The Advent Call
- Not Just for
A story from the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the 3rd century:
In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. And the old man said, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Abba Moses directed the contemplative aspirant to an environment conducive to growth. “Growth” can make us think of gardens. Gardens take various forms: fields, raised beds, small urban patches, greenhouses or hydroponic labs. Whatever their form, soil additives are required to promote growth – some sort of “Miracle-Gro”.
Contemplative life can be “grown” in a monastic cell, in any kind of home, in a hermitage, in a service oriented mission, or on a mountain top in Greece. But in all cases a good dose of spiritual “Miracle-Gro” is required. Silence is the necessary additive.
Across the wide spectrum of religious experience, throughout the ages and in our time there is evidence of a universal call to withdrawal – some sort of remove to silence and solitude. I believe that this is the truth of human response to the transcendent to which Philip Groning points in his film "Into Great Silence.” The film is not really about the Carthusians per se, but about that universal religious impulse, to which the Carthusians, among others, give example.
Native Americans on the ‘vision quest’, Muslim Sufi mystics, Buddhist monks, Jewish Kabbalists, Hindu sannyasis, Orthodox Jews observing the Sabbath, as well as Christian nuns and monks all express this impulse by going apart.
Before proceeding, I must ‘fess up' with a bit of truth in advertising. I am not a Carthusian. I am solemnly professed in the contemplative Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, living in monastic papal enclosure. But don’t let the habit and the gray hair fool you. I am no spiritual sage with decades of cloistered life under my veil. I am a newbie, a once married mother of three sons and now a grandmother. My grasp of the silence and recollection is so tenuous as to be closer to the experience of any lay person on the spiritual journey than it is to that of the golden jubilarians in my community. By the late 1990s, seeking refuge from a house filled with young men and their large circle of friends, I had created a little kingdom in my bedroom. It was well appointed with a raft of electronic devices and my feet would hardly have hit the floor in the morning when one if not two or three of them would be turned on. I flooded my senses with input and could multi-task with the best of them. Things began to change slowly as I anticipated my entrance into the monastery in the year 2000. In the years since, my extroverted self as eased into what I find to be the pregnant atmosphere of silence and solitude.
The charism of our Order stresses the capacity of interdependent community life within the context of prayer and by the work of the Holy Spirit, to transform us into the image and likeness of God. We pursue what monastics refer to as conversatio morem, or conversion of manners, so as to become, in the words of our charism, ‘living memories’ of Jesus Christ. How is that for a tall order?
While we do not live the Carthusian heremitic life in community, we observe the Grand Silence from 9pm to 7am, what we call the Little Silence from 1:30 to 3:30pm each day and work very hard at creating an atmosphere of quiet recollection throughout the day. When we moved from a large old monastery into a new one just one third its size, we worried about maintaining the atmosphere of silence. We learned that it is not the size or nature of the surroundings that creates an ambiance of quiet and peace. Rather, it is the degree of desire in those who live there that makes the difference.
As a means of providing an answer to the WHY question about our life and that of the Carthusians, here is the pertinent section from our Rule:
Silence, being an essential value of monastic life, liberates the soul, and always brings with it a call of the desert to solitude and peace. It opens a person to the depths of the mystery of God and to intimacy with Him. It is not in the first place isolation or an absence of words but a loving presence to God as well as a delicate sensitivity to the presence of others by an attitude which allows them to be recollected and to pray. That is why we must love silence for ourselves and must strive to encourage it around us.
Our brothers and sisters …must be able to find in our monasteries the house of prayer and peace they need. ..The enclosure which cuts us off from the world is an open door for those seeking God. Our silence is a word of salvation and our contemplation is missionary activity.
The hidden life and the silence permit us to hear the divine Wisdom which teaches in solitude and in the secret of the heart. Without this, it is difficult to progress in virtue; to accept and to make fruitful the gifts and graces of the Lord.
The liturgies of Advent season call us to enter the silence; a silence reminiscent of Robert Frost’s snowy woods – “lovely, dark and deep,” Here we are invited to dwell in the presence of mystery. These days call us to ‘listen up’ – to withdraw, at least for a few moments, from the crowded market place. This season, like no other, begs for recollection and silence in the presence of the mystery of the Incarnation.
Once, a Jewish friend brought me up short with his insight. He told me with great respect, “If I believed that Christmas was the day on which the most high God came to earth to live among us, I would have to spend that day in the silence of a monastery.”
However, our resistances are so great; our preoccupations and distractions so alluring and only growing in number as I speak, that we respond:
· How could I just do nothing? I would feel so guilty.
· I am not worthy to aspire to the contemplative life of the saints.
· Oh, it is so selfish.
· I have no place and no time for such a thing.
Whatever our objections, in consideration of the possible fruits of even small remnants of time given to silent solitude, we must ask the question, “Can we, in this day and in these times, afford not to enter into that fearsome silence?”
What are the fruits that can be cultivated in the garden of silence?
1. There no doubt as to the development of greater conscious awareness of all reality – a contemplative seeing of colors, textures, patterns, movement and the sheer wonder of it all.
2. Silent solitude, being alone with the alone, fertilizes the soil in which humility grows – the sense of powerlessness and fragility, our dependence on a higher power, our gratitude for what has come not of our own doing but as gratuitous gift.
3. The state of conscious attention and availability to God opens us up to hear God’s word, to allow God’s action to work out our spiritual life. It readies us for the state of infused contemplation which is the work of God alone.
4. In psychological terms, this type of spiritual practice creates an axis of communication between the ego and the true self. In our lives we encounter limits, failures, wrongs, sins of omission and commission in our parents, in our families, in the world and in ourselves. In response we develop false aspects of ourselves, in the effort to protect our truest essence and enable us to live safely with others. Unfortunately, although we mature and circumstances change we usually do not drop the protective gear of the false self. Often we become weighted down and bound up in a false way of being though it has become very unsatisfying or even dysfunctional. Solitude and communion allow the inner work necessary for shedding the false self, for greater personal integration and living out of our truest selves with more freedom.
5. These new perspectives, the freedoms they cultivate, slowly and and gently seep out of our times of silent withdrawal and begin to water the garden that is the rest of our time lived in community, in family, the workplace, the monastery and personal relationships. “Solitude, like a compassionate surgeon, cuts away our defenses” revealing our hidden agendas. In our new consciousness, humility and perspective, the agendas become less and less compelling and we find ourselves surrendering to divine compassion.
6. For monastics, recollection, silence and solitude create the ambiance necessary for the apostolic work of prayer. Everything in the monastery is focused on living and preserving the communal and private prayer that is the core of the life. Our life does not really make any sense unless one believes in the power of prayer.
Today our understanding of the mystery and economy of prayer are being expanded in two ways. The first is attested to by the number of titles in the local book store concerning contemplative prayer, the mystical aspects of contemplation. Karl Rahner said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or not at all.” The word mystic has, if you will, lost some of its mystique. We have come to appreciate in a healthy way that we are all mystics. The mystic heart is the deepest part of who we are. In silence and solitude we cultivate the ground of mystical prayer.
The second expansion of our understanding is coming out of the realm of quantum physics. As someone who failed high school chemistry and was thus deprived of senior physics I cannot do this subject justice. But the theologian, Barbara Fiand and others, speak today of prayer as transtemporal and transpacial. They tell us that all of creation is totally interconnected in a field of energy. Such talk provided new understanding of Karl Jung’s theory of collective consciousness. We are also being told that our very thoughts have energy which reverberates through the network backwards and forwards. Modern scientific discussion is giving new meaning to the work of solitary contemplation and prayer. Thomas Merton expressed this more poetically: "In the night of our technological barbarism, monks must be a tress which exist silently in the dark, and by their vital presence purify the air."
7. Finally, silence cultivates the prophetic voice. If the word prophet is too loaded, how about this? By our spiritual practice of silence and solitude we offer a counter-cultural statement concerning the nature of life, our work in the world, our human frailty and our dependence upon God. In seeking some distance we arrive at the margins and are rewarded for our effort by a broader view and different perspective. We return to community, family, workplace, monastery, holiday traffic, the line at the supermarket, the front page of the New York Times or the revelations of CNN. In all these places we encounter reality and act within that reality from a new perspective. It is the communal aspect of the examined life that keeps us honest. It is the place where the rubber must hit the road lest our spiritual practice be reduced to so much contemplative navel gazing.
Rather than a place of confinement, the figurative cell is the homestead of the liberated self, the place in which the true self is set free to live as a child of God. We never enter the cell alone. Believing this we can confidently surrender to the invitation which is the first line of St. Romuald’s brief rule for hermits: “Sit in your cell as in paradise.”