Tag Archives: silence

Benedictine Spirituality I: Listen

Father Boniface Hicks, OSB, a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He is trained in computer science and in spirituality. Currently, Father Boniface is part of the formation team training men for the Catholic priesthood at his abbey’s seminary and the work of spiritual direction. Since I am interested in Benedictine Spirituality periodically you will see essays on this subject here on Communio. As a side note, those of us who follow Communion and Liberation ought to recognize a connection with what is said here and with what Father Julián Carrón has been teaching in months. That is, the importance of listening, centering on Jesus Christ as a Lord and Savior, and that silence is crucial method. How we respond to the Lord’s invitation to be in friendship with him requires us to be in relation to Him and listen to His promptings through prayer, fasting, alms-giving, sacred scripture, the worthy reception of the sacraments and knowing the faith.

What is said of monks is also true for the Oblates. Attend!

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“Listen my son to the Master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (Prologue 1). These are the first words Saint Benedict speaks to his monks through his Rule of life. The Rule of Benedict (RB) establishes three important spiritual attitudes already in the first verse. The first instruction is that Saint Benedict requires the monk to listen, which requires the monk to cultivate silence, humility and obedience. The second is that God, the Master, speaks to us—both directly and through those in whom He has invested authority, and even more broadly through the circumstances of reality itself. The third is that there is a kind of listening that one can only do and must do with the ears of the heart.  In this post, we will reflect on the first part and take up the next two parts in the following posts.

Listening – “Listen, my son”

Listening is the foundational attitude of the monk and to do it well it requires silence, obedience, and humility. This explains the three chapters of the Rule on these principal monastic attributes—chapter 5 on obedience, chapter 6 on silence and chapter 7 on humility. All are necessary for listening: only the humble man listens, while the proud man believes he already knows everything; listening requires exterior silence to hear with the ears in one’s head and interior silence to hear with the ears of the heart, and obedience treats listening as a path of potential action, not merely a matter of taking in idle words.

Humility is a key theme throughout the Rule of Saint Benedict. The longest chapter in the rule (chapter 7) is devoted to the virtue of humility. Humility is expressed in the beginning of the rule as the call to listen. A person only listens when he believes he has something to learn. Otherwise, he will talk excessively, thinking everyone else has something to learn from him. That is why Saint Benedict warns the talkative man: “in a flood of words, you will not avoid sinning” (RB 7:57 quoting Proverbs 10:19). He also notes that when we think we know everything and never cease talking, we end up going in circles, never making progress: “A talkative man goes about aimlessly on the earth” (RB 7:58 quoting psalm 140:12). Those scriptures are quoted in the ninth step of humility which requires “that a monk controls his tongue and remains silent” (RB 7:56).

The silence of Christian monasticism is not merely an asceticism of self-control or emptying our desires, but rather a posture of listening to a God who speaks. We do not silence ourselves for the sake of being silent, but rather for the sake of hearing more clearly. Our silence is not a matter of isolating ourselves, but rather of opening ourselves. It is relational. Silence is the necessary pre-condition for hearing God and encountering Him in prayer and in life. Too often we make the mistake of getting lost in the world and never slowing down enough or silencing ourselves enough to meet God, to hear Him, and simply to be with Him. God has revealed Himself as the divine Word who has spoken from all eternity and continues to speak to us in a personal relationship. When we slow down, humble ourselves in prayer and open our hearts, we can hear His voice. That has a way of humbling us even more, reducing our inflated egos to nothing. We find ourselves saying like Saint Paul, “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8).

Furthermore, Saint Benedict understands listening as leading to action. He is not content with ideas that never turn into action nor with knowledge that never becomes love. “’Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1Cor 8:1). “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). It is through obedience that knowledge becomes love and that the Word becomes flesh. That is why Jesus is the ultimate example of obedience. In Him, the Father’s will was made tangible and visible at every moment of His life (cf. 1 Jn 1:1-4). “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ’Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me’” (Heb 10:5). The Word was made flesh so that the Father’s will could be visible in a human body. Furthermore, the ultimate sacrifice is made through that same human body. There is no love without sacrifice and Christ revealed the ultimate love by offering the ultimate sacrifice. He laid down His life for us, allowing His crucified Body to proclaim, through suffering, all of the Father’s love for us. When Jesus listened to the Father, He opened His life to the greatest potential. This potential became a reality as His Body participated in and revealed the fullness of divine love. This is true obedience and Saint Paul glorifies it by singing: “Christ…became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

We can now apply to ourselves Saint Benedict’s teaching on listening through silence, obedience, and humility. We must create places of silence and we must intentionally include in our lives extended periods of silence for prayer. In the rule, Saint Benedict prescribes 4-6 hours of silence for monks to spend each day in personal prayer. This sets a high standard that few can follow given the demands of daily life, but at least an hour of daily silent prayer is necessary for real spiritual growth.

Beyond our dedicated times of silent prayer, it also helps to create spaces of communal silence. Benedictine monasteries have done this since the 6th century, making a place not only for the personal sanctification of the monks but also for other members of the faithful to enter into. Saint Benedict had extensive regulations in the Rule to provide for guests, noting that “monasteries are never without them” (RB 53:16). The service of hospitality is a key feature of Benedictine spirituality. When Benedictine monasteries consist of monks that are prayerful and cultivate silence, these monasteries can become a spiritual oasis for the faithful. That depends on the personal decision of the monks, however. We must all choose how we will respond to the call of the Christian faith. When we respond with humble silence and holy love, our hearts are set aflame and we can warm the hearts of others. When we allow the noise of the world to come in and to corrupt our souls and make us busybodies, our hearts grow cold and so do those who would seek the warmth of Christ in us.

This post originally appeared on fatherboniface.org

Cultivate silence

Weekends, especially Saturday morning, is a good day to recuperate from the work week: physically, intellectually and spiritually. Of course we ought not to run ourselves down so much so as forget the Lord, His Gospel and the tradition of the Church; we all have to learn a proper balance to keep us on the “right path” without distractions. One of the sources of wisdom is the venerable Holy Rule of St. Benedict (it is not only for monks and nuns but also for the laity).
In his Rule St. Benedict directs us to cultivate silence at all times. It is in silence that the Holy Trinity, in particular, God the Father, speaks to us. Silence builds the habit that builds the wellness of the soul. Silence builds a sense of wonder and awe. Be consistent in the practice of silence even if it is 5 minutes per day.
The Benedictine monk of St. Benedict’s Abbey (Atchison, KS) Father Jay offers us these thoughts as we seek grow in silence.
  1. Silence prepares the heart to listen to God in the midst of a noisy world. Silence also prepares us to enter into His heart, for He loves in silence.
  2. Silence can be loud, magnifying the activity of the Lord’s presence within us and magnifying everything in our hearts, helping us to sift the wheat and the weeds.
  3. Silence is not quietism; it is rather resting in Him. For what effect could the storm around us have, if we rest beside Him asleep in the boat?
  4. There is a mortal silence, the silence of the tomb, in which the earth quakes and Christ descends to the dark depths of the human heart, to love us and to raise us up with Him. Love always resurrects.
  5. St. Joseph gives us the example of heroic silence, bowing before the Majesty and doing His will without complaint.

NY Oblates’ Retreat 2019

Labor Day weekend (2019) had 25 of the NY Oblates of St. Meinrad’s Archabbey attended their annual retreat in Ossining, NY. We welcomed several new people. We were blessed, once again to have Fr. Mateo Zamora, OSB was our retreat master, with a series of conferences “A Careful Watch: Vigilance in the Rule of St. Benedict.”

Vigilance is a looking forward to something. It is sober, thoughtful, careful. We care for another; we anticipate something/someone for the future; we are ready to serve. One good example of being vigilant is the Vigil for the Sick and Dying. In context is a team effort (a communal effort) with the person in question. We bear witness to the Hope of being in Christ even when the sorrow is shared. The waiting is for Christ’s coming (the beginning) not for death (the end). Vigilance, therefore, is attitudinal, as we do this because of our relationship with God.

St. Benedict dedicates four chapters of his Rule to keeping the prayer vigil (RB, ch. 8-11). In this case, Benedict teaches that keeping vigil is an ascetical practice of sacrifice. In a world where sacrifice is not a well-accepted idea, the sacrifice of sleep in the Rule is real commitment to something more important: prayer.

In A Not-So-Unexciting Life Essays on Benedictine History and Spirituality in Honor of Michael Casey, OCSO (2017) we are reminded that “The practice of keeping vigil is part of our conversatio. … [the Office of Vigils, for example] actually symbolizes: our heart’s being awake so that we can enter into the mystery, being awake when Christ comes.” In another place, it was said, “This idea of keeping watch is present in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13), and it is very much part of the celibate life.” However, we need to remember that keeping is Christian regardless of marital status.

Keeping with the theme, we started and ended the conferences with Luke 12:35-48:

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks…”

When we are vigilant or keep a vigil, there is much waiting. Waiting is more than just biding time, it is an attitude – vigilance requires us to look inward as we look forward… being ready for what is coming. It requires trust, hope, a readiness to serve and a willingness to sacrifice. Regardless of the length of the wait, the waiting/vigil is a difficult sacrifice. We don’t “keep vigil”, the vigil keeps us, it forms us.

We only wait for people and things that we care about, those that matter most to us. We wait out of love.

In each conference Fr. Mateo challenged us to reflect on the following questions, as they related to the many types of vigils we keep:

    • How long did you wait?
    • What did you waiting for?
    • Why did you wait?
    • How did you wait?

We are always waiting for something or someone… we wait in line, we wait our turn, we wait for death, but we keep on living. If we know how long the wait will be, it seems like time is running out, there is not enough time. And yet, if we do not know the hour or the day, time is infinite, there is too much time. Having a sense of deadline makes us more diligent and organized, we take it more seriously, we are less likely to procrastinate.

Thankfully, we don’t often wait alone. When we share our waiting with others, the joys are multiplied and the sorrows are divided. In the waiting room of hospitals, it helps to have some to share the news you are waiting for – both good and bad.

Fr. Mateo also challenged us to be mindful of our words and actions, as we considered how Silence is vigilance over our words – restraint of speech. Silence is Wisdom’s first response (Euripides). This is especially challenging when we are easy with our words without considering how they function in person or on social media (in particular, the media). Our job is to first listen—be present, actively and attentively listening. Be especially careful with other people’s stories. Words have a sacred quality to them. Our words/speech should not be done at expense of the other (RB 6:8). Words should adore the other, make the other more beautiful. This is true because it is the Incarnate WORD of God –Jesus– who sanctifies, redeems and restores us. Read in the Rule 6: Restraint of Speech: good words are sometimes left unsaid for the esteem of silence

Humility is vigilance over our actions and Simplicity is vigilance over our possessions. Watch also what you do to yourself and others, as well as what you have. Humility is our acknowledgement of our lowliness and it is our acknowledgment of our gratitude. Humility is not just about our limitations but also what we can do –how we use our gifts. The converse is pride which is taking credit and it is using the self as the standard. Humility is Christ as the standard.

Culture encourages hoarding and consuming. Our possessions can possess us – they distract us. When we realize we can live without something, we start to let go, detach, so that we can be more attached to God. (MD/PAZ)

St Bruno

Today we liturgically recall great monastic founder and reformer, St Bruno. What we admire and are grateful for in the mission of Bruno is his accent on silence and contemplation in the daily search for the face of God. Pope Benedict offers us a few ideas for meditation. Of course, Benedict few ideas help us to seek the face of the saints in turn who show us the face of God. There is much in Benedict’s meditation for our own journey in the spiritual life and the scope of good, reliable and reason theology.

Redemptoris Mater Chapel, Apostolic Palace
Friday, 6 October 2006, Feast of Saint Bruno

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I have not prepared a real Homily, only a few ideas for meditation.

As clearly appears, the mission of St Bruno, today’s saint, is, we might say, interpreted in the prayer for this day, which reminds us, despite being somewhat different in the Italian text, that his mission was silence and contemplation.

But silence and contemplation have a purpose: they serve, in the distractions of daily life, to preserve permanent union with God. This is their purpose: that union with God may always be present in our souls and may transform our entire being.

Silence and contemplation, characteristic of St Bruno, help us find this profound, continuous union with God in the distractions of every day. Silence and contemplation: speaking is the beautiful vocation of the theologian. This is his mission: in the loquacity of our day and of other times, in the plethora of words, to make the essential words heard. Through words, it means making present the Word, the Word who comes from God, the Word who is God.

Yet, since we are part of this world with all its words, how can we make the Word present in words other than through a process of purification of our thoughts, which in addition must be above all a process of purification of our words?

How can we open the world, and first of all ourselves, to the Word without entering into the silence of God from which his Word proceeds? For the purification of our words, hence, also for the purification of the words of the world, we need that silence which becomes contemplation, which introduces us into God’s silence and brings us to the point where the Word, the redeeming Word, is born.

St Thomas Aquinas, with a long tradition, says that in theology God is not the object of which we speak. This is our own normal conception.

God, in reality, is not the object but the subject of theology. The one who speaks through theology, the speaking subject, must be God himself. And our speech and thoughts must always serve to ensure that what God says, the Word of God, is listened to and finds room in the world.

Thus, once again we find ourselves invited to this process of forfeiting our own words, this process of purification so that our words may be nothing but the instrument through which God can speak, and hence, that he may truly be the subject and not the object of theology.

In this context, a beautiful phrase from the First Letter of St Peter springs to my mind. It is from verse 22 of the first chapter. The Latin goes like this: “Castificantes animas nostras in oboedentia veritatis”. Obedience to the truth must “purify” our souls and thus guide us to upright speech and upright action.

In other words, speaking in the hope of being applauded, governed by what people want to hear out of obedience to the dictatorship of current opinion, is considered to be a sort of prostitution: of words and of the soul.

The “purity” to which the Apostle Peter is referring means not submitting to these standards, not seeking applause, but rather, seeking obedience to the truth.

And I think that this is the fundamental virtue for the theologian, this discipline of obedience to the truth, which makes us, although it may be hard, collaborators of the truth, mouthpieces of truth, for it is not we who speak in today’s river of words, but it is the truth which speaks in us, who are really purified and made chaste by obedience to the truth. So it is that we can truly be harbingers of the truth.

This reminds me of St Ignatius of Antioch and something beautiful he said: “Those who have understood the Lord’s words understand his silence, for the Lord should be recognized in his silence”. The analysis of Jesus’ words reaches a certain point but lives on in our thoughts.

Only when we attain that silence of the Lord, his being with the Father from which words come, can we truly begin to grasp the depth of these words.

Jesus’ words are born in his silence on the Mountain, as Scripture tells us, in his being with the Father.

Words are born from this silence of communion with the Father, from being immersed in the Father, and only on reaching this point, on starting from this point, do we arrive at the real depth of the Word and can ourselves be authentic interpreters of the Word. The Lord invites us verbally to climb the Mountain with him and thus, in his silence, to learn anew the true meaning of words.

In saying this, we have arrived at today’s two Readings. Job had cried out to God and had even argued with God in the face of the glaring injustice with which God was treating him. He is now confronted with God’s greatness. And he understands that before the true greatness of God all our speech is nothing but poverty and we come nowhere near the greatness of his being; so he says: “I have spoken… twice, but I will proceed no further” [Jb 40: 5].

We are silent before the grandeur of God, for it dwarfs our words. This makes me think of the last weeks of St Thomas’ life. In these last weeks, he no longer wrote, he no longer spoke. His friends asked him: “Teacher, why are you no longer speaking? Why are you not writing?”. And he said: “Before what I have seen now all my words appear to me as straw”.

Fr Jean-Pierre Torrel, the great expert on St Thomas, tells us not to misconstrue these words. Straw is not nothing. Straw bears grains of wheat and this is the great value of straw. It bears the ear of wheat. And even the straw of words continues to be worthwhile since it produces wheat.

For us, however, I would say that this is a relativization of our work; yet, at the same time, it is an appreciation of our work. It is also an indication in order that our way of working, our straw, may truly bear the wheat of God’s Word.

The Gospel ends with the words: “He who hears you, hears me”. What an admonition! What an examination of conscience those words are! Is it true that those who hear me are really listening to the Lord? Let us work and pray so that it may be ever more true that those who hear us hear Christ. Amen!

Blessed Guerric of Igny

I am reminded by my own heart that the the early morning is a particularly good time of the day to be clothed in a special silence, but there are time at dusk that the discipline of silence is helpful. This is an essential part of spiritual maturity, an adult faith in Divine Providence. Listening and speaking to the Trinity is done when the heart and mind are slowed, even word-less. Knowing and following God’s will is only possible if we give a certain amount of day to quiet, that is, silence. Not a punishing silence, not a hopeless silence, but a manner of being that helps us to see ourselves in action: the manifestation of the virtues of faith, hope, charity, justice, peace, perseverance, etc.

Blessed Guerric in his 28th sermon says,

“As the Christ-child in the womb advanced toward birth in a long, deep silence, so does the discipline of silence nourish, form and strengthen a person’s spirit, and produce growth which is the safer and more wholesome for being the more hidden.”

Silence, therefore, is a gift that allows us to enter more deeply into the revealed Word of God, the biblical narrative through the practice of lectio divina, the practice of prayerfully reading the sacred Scripture. It is, I am convinced, the new springtime of the Church as Benedict XVI said, proposing once again the ancient Christian practice. Most often we when we hear the words lectio divina we think of monastic reading where the person is immersed in God’s holy word with the distinct desire to seek the face of God, thus making a home for that Word in his heart.

The famous Cistercian father Blessed Guerric of Igny (c. 1070/80-1157) was influenced by Origen and whose formation was under Saint Bernard was quite insightful on many things when it came to liturgical theology and the monasteric life.

If you are inclined to read more about what this Cistercian father taught, you may want to pick up a copy of John Morson’s Christ the Way: the Christology of Guerric of Igny (Liturgical Press). But his liturgical sermons are worth every effort; they are published by Liturgical Press, too.

Blessed Guerric taught the following to his brothers lectio divina:

Search the Scripture.  For you are not mistaken in thinking that you find life in them, you who seek nothing else in them but Christ, to whom the Scriptures bear witness.  Blessed indeed are they who search his testimonies, seek them out with all their heart.  Therefore you who walk about in the gardens of the Scriptures do not pass by heedlessly and idly, but searching each and every word like busy bees gathering homey from flowers, reap the Spirit from the words. (Sermon 54)

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT, follows the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, and is an Oblate of Saint Benedict, works as a monastery farmer and a keeper of honey bees. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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