Last week, we heard from Dave Brenner, Word on Fire Intern and seminarian in the Archdiocese of Chicago who had recently returned from a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery in France. Today, Dave reflects further on the mystery of silence and its profound spiritual effects. Read his insightful commentary here.
It’s 4:03 AM and I rise from bed quickly and shuffle through an outdoor corridor heading toward an imposing monastery set against the night’s sky and the breaking waves of the Mediterranean. I take my seat in the back pew and within minutes, a bell rings and 25 monks process in. Their shaved heads, sandals, white habits with black scapulars met every stereotype my mind had created for monks of the Middle Ages. By 4:10 the monks were chanting in French (a language I don’t speak) and I thought, “it’s early, but interesting.”
This took place a month ago in a remote Trappist monastery off the coast of Southern France as part of a spiritual experiment. I asked what would happen if you took a goal-oriented, competitive MBA student (myself), someone who was most definitely connected to “the world”, and you removed him from his habitat. Would I be bored or fulfilled? Would I be disconnected from others or find connections within myself? And would I learn something of value to take back to Chicago?
Well…the experience was incredible on many levels. I found clarity where there was confusion. It profoundly deepened my relationship with Christ and I discovered that disciplined prayer and silence is a more relevant spiritual prescription now than eight centuries ago. Here’s why…
The mind only does two things: it consumes information and it produces thoughts. Psychologists will (correctly) add hundreds of levels of complexity, but essentially the mind plays either a producer or consumer function. Nearly everything in my life tends toward increasing production – I thrive as a student based on the number and quality of papers I write, I thrive as a worker based on the number of new ideas I produce and how effectively I communicated them, I thrive as a friend based on the quality of conversation and the new insights I bring forth and so on. I try to consume information to help me toward this end. I suspect many can relate.
Silence shuts off the production function instantly. No conversations, no meetings, no emails, no emails to set up the meeting etc…. If the mind was a factory, silence is killing the power and sending everybody home.
This has two profound spiritual effects: (1) It creates the possibility of following someone's will other than your own. You’re no longer in charge of dictating objectives, strategies and next steps – you’re no longer “producing”; and (2) It shifts attention toward increasing the quality of what the mind consumes.
A meditating Buddhist might stop there and call this sense of detachment from will, alleviation of desire, and purity of thought as success. The Christian calls this the starting point, for the goal is Christ. This retreat demonstrated that as my mind “consumed” the chants of the monks, the beauty of nature and the wisdom of spiritual readings my desires aligned with Christ’s. I don’t know much about spirituality, but I’m certain that this is the key to the spiritual life: To align one’s desires to Christ’s.
I said that monks and silence are more relevant to spiritual growth in the 21st century and it’s because of this production/consumption conundrum. We’ve never had more information to consume - one estimate said that a single issue of the New York Times has more information than an 18th century person would encounter in their entire life. There’s also never been a higher premium on producing thoughts via email, memos, and yes, blogs and Twitter. Finding a spot for Christ to fit in this cycle is difficult, letting Him be the one driving the cycle is almost impossible without a shift in the process. Silence is the shift so that you can align your will to Christ’s and cultivate the disposition behind St Ignatius’ prayer:
“Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labor and not to ask for reward,
Save that of knowing that I do your will.”
Dave Brenner is an intern at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
If you are interested in attending a retreat at a Trappist monastery, please visit trappists.org for complete information about all the Trappists monasteries in the U.S.