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Thu May 6, 2004
Sounds of Silence
Paul knows something of the monastic way of life, a way of life that is punctuated by the "sounds of silence."
By Paul Wilkes
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Paul's commentary.]
Every so often, I leave the Twenty-first century and venture back to the Sixth.
This was a troubled time, not unlike our own, what with the Roman Empire collapsing, barbarians roaming and general mayhem reigning.
Into the Sixth century came a man called Benedict and he charted a new way of life, amidst all that confusion. It is what we now know as monasticism. As he gathered followers around him to pursue this balanced, prayerful, quiet way of life, so, too, today, monks follow his rule and inspired vision.
The monks I go to visit are called Trappists; their home is Mepkin Abbey, just three hours south of Wilmington. And there I can join in the gentle rhythms of monastic life, rising at three, to bed at eight, simple vegetarian meals, quiet, clean air to breathe. And there at Mepkin, I better understand what those modern day sages, Simon and Garfunkel meant by the "Sounds of Silence."
For the Trappists at Mepkin believe that silence is a gateway to our inner selves and our God. So they observe silence, not only in church, but throughout the day. Meals are taken in silence; idle chitchat is kept to a minimum wherever you are. It is not a silence that is enforced or policed.
It comes naturally after a while and you find it is just fine to silently nod to someone as you walk the grounds or to sip your cup of coffee in the refectory and say nothing, although you are surrounded by other people.
The sounds of silence, I've found, are both throaty and faint, horrifying and wonderful, cries and whispers. Without the subterfuge of
noise, and the many games each of us plays to distance our real selves from our false selves, the sound of silence come through, unfiltered.
Does one just pray their way through a time at a monastery? Hardly.
The sounds of silence bring up the deepest hurts, our most evil thoughts, memories from childhood and the hour before. And it would be wonderful to report that in this monastic Garden of Eden, we sort them all out and neatly arrange them in our minds.
No, it doesn't work like that. But what does happen is this:
Silence works as a series of screens, sifting our thoughts, catching the big and vaunted thoughts and not allowing them to go much further.
Sifting, sifting until there we see the tiny grains of our selves. And we begin to see that each of us is not a series of titles or degrees or accomplishments...or failures for that matter. Just tiny grains of something-ness and nothing-ness. So unique. So ordinary.
That's why we breathe easier as we leave a monastery after listening to these sounds of silence. Because in that pure air, we hear the soft whisper of God's wind. We may understand, but only perhaps for a flicker of a moment, that we, these grains, are not only loved, but the beloved. And in that silence, we hear a voice so distant and yet so near.
Paul Wilkes teaches in the English Department at UNCW. To find out more about the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey, you can visit their website; www.mepkinabbey.org.