistercian order, do not make a vow of total silence, and today there are times when they engage in conversation; but silence is their mother tongue. Saint Benedict, who is credited with founding Western Christian monasticism in the sixth century, most famously at Monte Cassino, southeast of Rome, wrote a document known as the Rule that remains their guide to this day. In the Rule, monks are defined before all else as disciples, and the defining quality of the disciple is "to be silent and listen." Trappists are among the monks known as "contemplatives." Their interaction with the world outside the monastery is minimal. Much of their worship is silent. They study in silence. They work almost entirely in silence. They eat primarily in silence. They pass each other in the monastery corridors without speaking. They retire at 8 pm to separate cells and rise at 3:15 am, when they gather in silence to pray. They avoid idle talk at all times. And even after the morning mass, throughout much of their demanding day, they are discouraged from speaking. Almost everything the Trappist does takes place in silence — is pressed close by its weight, or opens out onto that expanse, depending on how you look at it.
Monks have, moreover, been at the pursuit for quite some time. Alberic remarked at one point that while it is often said that prostitution is the oldest profession, he believes that monks were around before there were prostitutes. This struck me as unlikely, but it still gave me pause.
There was a personal stake in this journey as well: I needed a break. I'd had a hectic, noisy winter in the city — medically harrowing, filled with bills, the hassles of insurance claims, technology fiascos, and preschool worries. Plans to visit friends in the country had fallen through several times. I'd tried to go to a Zen retreat in New England that taught the breath- and silence-based meditation practice of vipassana, only to be told at the last moment that although I could come and sit silently with the retreatants, the guesthouse itself was overbooked and I'd have to stay in a bed-and-breakfast in town. The thought of beginning my daily practice over fussy French toast in a dining room packed with antiquers — where tasteful classical music would be piped in to glaze over the gaps in conversation — didn't conduce to inner quiet. I had to get out of New York. Yet it was hard to arrange anything. Just because we have a nagging sense that silence is good for us doesn't make it any easier to actually commit to.
I didn't think of quiet only as one of those overdue restoratives. Beyond the idea of wanting to learn something about the Trappist path and get away from the noise in my own life, I was hoping to find some truth in the silence of the monastery that I could take back to New York. I'd packed a stack of books and volumes of photocopied pages representing different theological and philosophical traditions — everything from Martin Heidegger and Max Picard to kabbalistic disquisitions, an array of Buddhist tracts, and enough Christian monastic literature to envelop a monk from tonsure to toe. I needed help.
From In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik. Copyright 2010 by George Prochnik. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved.