I did think of calling this blog “Shush”. It’s a word I use a lot because, even when sitting side by side, my granddaughters, aged 7 and 9, speak to each other in modified roars, as if still trying to communicate across a crowded classroom.
Three word slogans are popular at the moment. Did Archbishop Justin Welby start it with his wish that the Anglican church should be ‘Simpler, Humbler, Bolder”? Last Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent, Canon Philip Ursell, in an open church in Cardiff, St Martin’s in Roath, in his sermon, suggested the three words of the title — Silence, Study, Service — as a good guide for Lent.
Silence is perhaps the last thing people want to hear at the moment when so many are living in lonely isolation, listening to the radio, watching TV and talking to the wall. However, it caught my attention because I have been watching three programmes late evening on BBC Channel 4. ‘Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery’. These programmes seemed to take silence to another level; not just lack of sound but something positive.
Have you ever been in an anechoic chamber? That’s the place to experience an utter and complete absence of sound. Alone in one, in the dark, I found it a terrifying experience. I ended up feeling my pulse and concentrating on my breath to reassure myself I was still alive!
Silence, in these monasteries, is the reverse. Apart from praying and singing in chapel and readings from The Rule of St Benedict during meals no one spoke. But it wasn’t just the lack of talk. I found myself listening to every other sound. The flip flop of sandaled feet in the long tiled corridors, the rattle of plates, the thump of kneading dough. Even a dripping tap and the slurp of honey filling a jar.
Study is a part of a monk’s daily life as is service. All kinds of service from the most humdrum tasks like cooking and cleaning to the beautiful work of an iconographer and a rosary maker. Some monks make their own clothes, others use carpentry, both creatively and DIY. One nice touch — the baker monk walked out into a wood to pick wild garlic, which he took back to the kitchen, pounded to a paste in a pestle and mortar, and created garlic butter.
I found myself more and more drawn in to this Silence. No radio, no TV, no chitchat. Every task provided an opportunity for mindfulness and prayerfulness. The value of concentration was palpable. So much so, that as I watched a young monk filling the thurible with charcoal tablets sprinkled with frankincense I thought I could smell the incense.
I wouldn’t want to be without my hearing aids. I would miss the chatter around the supper table as we catch up on the day; I can still remember getting my first aid and suddenly hearing bird song. When noise gets too much I can cheat and take them out. Then it goes quieter. But it doesn’t come close to the profound and potent silence of the monastery.