Life in a Monastery: February 2009 Archives

Silence in the monastery confuses the world; it sometimes confuses me and there are times that I am frustrated by silence. The practice of silence is often misunderstood by those who live in monasteries because of an insufficient understanding of a "theology of silence." Family and friends think monks take a vow of silence. They get this idea from the clich├ęs of the TV and movies where they see monks and nuns piously walking the halls of the abbey in silence with a mean looking superior hovering over the shoulder waiting for someone to slip-up.  While I don't deny that this understanding may be rooted in some truth, or a least a vague sense of truth, it nonetheless lends itself to gross misunderstanding of the role of silence in the monastic life, indeed the need (and desire for) for silence in all people's lives.


What did Saint Benedict say about the practice of silence in his Rule? In one place he says:

Rule of St Benedict.jpgLet us do what the Prophet says: "I said, I will take heed of my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I have set a guard to my mouth, I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence even from good things" (Psalm 38[39]:2-3).  Here the prophet shows that, if at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.


Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse, for it is written: "In much talk up shall not escape sin" (Proverbs 10:19). And elsewhere: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21). For it belongs to the master to speak and to teach; it becomes the disciple to be silent and to listen. If, therefore, anything must be asked of the Superior, let it be asked with all humility and respectful submission. But coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion; and for such speech we do not permit the disciple to open his lips (Ch. 6).


Belmont Abbey's Father Abbot, Placid, put in our mailboxes the community's custom of silence that had been formulated in consultation with the community in 2006. Essentially it is outlines what's permitted and what's not. To me, it is less of a "wagging of the finger" as it is a way to focus our life yet again on a venerable practice that leads to freedom but yet takes discipline and freedom to engage our mind, hear and will. So what's expected? Following Vespers (c. 7:30 pm) to the conclusion of breakfast (c. 8:00 am) silence is carefully observed throughout the monastery. Extended conversations may be had in designated areas like the common recreation areas, the formation study and the guest dining room. "A spirit of silence should be maintained in the hallways of the monastery at all times, and any conversation should be carried on in a quiet tone of voice." Another place where we attempt to maintain silence is in the sacristy, the basilica and in the passage way between the abbey and the basilica. A stricter sense of being silent exists in the church prior to the Mass and the Divine Office, in the refectory before the evening meal which includes the brief reading of a chapter (a few lines really) of the Rule of Saint Benedict and during table reading (only 15 min.) and in "statio" (the order of seniority) prior to Sunday Mass and Vespers.


This work of silence is neither rigid and nor is unreasonable. In fact, I appreciate the periods of silence the community has worked out and I hope that my confreres will help me live by what's expected.


When I am participating in community days of the CL movement I practice silence with the group. We don't do this to shut up the incessant talker (though it's a nice by-product of the silence) or to force an agenda as it is a method to help us (me) to appreciate the beauty of God the Father's creation which is in front of us. So, it is not uncommon to walk in the woods, climbing a mountain, or sitting by the seashore and not talk to your neighbor. Sounds goofy? Perhaps for the uninitiated or the person who can't grasp the need to soak in the beauty of life, indeed all of creation, without the distracting noise of talking all the time, silence would be difficult or unhelpful or somewhat silly.


Way of the Cross.jpgAnother example of the witness of silence is the Good Friday Way of the Cross that starts at Saint James Cathedral (Brooklyn) and ends at St. Peter's Church (Barclay St., NYC--ground zero) but crosses the Brooklyn Bridge and makes other stops to pray, listen to Scripture and sing spiritual songs. Imagine 5000+ people making the Way of the Cross in silence in the chilly air! People in NYC walking in silence following a cross in silence! What's the point? The point is: How does one understand, that is, judge (assess, evaluate, understand reality) the impact of the Lord's saving life, death and resurrection if all you hear is chatter? The gospel is made alive by the witness of 5000+ people walking in silence.


One last example are my friends in the Fraternity of Saint Joseph (I call them CL's contemplatives-in-the-world who follow the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation) who spend a portion of each day in silence and at least one other day in an extended period of silence. For me, this is a witness to the presence of Christ and one's relationship with the Lord. Their discipline of silence is not merely turning off the radio, not speaking, not writing email or updating their blog, nor the simple absence of distracting noise but the intentional focus on the work of the Lord in prayer and study. How do you discern (verify) the will of God in the hussle-and-bussle of life? How do you hear the voice of the Lord calling you, as the Lord called Samuel or the apostles if all you encounter is the blaring of the stereo, the train or your mother yelling for you to answer the doorbell?


Angelico-Silence.jpgTheologically, I think Patriarch Bartholomew I (of Constantinople) said it well in an address a year ago:


The ascetic silence of apophaticism imposes on all of us -- educational and ecclesiastical institutions alike -- a sense of humility before the awesome mystery of God, before the sacred personhood of human beings, and before the beauty of creation. It reminds us that -- above and beyond anything that we may strive to appreciate and articulate -- the final word always belongs not to us but to God. This is more than simply a reflection of our limited and broken nature. It is, primarily, a calling to gratitude before Him who "so loved the world" (Jn 3:16) and who promised never to abandon us without the comfort of the Paraclete that alone "guides us to the fullness of truth." (Jn 16:13) How can we ever be thankful enough for this generous divine gift?


So, in my context silence is not punitive or a burden but way of living with an awareness that would otherwise be minimized and likely forgotten.

Today 2 novices and a junior with the novice master from Mepkin Abbey (the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance), a novice from the South-Central Mother House of the Religious Sisters of Mercy and the 2 novices from Belmont Abbey came together for friendship and study. The symposia has been devoted to the study of the 1983 Code of Canon Law as it pertains to religious life. The course is taught by Religious Sister of Mercy Sister Jean Margaret. The retired bishop of Charlotte, Bishop William Curlin, 81, gave a talk on the inter-relation of Canon Law, religious and bishops. His Excellency was the bishop of this diocese from 1994-2002; previously he was an auxiliary bishop of Washington, DC. Experience tells us that it's important that some study of the Church's Law happens during formation (and perhaps even later in life) so that one knows the boundaries of what is and is not possible for people in religious life.

All were here this afternoon and evening for a visit to the campus, dinner and Vespers. This is the first time this type of gathering has happened and it's due to the hard work of Sister Jean Margaret persuading the abbots of Belmont and Mepkin this was fitting for monks to do.

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Belmont & Mempkin2.JPG

Keeping Belmont Abbey green

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The weather at Belmont Abbey was terrific today: it was a bright, sunny and a cool day perfect for relaxing work outside. I loved it because the weather here beats the weather my parents have in New England. I consider today to be a wonderful grace. But I digress. Four of us planted some fruit trees (3 pears and a cherry) and 3 blueberry bushes. Father John ordered these things and is now unable to work in the garden so we volunteered our time assist a senior confrere. Working in the garden is preferable to painting!

Gardening proves to be a relaxing things for me plus it demonstrates my attentiveness to the environment which I think is increasingly critical for humanity if humanity hopes to continue to thrive well into this and the next millennium. In recent years the Pope and other respected theologians have been considering an appropriate approach to the issue of climate change and related matters and how best to proceed in protecting the environment. One example of the Pope's commitment to protecting the environment was his agreeing to install a brand system of solar energy on the Pope Paul VI Auditorium back in the autumn; it was a generous gift of a German solar energy company.

Salesian Father Manilo Sodi, theology professor of Pontifical Salesian University, has said that we "need to counter the position of those who consider nature to be above or at the same level as the human person." Moreover, Sodi said that "man should not abuse nature," and added that "the transcendental nature of the human person and his relationship with the Creator and with other creatures, favors an ecological use of nature that does not dehumanize the person nor degrade the environment."

Planting 4 trees and 3 bushes wouldn't t be considered a giant leap forward in keeping the earth green and protecting the environment from toxicities; but it is a small step in a right and good direction. Other Benedictine monasteries in the USA and abroad do considerable more than we do in "greening" the property, including the living space of the monks. And so the effort continues....

For now, I am satisfied with keeping the Abbey "green" by planting a few new trees and bushes, which was relaxing after the Holy Synaxis and brunch.

PAZ planting a pear tree.JPG

PAZ with a worm.jpg Belmont Abbey water tower.JPG

Today about 25 friends who follow, that is, are a part of Communion & Liberation from around the Carolinas came to Belmont Abbey Basilica to celebrate the Sacrifce of the Mass on the occasion of the 4th anniversary of death of Monsignor Luigi Giussani and the 27th year of the recognition of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation. Redemptorist Father Joseph Dione, a local pastor, was the celebrant of the Mass.

After, John Neill, the CL Responsible for the Carolinas, led us on a walk around the grounds of Belmont Abbey College stopping at the Saint Joseph Adoration Chapel and at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the graces received today and in the past year. This was especially important to recognize since Our Lady of Lourdes is important to the life of CL  because it was something that Giussani taught us: go to the BVM. So we feel very connected with the history of our charism. The group then went to dinner at a local restuarant but I had to ring bells and pray Vespers. Our group joined about 30 other groups in the USA and countless others around the world who did the same thing for the same reason.

It was a beautiful day in which we gave came together as friends to give thanks to God. Some photos follow.

CL of the Carolinas.jpg CL prayer of thanks.jpg

robert Neill with St Benedict.JPG

Life in the abbey today

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In the monastic world one can sometimes be sheltered from some of the concerns of "outside world": the "fast life" for example. But for many of us the true living of reality never goes away. How could it?  Like the rest of the world the monks have to be concerned about some external things like family, friends, keeping the apostolate alive if it is for God's great glory, concern for one another, etc. The added feature to our life, as it is similar to all serious Christians is that we have see the about the seriousness of living the balance of prayer, study, work and holy leisure, the monastic way of life while keeping reality (God & humanity) in front of with the concern for the healthcare for the elderly, formation of the young, the maintenance of the buildings and grounds, diet and exercise, communication of the charism to our students, colleagues, benefactors and alumni, concern for the welfare of the poor and the ill, care for the environment and so on. As I progress in this life I am learning better the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, my own need for happiness, love, development of the intellect & affect, and other things that contribute to happy and truth-filled living.


Yesterday (Thursday) we met for our weekly meeting with the abbot to discuss Lectio Divina, a practice of reading/praying/contemplating the Scriptures from within the heart of the Church's Liturgy. We are reading the book Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina by the late Archbishop Mariano Magrassi, OSB. It is a wonderful synthesis of all the elements that contribute to this experience of coming to know Christ through the ancient yet ever contemporary practice of holy reading of Scripture.  I am ever mindful of Saint Jerome's didctum: "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." More on this topic later but I have to say, read this book!


House work is never done, ask my mother, or ask anyone who owns a home. We spent the last week painting various parts of the abbey and today we spent the morning preparing the guest rooms.


Caution sign.jpgThis afternoon we went to the US Olympic training facility for white river rafting. It was a very pleasant afternoon away from the monastery with confreres enjoying time in the fresh air and sun with a brief walk in nature before having a beer and kettle chips.


Tonight, we are watching the 1964 classic "Becket" with Sir John Gielgud, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole; this is one my favorite movies of all time.


These are the things which make life in the abbey.

Anointing Father John Oetgen

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This afternoon the Benedictine monks of Belmont Abbey, with whom I am currently living, gathered in the room of Father John Oetgen to celebrate the Rite of Anointing of the Sick. Father John is one of the senior monks of this monastic community spending a lifetime serving the Lord as a monk, a priest and a professor literature. He's in 80s and he's been infirmed for the last 4 months. He's received this sacrament before, but Father Abbot Placid thought it best to celebrate the sacrament now as Father John has grown weaker in body. What comfort there is when brothers "gather in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ who is present among us" to pray and show affection for a brother.


If you have been present for the sacrament of the sick you know how moving it is. I was moved to tears several times during the rite probably for no other reason than what I was experiencing was a great theology at work: God's praise and our conversion. While I don't know Father John well, the humanity of act of gathering in prayer and companionship was beautiful.


The rite, recalling the words of sacred Scripture, remind us that the sick came to Jesus for healing; moreover, we recall that Jesus' life, death and resurrection is what sets us free from sin and death. This is the faith we have professed, this is the faith we gave witness to today with Father John, it is the faith that comforts and sustains Father John.


Addressing the faithful, the Saint James exhorts us to care for the ill in this manner: "Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up; and if they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them."  This we did and it was beautiful.


With the laying on of hands and prayer, we asked God to grant Father John comfort in his suffering, courage in the face of fear, patience if distressed and hope when sad and the support of the brothers (and all others) when feeling alone. So, I ask you to pray that God will do the loving thing for Father John and to assist the monks here in all ways that Providence sees fit.

Today I began a phase of my journey in living a vocation: life at a Benedictine abbey. I arrived today from New Haven, Connecticut, leaving 50 degree weather and arriving in 70 degrees. What a nice change from the New England winter; no snow here in Charlotte.


Belmont Abbey Basilica.jpgBelmont Abbey is a small group of Benedictine monks who follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. There 17 solemnly professed monks with 5 in some stage of formation. The age range is 24 to 88. The head of the monastery is Abbot Placid and the Prior is Father David.


The Abbey was founded in 1876 by Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, the founder of monasticism in the USA, who sent monks from Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, PA, to Charlotte. While the abbey is typically called "Belmont" after the town in which it's situated, the religious title of the abbey is "Mary, Help of Christians", sometimes just called Maryhelp; the feast day we observe is May 24.


The monks run a small liberal arts college called Belmont Abbey College.


A quick note on schedule:

7:00  - Morning Prayer

7:30 - breakfast in silence

8:30 - 11:30 work, study, lectio, prayer (whatever you're assigned)

11:45 - Midday Prayer

Noon - lunch followed by work

5:00 - The Sacrifice of the Mass

5:45 - Dinner in silence for most of the meal with readings from the holy Rule & a book

7:00 - Vespers

Compline is in private for most of the monks but some of the formation monks pray Compline together at 9:30.


The Abbey Basilica of Mary Help of Christians is central to the life of the monks, friends, visitors and the college community. The architecture is German Gothic-Revival. The church was the largest Catholic church in the state at the time of its construction. The monks of the abbey did much of the construction work themselves (with Brother Gilbert Koberzynski crafting the ceiling in the style of a sailing vessel).The interior of the church was renovated in 1964-1965.

The windows were designed and executed by the Royal Bavarian Establishment of Francis Mayer and Company (Munich). The windows were displayed at the Columbian Exhibition, the World's Fair of 1892 winning four gold medals. The abbey church was the cathedral from 1910-1977 and it was elevated to the rank of a Minor Basilica on July 27, 1998. The Basilica has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.


Let us pray for each other.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]



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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Life in a Monastery category from February 2009.

Life in a Monastery: December 2008 is the previous archive.

Life in a Monastery: March 2009 is the next archive.

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