'Silence seems to keep me from idealizing myself.'
August 24, 2012 11:35 PM   Subscribe

How Silence Works: Emailed Conversations With Four Trappist Monks
posted by the man of twists and turns (39 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
posted by aubilenon at 11:43 PM on August 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

Just be careful when asking someone to pass the salt
posted by ShutterBun at 12:00 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

The guys are on to something, speech may be the least efficient means of communication. We have email, IM, SMS , even twitter now. With all these speech killers all vying for market share speech's days may be numbered.The biggest player in the speech space, skype, may also be doomed since its aquisition by Microsoft. Will 2012 be the last year speech is really relevant? Or will google drag speech into the 21st century with Google Hangouts.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:19 AM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Text communication is so so much slower than speech for everything except for source code.
posted by aubilenon at 12:21 AM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Writing, maybe, not reading. I would much rather read transcripts than listen to speeches, most of the time, because it's so much more efficient.
posted by Malor at 12:41 AM on August 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

The guys are on to something, speech may be the least efficient means of communication. We have email, IM, SMS , even twitter now.

So that's why at noon they have a sext prayer.
posted by phaedon at 12:43 AM on August 25, 2012 [12 favorites]

That's true. But if you need any clarifications or whatnot, it's so much faster to just talk it out than to do it over email/im.
posted by aubilenon at 12:44 AM on August 25, 2012

Speech has serious technical limitations, unlike text it is synchronous and volatile, workarounds exist but they are clumsy.Due to its volatile nature there is also no audit trail. All in all speech is not well suited for enterprise deployment.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:46 AM on August 25, 2012 [10 favorites]

Actually, aubilenon's first comment contains a space character.
posted by WalkingAround at 1:00 AM on August 25, 2012

I think the article does not imply that they are texting each other instead of talking. I believe it is saying that they are silent so they can listen, and so they can better meditate and contemplate and focus on a life of worship.
posted by Houstonian at 1:08 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was just at the Kentucky Trappist Monastery a few days ago. That place is really amazingly silent. It's like a primeval, human-free world. Even the parking lot is filled only with the sounds of birds.
posted by DU at 2:28 AM on August 25, 2012

Best thing about Trappist monks is the beer (they call it 'liquid bread'). West Malle is my normal favorite. Have a tripple sometime when you're enjoying a chocolatey desert.
posted by Goofyy at 2:38 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've never understood how that works. We have a Vow of Silence - no, seriously, you can't speak - but we're going to give you beer. The beer will make you drunk, and you're going to want to speak loudly when you're drunk, but you can't. That's not what God wants.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:40 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

So silent you can hear a pint drop.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:43 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Am I the only one who thinks that monks who have taken a vow of silence shouldn't be allowed to email? This new generation of Trappist monks who email and tweet and update their Facebook status might be gaming the system.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:32 AM on August 25, 2012 [8 favorites]

Wow, talk SELF deprivation! What a fine form of torture.
posted by elpapacito at 5:06 AM on August 25, 2012

There are some incredible points made in the article:

How do you feel about the world around you? Do you feel like grappling with the world in all its complexity would be difficult?

Father A: If by “complexity” you mean the extraordinary diversification of forms of experience and the myriad ways they meet and interact in the course of living life, all of this is inexpressibly beautiful and it would be hard to see how it could be a challenge to anyone's faith. Probably, by “complexity” you mean rather the perplexing, self-defeating… binds we get ourselves into individually and collectively because of the influence of sin. It is sin that makes the world complicated, and sin comes from us. But if sin comes from in us, then a monk, living in silence and solitude, is sitting in the eye of the storm.

My own impression is that life in the world provides many diversions which guard a person from really engaging the battle with sin, and can even render him quite insensible of its existence. Such a person is not so much engaging the complexity of the world as becoming numb to it. In the cloister, on the other hand, you engage the Adversary face to face. It is hard for me to imagine where in the world a person more directly engages “the world in all its complexity” than battling with the very source of evil in one's own heart in the solitude and silence of the cloister.

As regards “grappling” with the world, in its present state, I will frankly confide to you two very personal vulnerabilities which would make living outside the cloister very difficult for me. First is my impression of the general formlessness of life in America today. So many people today live without a coherent language, symbol system, tradition, or rituals to give concrete expression to what they believe and so speak of seeking “happiness,” “contentment, “light,” “fulfillment”… The abstract formlessness of how Americans talk about matters of ultimate concern wearies me deeply.

The other is the loneliness that characterizes life in America today. Mother Theresa, visiting the U.S. for the first time in the 70s, said she had never seen poverty like what she saw here and she meant the loneliness of Americans. The breakdown and relinquishment of shared value systems and traditions, has left individuals adrift in a private search for God and meaning. This is a terribly lonely way to live. In America, loneliness can become like the blueness of the sky. After a while, people don't think about it anymore.

Out of curiosity, do the monks in the cloister watch the daily news? Are you interested in cultural changes in the world?

Father A: The motivation is to focus our hearts and attention on the Truth of God that resides at the center of our being and is supremely Simple. (While living at Walden, a visitor one day asked Henry David Thoreau did he read the story in the paper about the man in Concord who committed suicide. “I don't need to read the story”, he answered, “I understand the principle.”) We do not watch television and so would not have access to the daily news, but do keep informed about important developments such as the financial crisis, by means of newspapers.

I wonder if a lot of the cultural complexity you refer to seems interesting to people because they have lost so much consciousness of [their] ancestors and the long view afforded by a knowledge of history. If you don't know history, everything today can seem quite novel. But in the larger context of the story of human history, much of what fascinates, today, is quite redundant. There is, for example, nothing “new” about the “New Atheism.” You see it heralded as complicating our world in a challenging and refreshing way, but its claims were much more intelligently pressed in the past and rejected by our ancestors. It is astonishing to me that, after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, and China, people can speak of the experiment with radical secularism as if it were “breaking news.” Been there, done that.

posted by resurrexit at 5:24 AM on August 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

As I recall, Trappists don't take a vow of silence so much as observe a rule of silence within their monasteries (the only vows they take are poverty, chastity obedience and stability). I would imagine that email would be considered a form.of writing, and as long as it was not abused so as to be an end around the Rule of Silence, I can't see why the Abbott would frown upon it. This may vary from Monastery to Monastery, Abbott to Abbott, though.

As far as the beer thing goes, not all Trappists monasteries make beer, either. Part of the Rule of St. Benedict is that each monastery must be self-sufficient (just because you took a vow of poverty doesn't mean you get to be a bum!) and different monasteries do different things to support themselves. The Trappist monastery I once went on a silent retreat at makes bread, and is so successful at it that it their breads can be purchased in supermarkets in the surrounding Western NY area.

if you have never done a silent treat, I highly recommend it. Many monasteries that observe Silence (and not just Catholic monasteries, either) allow visitors to stay for a short whole on a.self-guided retreat. I know of an Orthodox Christian monastery that doesn't even mind if you're an atheist, so long as you aren't disruptful/disrespectful during any communal worship you may choose to attend while there.
posted by KingEdRa at 5:37 AM on August 25, 2012

It is sin that makes the world complicated, and sin comes from us

There's a premise there that the complexity of human experience can be easily brought down to a binary reckoning. There's Good and Evil. There's Virtue and Sin. There's a Right Way and a Wrong Way.

Really deep insight comes from contemplating the complexity. Really bad policy comes from demanding a simple way to see it.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:40 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did you hear the one about the Trappist monk who pissed off the other monks, so they gave him the silent treatment?

No, you didn't hear about that.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:42 AM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

A really nice article.
I have a lot of time for thoughtful religious people, as most of those interviewed seem to be. And I am interested in the whole dynamic of cloistered life, even if it is outside my scope.
It is one of those things, where you must decide in your life - am I to marry and have kids and a job and a mortgage because all those things are nice and important, or am I to seek reflection and solitude and wisdom and inner discovery, because all those things are nice and important.
But choosing one is limiting of the other.
posted by bystander at 6:01 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

This was a fascinating piece. I'm really surprised by the snark in the thread.
posted by Thistledown at 6:09 AM on August 25, 2012 [14 favorites]

I've been in long retreats where silence was maintained, and it does indeed have its effects on a person.

When you are not talking or thinking about talking, you start to notice your inner narrative more, and, as the Trappists note, your senses become more acute. As far as personal or spiritual growth, well, that's a little harder to talk about, but any change from the routines of normal life is refreshing. Now, to choose a life of silence...that brings up a different set of questions for me, questions about how a person should live in this world. Living apart from the world is a radical choice.
posted by kozad at 7:32 AM on August 25, 2012

I work in a remote office, and the head of the studio and a junior programmer that I'm working with both prefer Skype for a lot of things. I prefer email for most things and Skype just to hash out some initial design or for Q&A.
posted by Foosnark at 8:05 AM on August 25, 2012

I am re-inspired to write my dystopian future fantasy novel series called World Without Words, wherein all language has been eliminated. The twist is it's secretly a utopian future.
posted by Corduroy at 8:10 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Interesting comments and thoughtful conversation about this article on reddit's Food for Thought.
posted by Houstonian at 9:01 AM on August 25, 2012

Am I the only one who thinks that monks who have taken a vow of silence shouldn't be allowed to email?

Unless they have those scissor switch silent keyboards?

"What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence." I'm guessing Wittgenstein meant, "without any form of comment." Perhaps the text is easier for forming clearer sayings, in those cases where it's possible.

Myself, I think this is the key to all forms of proper spirituality. Don't argue, debate, or even discuss it. If you could it would be science, literature, art, politics, entertainment -- but not spirituality.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:32 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's a great article, tmotat, thanks. I've always been fascinated by people who choose that contemplative, spiritual path. It is certainly not for me, but there is something really compelling about the concept.

I am smitten by the idea of monkish signs and have spent some time looking up cistercian sign language...

BTW, Trappists and contemplative orders make so many delicious things besides beer - things like Creamy Caramels and Kentucky Bourbon Fruitcake. You can find a lot at the online store, Monks Bread, which offers preserves, breads, cakes, butters, honey, and candy. KingEdRa, that might be the bread you spoke of?

There are also Trappist-made caskets and urns for the Big Silence.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:45 AM on August 25, 2012

I would encourage anyone interested in monastic living to read Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence. He wasn't religious himself but regularly spent time on retreat, and writes interesting on the effects of silence (difficult at first; eventually liberating).
posted by Huw at 9:49 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It also brings to mind vipassana meditation retreats, about which there have been at least a couple AskMe Threads (1, 2).
posted by Elementary Penguin at 10:01 AM on August 25, 2012

There's a premise there that the complexity of human experience can be easily brought down to a binary reckoning.

Given the social and political prominence of this stripe of reckoning, I don't necessarily blame someone for reading this out of the monk's statement.

But binary reckoning is hardly the only religious way of coming to grips with Good and Evil in the world, and stating that the problem is Sin doesn't mean the monk has an easy checklist of dos/don'ts. In a broader context Capital-S Sin is arguably a matter an alienation from self/God that could arguably be connected to Marxist alienation, or objectivizing views/acts, or contributing to the problem of suffering, or an imbalance between goods that are sometimes at odds. Its discussion over time has been a lot deeper than manichaean dichotomy, and while I suppose there may be monks who have simplistic views, I'd be willing to bet that the monks spend ample time reading and thinking about those discussions.
posted by weston at 10:17 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It brings to mind the old joke about the silent religious order which decides to relax its rules and allow, once a year, one monk to say one sentence.

At the end of the first year, one monk says at breakfast, "I like porridge."

At the end of the second year, another monk says, "I hate porridge."

At the end of the third year, the abbot says, "I'm tired of this constant bickering about the porridge."
posted by raygirvan at 10:17 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ah, pitfall pet peeve: "loathe to judge." That should be loath rather than loathe.
posted by Listener at 11:28 AM on August 25, 2012

This is fascinating. If you liked this, I cannot recommend the documentary Into Great Silence, about the Carthusians, highly enough. It's just gorgeous.
posted by OmieWise at 12:32 PM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

It also brings to mind vipassana meditation retreats, about which there have been at least a couple AskMe Threads (1, 2).

Speaking of vipassana: The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation: A journey into and beyond the challenges of total silence.
posted by homunculus at 3:59 PM on August 25, 2012

@ madamjujujive: Yes, Monks Bread is the name of their bread line. Seriously excellent stuff.
posted by KingEdRa at 9:42 PM on August 25, 2012

" We follow the Rule of St. Benedict and the first word of that Rule is "Listen." That's the great ethical element of silence: to check my words and listen to another point of view. I'll never have any real peace should my sense of well-being depend on soundless peace. When I can learn the patience of receiving, in an unthreatened way, what I'd rather not hear, then I can have a real measure of peace in any situation."
posted by spacewaitress at 5:56 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The depth and quality of their answers is a testimony for how the contemplative life gives clarity and awareness.
posted by dgran at 1:28 PM on August 27, 2012

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