December 18, 2018

Silence and Community in Italian Monastic Life

Author standing on a terrace overlooking Orvieto, Italy. Courtesy of Rachel Edney.

By Rachel Edney ’20
Contributor

This New Year’s Eve, I, along with a group of Gordon students and several adult learners, arrived in Orvieto, Italy to spend two weeks studying medieval moral philosophy while staying in a renovated thirteenth-century monastery.

We spent our mornings in discussions addressing questions such as, “what is a good life?”, while in the evenings, we experienced Orvieto’s cathedral and monasteries; participating in various cultural events.

Not only did we learn about medieval history and philosophy, but we were also able to get a taste of the Italian way of life as we roamed the streets of Orvieto in the afternoon.

After visiting several monasteries, we discussed in class the monastic views on a life well lived. Our inquiry led us to read “The Rule of Saint Benedict”, a document which influenced the standard practices of most Western monastic communities.

Throughout my reading of the document, I was struck by the fact that silence was expected from those living in a monastery.

Why would a group of people committed to living in a community be dedicated to the maintenance of a quiet atmosphere?

I found that this standard silence contradicted my modern view of community as depending almost solely upon communication as the foundation of meaningful fellowship.

My questions led me to spend a significant amount of time in silence gazing at the Umbrian countryside from the cliffs surrounding the city, wandering into churches to sit by myself, and meandering on a maze of cobblestoned streets.

The time I spent in silence caused me to reflect on the barrage of noise that surrounds my mind in all directions in my daily life. I am constantly pulled to think about my responsibilities to my studies, my jobs, and my campus activities. I anxiously consider where I can squeeze in time to invest in my relationships with the Lord, my family, and my friends here and at home.

Besides the sound of my frenzied thoughts, nearly every spare moment I have between classes and meetings and studying is spent plugged into my phone either listening to music.

In traveling to Italy and stepping away from my normal environment and routine, it was far easier to silence the clamor of my life and to rest quietly in the moment.

Josef Pieper, in his book, “A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart”, writes that silence allows us to purely perceive reality. Those who refrain from speech but do not silence “interior speech” obscure their perception of truth both in the world and from God.

I realized the toll that my noisy existence was taking on my relationships and own life. The constant stream of noise keeps me from pursuing deeper relationships and distracts me from searching deep within the world to discover truth.

In other words, the quietness practiced by monastics and discussed by Pieper is not an excluding silence that attempts to empty the mind in order to focus it on nothing. Rather, it is a listening silence that is attentive to the voice of God and deeply observant of reality. Especially the state of those around us.

Perhaps this is why silence is important to monastic communities: it both focuses the mind on listening to the voice of God and leaves space for people to observe people in the community that they can be known and uniquely cared for.

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