Who Knew Being Silent With Monks Could Be So Liberating?
I thought that silence was the absence of a relationship, but in fact it was the opposite. Their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are not confining but liberating.
I watched Of Gods and Men on a winter’s afternoon in Norfolk because a great Dominican friar and priest, named Timothy Radcliffe, told me that it contained the answer to my questions about truth and silence. In Radcliffe’s book, Alive in God: A Christian Imagination, he asks if we have lost the sense of the transcendent. For all our connectivity and information, we find it hard to grasp meaning.
The motto of the Dominican order is Veritas (truth). The thirteenth-century Dominican friar, Saint Thomas Aquinas, drew upon pagan philosophers and Islamic teaching as sources of truth. He believed in a community of truth: that truth is beauty and beauty is truth.
When I asked Timothy Radcliffe, in his study piled with books, if he had found truth, he told me: “I believe there are truths but I don’t know what they mean. I believe that God is good, but what does that mean?”
This seems to me the appeal of the cloisters at Sénanque. You can experience silence and truth even if you cannot rationalize or explain it. And I think I recognize in the monks what Radcliffe calls “the intimacy of silence with fellow brethren.” The loneliness of the monks’ lives is not loneliness at all. And their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are not confining but liberating.
One of the monks, a tall man with a smooth Roman head and deep-set eyes, moves to stand in front of the altar, ramrod-straight for about twenty minutes. Another kneels.
Then the senior frère returns, assuming an outer robe of ceremonial white and a hood. He moves to a lamp-lit decorated ark with a spire and a cross. He takes out a small object made of gold and glass, holds it up, and places it on the altar. It shines like a mirror.
The monks and the pilgrims look at it; we are completely still and the chapel is silent. Early-evening light pours through the stone window nearest to the altar. The tiniest rustle feels vexatious. This is a silence that floods through you like oxygen. It is what peace feels like.
After more than half an hour of stillness, the monks move as if out of a trance. I start. It is as if statues have come to life. I cross myself and drop a knee, which has become a habit. Then suddenly brisk, we make our way out of the chapel. I realize my vocal chords are becoming rusty with lack of use and I have started to look upward to avoid eye contact.
So when the Frère Hôtelier approaches me at the door of the refectory and asks me in English if I am well, I am surprised and pleased. Is this a sort of spiritual happy hour when we can exchange the pleasantries and banalities that I am used to outside the abbey?
He smiles gently and says he would like to ask something of me. Would I stay to the end of the meal this time rather than leaving the table once I have finished eating?
“We are a group,” he says. “It is more convivial.”
I had misread the community of silence. I thought that silence was the absence of a relationship, but in fact it was the opposite. I sit resolutely through a supper consisting of an avocado, a tomato, a leaf of lettuce, and heavily boiled zucchini and carrots, accompanied by piped music from “Greensleeves.” Someone pushes back their chair, but it is only to fetch bread for the tables. We wait for the last person in the room to finish their final carrot. I note it but am careful not to react. And then everyone rises as one and assumes a line into the kitchen, where plates are handed from one person to the next to be washed and dried. Imagine a family Christmas day of washing up. But all done in silence.
I return to my room and realize with excitement that it is only fifteen minutes to evening prayers, called complies. The evening sun illuminates the east cloister—it creates white tombs of light across the flagstones. I rest by a stone pillar, looking across the garden square, up at the darkening stone of the chapel and the evening sky above it. It resembles ink on papyrus, shades of violet blue and dove gray on muslin weave. Swifts over the abbey are the only creatures that move on this quiet evening.
I slip into the back of the chapel, bow, cross myself, and sit on my oak bench. The monks take their places at the altar pews. Since I cannot follow closely the language or the liturgy I am content to absorb the Gregorian chants and even more the silences in between. The service is ancient, serious, penitent. There are no platitudes here, no topicality.
I am used to the megaphone of current affairs and the jumpiness of a pandemic. Here, these rumbling bass voices mingling with the tenors produce harmony both ancient and present. It is the sound of eternity. The monks are old enough to fear the effects of COVID but what should they fear, when they are poised between two worlds?
At the end of the service, the snow-bearded monk holds up a leafy branch and gently waves it above the heads of the other monks and, as he walks down the aisle, the heads of our little congregation of visitors.
The lights of the chapel are switched off, but once again I am rooted to my bench. I, who have never been able to sit through meetings and have a shockingly short concentration span, want nothing more than this. Sitting in shadows and stillness, looking at a limestone wall, and the wooden image of the cross. Simplicity and silence.
My bedroom has also become dear to me. There is a breeze through the long open window and I look out at the wooded hillside and the stone. I have never known such concentrated stillness. I look up at Venus and then bow my head, the gesture that has already become natural.
And the hard, narrow bed beckons an unbroken sleep. For one day at least, the sleep of the innocent.
The bell in the tower sounds at 4:15 a.m. for vigiles. I wonder if I can sleep through it. Surely I can miss one daily service out of seven?
But each one is subtly different because they are fixed to the holy calendar. I slip on a dress, brush my teeth, and comb my hair. This all feels odd since it was not that long ago that I was taking off my dress and brushing my teeth for bed. This is not night, nor day. It feels like a fire alarm, or a flight.
In the darkness, I feel my way down the steps, then along the familiar route, past two wooden doors, into the cloister and toward the chapel. There are only four monks and only three in the congregation. Even the monks yawn a little and wipe their glasses.
Yet the first sung note brings concentration and with it gladness. The predawn hours of a news program are coffee and adrenaline. Here they are contemplation. The lack of coffee and indeed of alcohol the night before already brings a quietness of mind. The lack of sleep encourages a spiritual alertness. I have never felt this equilibrium before. Attentive and yet still.
The service finishes at about 5:30 a.m. and I wonder about going back to bed. But dawn is rising and the rocks and woodland are becoming three-dimensional. I take the Saint Bernard route up the stony path I followed yesterday, and at the top of the hilly ridge, I watch the sun come up. A single cloud in the shape of a chariot is lit orange and yellow.
Below me, I see light curling across the slate roof of the monastery.
I make my way down the path and up the empty road on the other side, which will soon be full of tourists. I want to see the lavender fields, lit by morning sun. At the edge of a lavender field, I watch a black-and-navy butterfly, spotted with white, on sunlit oak leaves. Solitude becomes one with nature. I sit on a stone by a tree cloaked in lichen, and assume the pose of the chapel. Head bowed, hands together, completely still.