This is why most people do not stick with a contemplative discipline for very long; we have heard all sorts of talk about contemplation delivering inner peace but when we turn within to seek this peace, we meet inner chaos instead of peace. But at this point it is precisely the meeting of chaos that is salutary, not snorting lines of euphoric peace. The peace will indeed come, but it will be the fruit, not of pushing away distractions, but of meeting thoughts and feelings with stillness instead of commentary. This is the skill we must learn. Martin Laird ‘Into the Silent Land’
I recently spent a week with the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford as part of my vicar training. This particular convent is in the contemplative tradition, so their primary focus is prayer (rather than ‘mission’ type convents which might be more engaged in offering a service- such as the nuns in Call the Midwife).
I learnt a huge amount in the week I was there, along with a fellow ordinand (trainee vicar). We tried hard to fully engage in the life of the community, and were given an unusual amount of access to the community. Visitors are normally sat in the side chapel, separate from the nuns and only eat one meal a day with them, whereas we had a key that gave us access to the main convent buildings, sat with the nuns in the main part of the chapel, ate with them, and worked alongside them during the day.
The day had a set rhythm, which, though it initially seemed very prescribed, actually created a lovely simplicity. We started with matins at 6am, and there were 5 other services throughout the course the day, punctuating any other activity. Meals were eaten in silence, though at lunch someone read aloud. There were periods of work in the morning and afternoon, which for me meant shelling vast quantities of broad beans, and cleaning enormous brass candlesticks. The general rule was if you did not need to speak, you didn’t. From 8pm to 9am was ‘the Greater Silence’, where, except for services, the silence was stricter.
There was actually more talking than the above description might suggest: we had to be given instructions as to what to do, and each afternoon we had time with one of the sisters who told us a bit more about an aspect of community life. There was also a feast day while we were there which included a ‘talking lunch’ and afternoon tea which included chatting with the sisters. Nevertheless, there were considerable periods of quiet, and certainly a greater amount of silence than I am used to (not hard given that I very rarely have silence in my life).
I can confirm that the day goes slowest between 6.30am-9am. Following matins, we would grab some breakfast (in silence) in the guest house and then had well over 2 hours to dedicate to prayer. In the spirit of the convent, I tried to engage in contemplative prayer, which is less about presenting a list of requests to God (called ‘intercessory’ prayer- and my usual type), and more about sitting quietly. It is not even really about actively listening for God, more about cultivating an understanding that even sitting in silence is dwelling in the presence of God. Martin Laird’s ‘Into the Silent Land’ is an excellent guide for this particular type of contemplative prayer.
It turns out that silence is not just about being quiet. In those morning hours, sat in the beautiful garden of the convent, I may have been not making noise externally, but there was no way you could describe me as internally silent. It wasn’t even remotely quiet inside my head! Quietening my external environment, by not listening to music, and having a technology fast (so no facebook, whatsapp etc), meant that I was able to hear just how loud my mind is. For a start, my tinnitus, which I do not normally notice much, became deafening. But more significant was recognising the internal chatter that is my constant companion. Sometimes it is fairly benign- reminders of an email I should send, or mulling over something I have read recently. At other times the internal monologue becomes more demanding, reminding me of the list of things ‘to do’ and guilting me about what I haven’t yet achieved in the day. Sometimes it is downright critical, whispering insidious messages about my inadequacy as a student/friend/wife, how I must be a disappointment to others, why I’m useless, and other such life-eroding messages.
Silence, it turns out, is not about not speaking, but is about developing the ability to quieten inside yourself. Laird speaks of cultivating an attitude of silence, which means that you are internally quiet, even if there is noise around you.
It is hard work! Stilling the internal monologue doesn’t just happen, but takes real effort, over along period of time. A week in a convent was a good introduction, but I also realised that if I am serious in wanting to develop in my ability to be silent, it is the work and discipline of a lifetime. I’m not about to abandon all other types of prayer for silence, but I can also see the benefit of it in slowing myself, albeit temporarily, and calming my mind down. How often am I operating out of anxiety generated by constantly racing thoughts? Silence might be as important for my mental health as it is for my spiritual health. Important too is to not see it as ‘wasted’ time, but as an important activity in itself. Mind you, ‘wasting time’ is an important thing to do as well as we are not machines to be constantly productive.
If you’ve never tried sitting in silence, I’d recommend it, but it comes with a warning; you may find it is harder work, and less peaceful than you might expect as you discover things about yourself you hadn’t stopped long enough to realise.